Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage Site, Hawaii
By Rowena Mynott
Named from Hawaiian mythology where two honoured and highly respected ancestors of the Hawaiian people; Papahānaumokuākea who is symbolic of the Earth Mother, and Wakea; the sky father, joined in union. The union of these two gave birth to the entire Hawaiian Archipelago and the Hawaiian race. Broken down, the name means: ‘Papa’ (Earth Mother), ‘hanahu’ (birth), ‘Moku’ (small island), ‘akea’ (wide) which can be interpreted as ‘a fertile woman who gave birth to an expanse of islands’.
Isolated atolls and outcrops make up Papahānaumokuākea. Covering 362,600 square kilometres, Papahānaumokuākea is one of the largest conservation areas in the world and the single largest conservation area in the U.S. This area is extensively covered by ecologically important coral reefs. These reefs are home to over 7,000 marine species 25% of which are endemic to Hawaii and many of which rely solely on Papahānaumokuākea for their survival, a fact which led to the area being awarded World Heritage Status in 2010.
Papahānaumokuākea not only became a World Heritage Site due to its ecological importance however. It holds great significance for the local Hawaiian people. Hawaiian locals believe that it is a place where life originates and where spirits return after death. On two of the islands, Nihoa and Makumanamana, there are pre-European archaeological remains.
In more recent history, the Battle of Midway took place on Midway Atoll during World War II and is claimed to be the most important naval battle of the Pacific Campaign during World War II. Just six months after the Pearl Harbor bombings, the United States Navy successfully defeated an attack on Midway Atoll by the Japanese and in the process inflicted damage on the Japanese fleet.
Red pencil urchin – Heterocentrotus mammillatus
Knowing how to make a statement, this bright red urchin is a gem to see on the reefs of Papahānaumokuākea. The name ‘pencil urchin’ is derived from the days when slate chalkboards were the iPad of the times. The spines of these specific sea urchins were broken off and used as writing utensils.
All members of the echinoderm phylum, which also includes sea stars, sea cucumbers and other urchins, are important for the health of reef systems worldwide as they keep the reef environment healthy either by filtering the sand or eating the algae.
A weird and wonderful creature, the sea urchin’s mouth is located underneath its body and its anus is found on top of its ‘head’. They spend most of their day sheltered amongst rock crevices, however at night they emerge to scrape algae off the rocks or devour meaty detritus found on the ocean floor.
Hawaiian squirrelfish – Sargocentron xantherythrum
The Hawaiian squirrelfish is a nocturnal fish that aggregates in rocky crevasses during the day, returning to the open water at night to feed. These colourful little critters that are, for obvious reasons, also known as striped squirrelfish, live in tropical and subtropical waters around 10-20 metres deep.
Large eyes allow the squirrelfish to see during the night and in these slightly deeper waters where the light does not penetrate quite so easily. At only 17 centimetres long it is important they keep an eye open for larger predators. Schooling together also assists in protection by making the group look a larger and more threatening opponent.
The Hawaiian squirrelfish is an important fish in Hawaii as it is endemic to the islands. It has not been evaluated for its conservation status but it is becoming a popular fish in the aquarium industry due to its bright colour and placid, hardy nature.
Laysan albatross – Phoebastria immutabilis
With a wingspan so wide (up to 2 metres) they look like a plane coming in to land, the Laysan albatross is a large seabird that can live for at least 40 years.
Named after one of their popular breeding colonies on a northwestern Hawaiian island, these small albatross are the second most common seabird to be seen in Hawaii.
The most famous individual of all albatross species just happens to also be a Laysan albatross: Wisdom. Scientists believe that Wisdom is at least 60 years old and although she is a grandmother, she still continues to bear her own young.
The isolated nature of the Laysan nesting grounds means that they have to travel long distances to find food for their young. Scientists believe that this is why the birds only lay one egg at a time, any more and they might be unable to bring home enough food to raise multiple chicks. Sadly an island close by, Midway Atoll, is becoming infamous for the large number of dead albatross found on its shores. These birds are dying from ingesting our debris. Found in their stomachs are large quantities of various items, most of which is plastic in one form or another. Unfortunately, as these birds feed their young through regurgitation, this debris is also being ingested by the future generation of albatross.
Hawaiian Monk Seal – Monachus schauinslandi
One of only two remaining monk seal species, this is the only species of seal endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. This important status enabled them to become Hawaiis official State Mammal in 2008.
Not unlike some monks, these private seals are solitary animals. They were named, not for their solitude, but for the short hairs that are present on their heads making them look, to some eyes, like a monk.
Preferring to spend much of their time at sea foraging for their favourite prey of bony fish, cephalopods and crustaceans, scientists have shown through the use of satellite imagery and animal mounted cameras, that these seals actually spend a great deal of time at depths of around 300 metres looking for a meal.
With only 1,100 animals remaining, the species is listed as Critically Endangered. As with so many other marine species, human interaction is the cause of their decline. As far back as the 19th century these animals have been hunted for their produce – oil, skin and meat – and even as recently as World War II troops hunted these animals for food. Increasing numbers of human visitors to the coast raises the stress levels of these shy creatures as they are unable to find a quiet beach to lounge on. As much as these factors have negatively impacted upon the populations, the increase in population numbers from 150 in 2004 to over a thousand today shows promise for the future for these animals.