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Kayak Diving for Marine Research on
Niihau ~ Black Coral

by Marine Biologist Terry Lilley

Photos: Terry Lilley ~ click to open lightbox viewer

Terry Lilley

When you see a polished piece of black coral being sold in a jewelry store in Honolulu you may think it would look black underwater. But in a cave at 100 feet deep of the coast of Niihau it is red and orange, when you turn on your bright dive lights!!

Here are some pictures of the beautiful black corals of Niihau. Niihau, "The Forbidden Isle" is the seventh largest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands in the U.S. state of Hawaiʻi, 17.5 miles southwest of Kauaʻi across the Kaulakahi Channel. They are often covered with deep water oysters that are blue, red, orange and purple! No need for psychedelic drugs when diving in Niihau's deep water caves as you feel like you have entered a whole different world! 

Black coral is extremely rare these days and needs to be fully protected. It grows in deep water and can be five foot long! The beautiful red and orange color comes from the coral polyps and when you kill and dry it out the coral structure is black. 

We found these stunning corals in a cave 100 feet deep and the entire cave was filed with black coral. The cave is about the size of a small house. 

When we go forward with the debate to have Niihau put off limits from fishermen and divers, we need to study the entire ecosystem at Niihau first to make these kind of decisions. 

Niihau is a very unique island underwater. Scuba divers found these deep water black corals, not fishermen or the government. Scuba divers often make all kinds of amazing discoveries as this is why they are so important to the study of our reefs world wide!! It is the scuba divers that often save entire reefs by reporting what they see to the scientific community. 

In Niihau scuba divers are extremely important as they go places others do not. They protect the marine life for other divers to visit. They educate the community about our undersea world. Scuba diving in Niihau is a must, and a very good thing for us all who love the sea!! 

When figuring out how to go forward with the Niihau debate one must consider all aspects of ocean use including scuba diving, fishing, research and the parts of the reef people rarely visit like these deep water caves filled with black coral! 

We will be doing extensive underwater research this summer around Niihau to find out how the entire ecosystem operates and what species live where, and in what quantity. 

My hope is that what ever decision is made about the future of Niihau is based on good science and logic not just made by politicians who do, or do not want, fishing closed to the public around Niihau! The ocean ecosystem is changing and it is way too complicated to make poor decisions based on a lack of understanding and knowledge. This happened to Kauai so lets not let it happen to Niihau. One simply cannot make good decisions about the sea from their office in Lihue or Honolulu! The people who fish, dive, surf and spend time in the sea are often the ones with the most knowledge about the sea and they all should share their knowledge to have good rules made that work best for us all, not just a select few. 

Note: Niihau Island itself, is generally off-limits to all but relatives of the island's owners, U.S. Navy personnel, government officials and invited guests, giving it the nickname "The Forbidden Isle." Beginning in 1987, a limited number of supervised activity tours have opened to tourists.

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About the author:

Terry LilleyTerry Lilley is a 1980 graduate of Cal Poly. A career marine biologist, he has photographed, surfed, and studied wildlife around the world and all over the mainland USA and Hawaii, creating movies from the dive footage for schools, government agencies and the public to educate the public about the ocean, including the health of the reefs, health of the marine life, and invasive species like roi, ta'ape and to'au.

Terry currently works with The Hanalei River Heritage Foundation continuing to do daily underwater studies in Kauai with a concentration on the marine life in Hanalei Bay. Catch up with him at Under Water 2 Web - Terry's BLOG including links to his most recent videos and underwater photography.



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