Story by Kevin Whitton
Photo by Elyse Butler
Come this August, visitors to the Waikiki Aquarium will be able to stare through thick glass at an odd, wedge-shaped fish gliding effortlessly through the water. It is splashed with diagonal black-and-white bands and sports thick reddish lips: a Hawaiian morwong. And the morwong is only the beginning. Visitors will see all manner of other rare creatures—masked angelfish, yellow barbel goatfish, Japanese pygmy angelfish—fluttering about between corals in the aquarium’s 4,000-gallon Northwest Hawaiian Island Exhibit.
Life in the Northwest: The Waikiki Aquarium's newest exhibit offers a rare look at the unique fish and corals of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, including (seen here) a bandit angelfish. They are, says the aquarium's director, Andrew Rossiter, "exactly as you see them in the wild."
The new living reef ecosystem, which opens August 18, will contain more than 200 fish and twenty-two species of coral, many of which are found only in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. “We specialize in ecologically accurate exhibits,” says Waikiki Aquarium director Andrew Rossiter. “There’s no fake coral or plastic in any of our exhibits. The fish and coral are exactly as you see them in the wild.”
In 2004, long before the world’s most isolated islands were known as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rossiter noticed that the unique and vast array of marine species in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands were underrepresented at the aquarium. Years of planning culminated in a four-week fish and coral collection expedition to Midway, Kure, Pearl and Hermes atolls and French Frigate Shoals last August. Waikiki Aquarium biologist and coral/invertebrate specialist Richard Klobuchar designed a special holding tank system to fit on board the boat and to comply with the strict guidelines set for their work within the national monument. He collected a hundred pieces of coral, representing twenty-two species, several of which are as-yet-unnamed new discoveries. Two professional fish collectors rounded up thirty-three juvenile fish from seven species. Every animal collected made the trek back to Waikiki in perfect health, and all are thriving in their new locale.
“Very few people will ever be able to go to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to see why they’re so special,” explains Rossiter. “We thought from the outset that if people couldn’t go there to see the marine life, we’d bring the marine life here.”