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The depths around us: Embracing Hawaii’s deep ocean with our keiki

By Jessie Perelman, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla ‘Launchpad’ Fellow”

Hawaii is an archipelago of eight major islands and numerous seamounts, all volcanic in origin, in the center of the North Pacific Ocean. Its magnificent landmasses extend thousands of meters below the surface to the abyssal seafloor creating an undersea mountain range. The peaks of these mountains form today’s Hawaiian Islands. These islands are inhabited by more than 1.4 million people and visited by nearly 10 million tourists each year.

The landmasses that make up the Hawaiian archipelago create an undersea mountain range, and the peaks of these mountains form the major islands of Hawaii. This map shows just how quickly these mountains disappear into the deep waters (dark blue) that surround them.
Photo: University of Hawaii at Manoa

The unique structure of Hawaii leaves it surrounded by some of the deepest ocean habitats on Earth, which lie a mere mile beyond the prominent coral reefs that decorate its coastlines. But when most people think of Hawaii, visitors and residents alike, it is these reefs, their spectacular features and colorful animals, that first come to mind.

When I moved to the island of Oahu two years ago, it quickly became apparent that few opportunities exist for local communities to learn about these deep-sea ecosystems in Hawaii’s own backyard. Researchers at the University of Hawaii study and learn about them every day, and we often hold lab tours for high school or college groups. But how can we reach the rest of the community? How do we ignite curiosity and awareness about the deep sea?

By engaging with kids of course! Keiki (children) are Hawaii’s next generation of scientists, explorers, and conservationists. It brings me great joy to share with them my growing knowledge about Hawaii’s deep-sea environment and why it’s worth protecting. Especially when there are opportunities to transfer this knowledge in fun and engaging ways…

Mauka to Makai Expo

At the Annual Mauka to Makai Environmental Expo held at the Waikiki Aquarium, families have the chance to learn all about Hawaii’s environment, both land and sea, with hands-on educational exhibits and crafts.

We spoke to hundreds of children, teaching them all about Hawaii’s deep-sea fish and helping them craft their own creatures. From left: Amanda Ziegler, Emily Young, Jessie Perelman, and Clarisse Sullivan. Photos: Jessie Perelman

This year I organized an exhibit with several UH researchers, representing the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), showcasing marine animals with unique adaptations for life in the deep sea. We spoke with kids of all ages, teaching them why some fish have small lights on their bodies, or massive eyes, to find prey at the dark depths where they live.

These keiki got to feel the sharp teeth of a cookie cutter shark as I described how this small predator uses its razor-sharp teeth to bite ‘cookies’ out of the larger fish and mammals they attack. We took time to explain why these animals exhibit such unique behaviors, and then guided the kids through crafting their own paper fish with the features they believed would make it most successful in the deep waters around Hawaii.

The event was a great success, with nearly 4,000 people coming through the exhibits. Many remarked they were leaving with a new understanding of Hawaiian habitats and fun crafts to help the information stick.

Onizuka Day of Exploration

The Onizuka Day of Exploration is Hawaii’s largest STEM event held each year at the Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu. Volunteers from around the state develop family activities and hands-on workshops covering a wide range of topics, from space exploration to robotics to Polynesian navigation.

During our educational workshop, Fishy Features: Make a Deep-Sea Fish!, families learned about the deep-sea environment, became friendly with our deep-sea animal collection, and used their new knowledge to design their very own fish with unique adaptations. Photos: Jessie Perelman

This exciting event allowed us to expand the previous deep-sea exhibit into a full educational workshop for families called, Fishy Features: Make a Deep-Sea Fish! We began each session with a presentation about life in the deep sea; extreme pressure, cold temperatures, and near darkness create a harsh environment for the animals that live in this marine habitat. I then had the pleasure of demonstrating many of the cool adaptations among deep-sea fish and encouraging kids to hold and observe the creatures in our collection.

Though fierce in appearance, most of these deep-sea animals are actually quite small and un-intimidating. The young explorers quickly grew fascinated by the unfamiliar and somewhat friendly creatures. Once they had a good understanding of the costs and benefits for different adaptive traits, the participants were given an ‘energy budget’ and ‘prices’ associated with different features such as bioluminescence, prey lures, or large eyes, and made their own uniquely successful deep-sea fish.

It’s tough to say whether children or parents had more fun with these activities. But regardless, everyone left with big smiles and a little more knowledge about a Hawaiian ecosystem that continues to be ripe for exploration.

3 Comments on “The depths around us: Embracing Hawaii’s deep ocean with our keiki

  1. Jessie, the keiki listening to you look enraptured. Excellent full-bodied experiences for them. Congratulations. I grew up on Oahu until the age of 7. Your article gives me a new appreciation for the islands.

  2. Thank you both for the kind words! These interactions are so much fun and it’s great to see the enthusiasm when kids learn something new about about the place where they live.

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