If you love the ocean environment, or are just a lover of stunning landscape, Hawaii is either a favorite destination you already visit, or it’s on your travel destination bucket list!

expansive ocean view and sky

photo by Julie Chandler, 2015

Each island offers something different, from the cosmopolitan hustle of Honolulu to the serene countryside of Kauai. But all include breathtaking scenery, gorgeous beaches, and alluring ocean waters filled with bustling vibrant sea life and exquisite coral reef.

Alas, the beautiful 50th state, formed by erupting under-sea volcanoes thousands of years ago, is under extreme duress! Environmental stressors like El Nino, rising ocean temperatures, degrading shorelines, and human interference (including pollution and destructive fishing practices) are all contributing to the coral reef bleaching that is plaguing the Hawaiian Islands.

This year, the ocean temperatures in Hawaii have increased an average of 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is said to be the number 1 leading cause of the worst coral bleaching the islands have ever seen.

“Coral bleaching is a result of a loss of algae living within the coral’s tissue that provide them with energy and give them their color,” said Brian Neilson, an aquatic biologist with the Department of Land and Natural resources (DLNR).

two underwater images of coral reef bleached and diseased and healthy

photo credit: G. Aeby (UH)

Coral bleaching is a stress response when the white of the coral skeleton is visible through the transparent coral tissue making the coral appear white or ‘bleached.’

The reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands saw their worst reported mass bleaching last summer. And while there was some recovery documented there this year, the most severe bleached areas are now completely dead. This particular part of Hawaii is home to some of the most rare coral species, but all of the islands combined are home to 85 percent of coral reef under U.S. authority.

To emphasize the concern of coral reef bleaching on a global scale, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now have a coral bleaching alert system in place that forecasts mass coral bleaching based on daily satellite data of sea surface temperatures.

image from space showing red, orange, and yellow pattern of ocean temperatures

image credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch Satellite

When ocean temperatures change, tools that report real-time images of the problem areas can help initiate response plans. Scientists are even asking people living or visiting Hawaii to voluntarily help them track areas of bleached coral by taking photos and reporting their sightings to the state’s ‘Eyes on the Reef’ website, www.eorhawaii.org

Coral reefs provide a home to over 25 percent of all marine life! They provide nurseries for many species of commercially important fish, protection of coastal areas from storm waves, and they are a significant attraction for the tourism industry (World Wildlife Fund, 2015). Corals that completely die off from bleaching are stressed for extended periods of time. This worst case scenario is a domino effect of irreversible conditions:

  1. Reefs get damaged or diseased in multiple ways causing the loss of their size and structure.
  2. Fish and other ocean species lose their reef habitat impacting the life that spawn in the coral reef.
  3. Fishing and related tourism is curtailed causing economic struggles and loss of reef sustainability.

When a mass-bleaching event occurs, recovery is very slow and dependent on new, young coral settling and growing on the reef. Re-growth of reefs may take decades and global climate changes will cause more coral bleaching due to higher ocean temperatures. These realities, while harsh, should also be awareness triggers for the human element. We so often overlook the certainty of a ‘domino effect’ and that our everyday actions, whether we are in Hawaii or not, can affect our world’s oceans.

beachfront sand, ocean, sky

photo by Julie Chandler, 2015

Walking on coral, and boaters who drop anchors onto reefs are ways the reefs get weakened or crushed in any location. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” continues to be the oceans chant to humans big and small. Household contaminants like fertilizers, soaps, and oils that flow into our local water drains also flow into our oceans. All of these toxins do not mix with our oceans and therefore infect the environment that nurtures all ocean life.

In all of its glory, on land and in the sea, Hawaii needs your help to stay at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list!

Visiting and preserving the ocean’s beauty is everyone’s responsibility.



Department of Land and Natural Resources (Hawaii)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Satellite and Information Service

Impacts of global warming on corals, World Wildlife Fund