Tag Archives: ocean acidification

Dolphins, Sharks, and Coconut Trees – Research at “Gilligan’s Island”

As part of the Ocean Awareness Training (OAT) workshop that is periodically offered in Hawaii, the current session’s participants were able to visit the University of Hawaii’s Marine Research lab on Coconut Island.
It turns out that the island is rich with history, including the fact that the opening sequence to the TV series ‘Gilligan’s Island‘ was filmed there (see bottom of article), and that the island once held exotic animals when it was owned by the heir to the Fleischmann yeast fortune back in the 1930s.
According to our guides, full-sized coconut trees were brought in for a lavish party and it is believed that the present coconut trees are descended from those original party trees. Dolphins and sharks have replaced the elephants that were once housed there.

(Photo by wecanfly.com)
(Photo by wecanfly.com)

Now operated by the university and populated by scientists (who stay in dorms during their research or commute by boat), the island shows little sign of having been party central for the rich and famous.
The island feels beautifully appropriate for marine research, and the areas we were taken to see held sharks (reef and hammerhead) in naturally flushing net pens and lagoons.  Three dolphins and a false killer whale are kept in sea pens (upper left corner of photo above) but we were not taken out to see them.
coconut island map
Small sharks are kept in this lagoon.
Small sharks are kept in this lagoon.

Volunteers Larry and       led our group and gave us background information on the history of the island.
Community Education Program volunteers Larry and Jean gave us background information on the history of the island.

The OAT workshop participants were fascinated by the ocean life and cherished the rare opportunity to go to the island and get a small peek into the research there.
The plankton class was fascinating, and the capable and entertaining intern Leon shepherded us around the island while answering questions. Everyone wanted to know more about the dolphins, and Leon informed us that the animals are well cared for, highly trained, and that the latest research may help lead to ways to protect marine mammals from the destructive sounds in their environment. (More on this soon).
Staff intern gave us a short course on plankton.
Staff intern Leon Weaver gave us a short course on plankton.

We learned hands-on about ocean acidification by watching a pinch of coral sand dissolve into water, carbon dioxide, and calcium carbonate in the palms of our hands when acetic acid (vinegar) was applied.  We were shown how the more acidic environment occurring in the world’s oceans then inhibits the growth of coral and other marine species (the oceans become more acidic as carbon dioxide increases – an easy to understand explanation of this process can be found here).
It is up to each one of us to turn the situation around, the ocean is the heart and lungs of this planet and is perilously close to being unable to support life as we know it. The scientists at Coconut Island are quietly studying the problem, and it was both reassuring and alarming to learn what they are finding out – reassuring because there is a huge effort going on, alarming because so many people refuse to take it seriously.
If we shipwreck our planet, there is no ‘Gilligan’s Island’ to save us.

UPDATE:  It has been pointed out to me by my son Nick that there is indeed a ‘Gilligan’s Planet’ (!):