HONOLULU — Hundreds of rare fish and coral pieces from one of the most remote parts of the planet have arrived in bustling Waikiki.
The Waikiki Aquarium's newest permanent exhibit, opening on Monday, showcases specimens gathered from the pristine atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — an area so well-protected it's generally off-limits to everyone but researchers and Native Hawaiians performing cultural rites.
It promises to be a special treat for scuba divers and fish enthusiasts only rarely able to see species like the white-and-black-colored masked angelfish or table corals — corals that spread out like tabletops around a central stem.
It should also appeal to those curious about the 1,200-mile long string of atolls so highly valued the United Nations named them a World Heritage Site last year and then-President George W. Bush designated them a marine national monument in 2006.
"Given the challenges in getting to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for the vast, vast majority of people, this will be their only chance to see a taste of some of the wonders that exist up there," said Andrew Rossiter, the aquarium's director.
The islands are all so small they're inhospitable to human settlement. But this has also meant people have mostly left them alone and in their natural condition.
The limited signs of human presence include ancient Hawaiian heiau, or shrines, lining the top of a ridge running along the spine of Mokumanamana island.
The Navy once had a base at Midway Atoll — the site of the famous 1942 battle between the U.S. and Japan that turned the tide of World War II — but turned the island over to the Fish and Wildlife Service for a wildlife refuge in 1993.
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Today, the atolls have thriving coral reefs accounting for nearly 70 percent of all coral under U.S. jurisdiction. Experts say the robust reefs are what the rest of Hawaii's reefs looked like before they were damaged by coral mining, runoff from land, overfishing, and other human activity over the years.
Sharks — which have been overfished in many other parts of the world — are richly abundant there. Life also comes in unusual forms: 25 percent of the 7,000 marine species in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are found nowhere else in the world.
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"This is a really, really unique place — nothing else like it in the world. And it's exactly how a coral reef should look, and this is how it was once around here," Rossiter said during an interview in his Honolulu office.
Fish and coral from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have been on display before, in limited circumstances. The Waikiki Aquarium has a small, existing exhibit, as does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's discovery center in Hilo on the Big Island.
But the aquarium's new display sets a new standard. The tank occupies about 10 percent of the aquarium's exhibit space, and will boast some 30 different fish species and 20 coral varieties. Altogether, the exhibit will feature 225 fish and 200 coral fragments.
The masked angelfish will allow researchers to observe how the unusual sex-changing fish behave and interact. Around the main Hawaiian islands the fish lives in deep water that's impractical for extended human observation. But scientists watching the aquarium tank may watch the fish for hours or days at a time.
The species is notable in part because they're all female when they're a certain size. Then one member of the group gets a little more aggressive, dominates the others, and changes its sex to male. The newly male fish uses the remaining females as his harem.
Scientists will not only be able to observe this process, but perhaps begin to understand why some of the fish change sex and others not, Rossiter said. The exhibit will have five to start with, and the aquarium will add four more by mid-September for a total of nine.
Aulani Wilhelm, superintendent of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, said the aquarium is offering people a way to connect to a place that by necessity must be appreciated from afar.
"These are atolls, these are fragile places," Wilhelm said, noting even well-intentioned or well-regulated travel would inflict harm on the islands. "There's only so much visitation a place like that can handle before it's changed."
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