Being the most remote group of islands in the world offers a unique setting and an opportunity to observe animals seen nowhere else. Seventy million years ago, the Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanic activity in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and an ocean environment unlike any other was created.
Because of the islands' isolation, it was also difficult for marine life to reach them, which makes for a high percentage of beautiful animals that are endemic to Hawaii - meaning they are only found here and nowhere else in the world.
An endemic species develops over time and takes sometimes millions of years to evolve. The need to adapt to a specific ecosystem, where factors, such as temperature, habitat or food source influence biological changes within the species of origin, often result in a separate new species. This slow evolution is how a species becomes endemic and unique to its particular area. Surprisingly, large amounts of animals are endemic to Hawaii compared to other places in the world. Currently, 23 percent of the fish, 20 percent of the mollusks, 18 percent of the algae and 20 percent of the coral in Hawaiian waters are found here and nowhere else.
Of the several types of mammals known to inhabit the Hawaiian waters, the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal is the only mammal that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The seals are protected under state and federal laws.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / EDEN ZANG photo
Even if an animal is endemic to one area, it may still have relatives in different parts of the ocean. The Hawaiian lionfish, for example, occurs only in Hawaiian waters. However, its close relatives, can be found in Indonesia and Indo-Pacific areas and are sometimes considered delicacies in certain regions.
The bandit angelfish, on the other hand, has no other relatives anywhere in the world. The species from which it evolved no longer exists, leaving the dynamic bandit all by itself. It gets its name from its striking black band extending from its front all the way to the end of its dorsal fin. Feeding mainly on sponges, it is not common to see and usually hangs out at around 100 feet or deeper.
Another fish that is found only in the islands is the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse. The presence of this distinctive fish shows us a sign of a healthy reef. This little purple, blue, yellow and black fish can be observed dancing to and from other fish and turtles that display signs of wanting to be cleaned. Established cleaning stations are found in many areas, and the cleaner wrasse works at getting ectoparasites, dead scales and mucus off the appreciative participants.
The Hawaiian monk seal is the only endemic sea mammal found in the Hawaiian archipelago and, unfortunately, it is one of the most endangered animal species in the world. With an estimated 1,100 seals left, this protected species can be seen sunbathing on rocks or sand, or playing in shallow waters. It is important not to disturb this curious but wild animal and stay at least 150 feet away. It would interfere with the seals' chances for survival if it were to become too accustomed to human interaction. Other threats include habitat loss, disease and fishery interactions.
Report seal sightings to (808) 292-2372 to help in efforts to monitor and protect them.
There's much to be thankful for living in Hawaii and experiencing its beauty, diversity and distinct ecosystems.
* Larissa Treese is head aquarist at Maui Ocean Center. "Ka Mo'olelo Moana," or "the ocean story," is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.