Here on the wet side of the Big Island, appropriately enough, is the place to learn about some of Hawaii's best underwater treasures. Before you go snorkeling, get educated at...

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HILO, Hawaii — Here on the wet side of the Big Island, appropriately enough, is the place to learn about some of Hawaii’s best underwater treasures. Before you go snorkeling, get educated at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new coral-reef museum on the Hilo bayfront.

The museum, which opened last May, is free and family-friendly — educating without overwhelming, featuring interactive displays that please young and old. You need only about an hour to tour this 4,000-square-foot storefront tucked among restaurants and shops in the historic S. Hata Building, steps from the popular Farmers Market in downtown Hilo.


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Mokupapapa: Discovery Center for Hawaii’s Remote Coral Reefs is at 308 Kamehameha Ave., on the bayfront in Hilo, on the Big Island. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays except federal holidays. Free admission.808-933-8195 or hawaiireef.noaa.gov/center
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Tied in with NOAA’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the museum’s official name is “Mokupapapa: Discovery Center for Hawaii’s Remote Coral Reefs.” (Mokupapapa is the Hawaiian term for small, remote islets.)

While its focus is the Hawaiian atolls that stretch 1,200 miles into the Pacific, well beyond the major islands, the museum offers a satisfying primer on how all these islands were formed — a process of special relevance to the Big Island where volcanism is almost always just beyond the bugs on your windshield.

Push the buttons on one video display and you’ll get this boiled-down version of the History of Paradise:

• Each Hawaiian island originated from the same hot spot in the sea floor where magma has broken through the Earth’s crust and built its way to the surface.

• The only reason there is more than one huge island here is that the Pacific plate keeps shifting during interruptions in the magma flow.

• As the plate has shifted, the older islands have moved to the northwest. At the same time, over more than 80 million years, they’ve also eroded, which is why the far northwestern islets of the Hawaii chain are no more than coral rings, or atolls.

• Bonus Hawaii trivia to store away in a musty corner of your brain: The westernmost remnant of the chain is called Gardner Pinnacles, far out in the Pacific.

As you stand on the Big Island, where oozing lava occasionally forms new beaches as quickly as strip malls erupt in the rest of the world, you might think you’re on the most-happening place on Earth. But naw. Not far south off this coast is Lo’ihi, the newest forming Hawaiian island, another museum exhibit explains. Lo’ihi is already 13,000 feet above the sea floor, with 3,000 more feet to go before it breaks the ocean surface.

“And it might be 50,000 years before it surfaces, if ever,” explained museum docent Mary Robertson.

Stepping into the museum out of the Hawaiian sun is a bit like diving into an underwater cave. A sound system spouts gurgly ocean noises. A 2,500-gallon reef aquarium displays fish. A splashily colorful mural of a reef and its creatures fills a wall, the work of local artist Layne Luna, who also created fiberglass models of sharks and coral.

“This was the best commission I ever got,” said Luna, a University of Hawaii at Hilo grad, who dropped into the museum while we visited. “It was like a kid doing something that wasn’t work.”

Marine biologists with NOAA helped him get things anatomically correct. When he needed a sample of rare table coral for a model, he exhausted other sources and then finally found it for sale — illegally — on eBay.

Popular with kids, there’s the mockup of the Pisces V, a three-person underwater research craft used by scientists with the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory. Visitors can try their hand at operating robotic arms used to pick up rock samples from the ocean floor.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com