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CRITTER: Pohaku puna — rare lobe corals in Limahuli lagoon

Limahuli stream in Ha‘ena along the North Shore of Kaua‘i is famous for the botanical gardens it flows through and its cool clean mountain waters.

The stream flows off of Makana Peak down to the road, and then out to sea where it forms a shallow lagoon. Lots of people wade in the clear water next to the road, but few people ever swim in the lagoon because of the strong currents, big waves and large rocks that are hard to walk over.

As a marine biologist, I wondered what lived in the lagoon so one day with my video camera I decided to walk over all the rocks and take my chances with the currents. What I saw was stunning.

Most of the shallow water lagoons along North Shore or Ke‘e lagoon have very little coral and just a few bland looking species. But in the Limahuli lagoon it looked completely different. The lagoon is only about 4 feet deep and it is just packed full of bright yellow lobe corals and the super rare yellow lichen coral.

I wondered why Limahuli lagoon is so different then anywhere else I have snorkeled all around Kaua‘i, and after many years of study I might have come up with some answers.

Kaua‘i corals are very unique because they live close to a lot of fresh water streams and underwater lave tubes that allow fresh water to flow directly out onto the reef. The corals live in salt water, but the water is often diluted by fresh water and certain coral species thrive in the salt water and fresh water mixture when other coral species would die.

DNA studies have shown Kaua‘i corals are unique and don’t occur in the rest of the main Hawaiian Islands. I see yellow mound corals and lichen corals all throughout Kaua‘i, but just a single coral from time to time.

But in Limahuli lagoon, there are thousands of beautiful yellow corals with almost no other coral species.

Limahuli lagoon is super unusual because it has a current that flushes the lagoon daily due to the trade winds and large surf. The stream empties out into the eastside of the lagoon and is caught in the rapid current and exits on the westside of the lagoon. This rapid current seems to stimulate the growth of these beautiful three foot tall yellow corals. Snorkeling in the lagoon is like walking through a city of tall yellow skyscrapers.

Limahuli lagoon is not safe to swim in due to the fast flowing currents and lack of life guards, so I only go there on special days when the surf is flat with very little wind. I have been shooting video of the stunning yellow coral garden now for over 10 years and am making a movie about this rare coral garden so you can see it from the safety of your own home.

Kaua‘i has so many unusual and unique coral reefs and marine life, so I am producing a whole educational series for our schools called “Kauai Underwater.” More than 70 percent of Kaua‘i is below the surf and much of it is still unexplored.

The Kaua‘i marine life educational series will be available for free up on my YouTube at Underwater2web.

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Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei Kaua‘i and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.
Source: The Garden Island

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