Eleven years ago, my family took a vacation to Hawaii.
One of the most memorable days was a snorkeling trip to Kealakekua Bay on the western coast of the Big Island where the Captain Cook monument rests.
The first thing about snorkeling in Hawaii is that the water is perfect. It is aqua blue, perfectly clear and warm. There is no shock when you dive in, and even after an hour or so paddling around the bay, you are not cold.
On that trip 10 years ago, the fish were everywhere. There were schools of fish in every color imaginable. This was a tropical aquarium in the wild.
At one point as I was swimming and concentrating on the fish below, I saw a bunch of other snorkelers pointing at me. I turned my head and was face-to-face with a sea turtle.
You don’t forget those experiences.
This fall, we returned to Hawaii.
We took the same snorkeling trip to Kealakekua Bay on the same boat.
This time around, there weren’t nearly as many tourists on the boat. I chalked that up to the recent volcano eruption. But this time when I plunged into the water, the first thing I noticed was there were not many fish.
At least not like 10 years ago.
As I looked around, I couldn’t help but feel something was amiss. The coral reefs no longer had the bright colors they did 10 years ago.
They were beige in some places and white in others.
When I got back on deck, I explained to the captain I had been on this trip 10 years earlier, but I remembered the coral as being much more colorful.
He told me that in 2014 and 2015 there had been a “bleaching” event in Hawaii brought about by warm ocean temperatures.
When ocean temperatures rise, coral expels the algae they rely on for food. This causes their skeletons to lose their color.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials studied the phenomenon later and reported that 56 percent of the Big Island’s coral was bleached from the warming in 2014 and 2015.
It was the first time I had witnessed the effects of climate change up close.
I asked the captain if this was why there were fewer fish in the cove. He told me the number of fish changes from day to day, but I sensed he might be holding back. After all, his business depends on seeing the fish and the vibrant colors of the coral.
The ocean water was 82 degrees the day we were there.
Ten years ago, we also noticed the closer you got to shore, the cooler the water felt. It was from the underwater springs. This year, there was no chill and fewer fish.
Scientists predict more bleaching of the coral will occur.
Coral can recover over time if the water cools, but not if high temperatures continue.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a study by the federal government, was released last week and reached the same conclusions.
“Widespread coral reef bleaching and mortality have been occurring more frequently, and by mid-century these events are projected to occur annually, especially if current trends in (carbon) emissions continue.”
It concluded that by 2040, “bleaching” will be an annual event.
We took our 11-year-old son to Hawaii 11 years ago. He snorkeled in paradise.
It’s not the same place anymore and I fear it never will be.