top of page

New Waikiki Aquarium Exhibit Features Living Coral

The new exhibit dedicated to the late Dr. Ruth Gates is geared toward educating the public about coral species as living animals.

By: Clarissa Gonzales

22 March 2019

Waikiki Aquarium opened a new exhibit last week which marine biologists hope will help educate the public on corals and raise awareness of the risks they face.


The display features 12 wall tanks containing samples from different species.


“People know what coral looks like but a lot of folks don't know what coral is so this is the starting point,” said Johnathan Casey, the Senior Aquarium Biologist behind the design and development of the exhibit. “The motivation behind the exhibit is first off to just teach people what coral is, how coral works.”


What sets The Living Reef apart from other existing coral exhibits, including those at the Waikiki Aquarium, is how the different species are displayed.


“Most often when you see coral reef exhibits in aquaria you see them kind of as one. What they’re trying to do in the displays are to recreate a natural looking coral reef habitat or ecosystem,” said Michael Bruno, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “That would include rock with growth on it, what we call live rock, as well as coral and that would be a bunch of species all living together.”


Even for people who do get the chance to see natural examples of reef out in the ocean, Bruno says they may be in for a surprise when they see this exhibit.


“These displays separate out the different species and allow the individual to learn about that species and then move on to the next one and really get to see that they are different,” he said. “For people like myself who have studied the ocean for more than 30 years, it’s also unique to have the different species of coral separated like this.”


Casey agrees, adding that the format of the exhibit allows for more flexibility.


“The cool thing about this exhibit is we get to basically display all of our coral diversity we have at the aquarium which is really second to none,” Casey said. “We have well over 200 species of coral, and this gives us an opportunity to display 12 different coral specimens in all their glory, each one with their own specific tank with their own specific information on what makes that coral unique.”


To accommodate so many species of coral in such limited display space, the individual tank design allows for a uniquely modular exhibit that rotates the different species.

“As the research is continuing to evolve and our ecosystem is continuing to evolve, we're able to kind of evolve this exhibit to keep up with that and then be almost the public face of the research that's happening,” Casey said.


In addition to featuring individual species, the layout of the tanks also provides one other key difference from most existing coral exhibits.


“The most unique aspect is actually what is featured, and that is the side-by-side display of a single living coral next to the skeleton of that species of living coral,” Bruno said. “It was just very interesting to see people’s surprise and think primarily, ‘Oh, so that’s what that looks like alive,’ or ‘I didn’t know that they’re really animals,’” Bruno said.


They might not look like it, but corals are invertebrates, animals without a spine.


Once visitors learn that corals are animals, Bruno believes they will care more about the impact humans have on them.


“Our primary outcome is that people will appreciate and respect and preserve these really essential animals,” Bruno said. “It’s very unlikely that somebody who sees these will find themselves over at a place like Hanauma Bay and swim out and stand on a piece of the coral reef. They just would never do it after seeing the coral up close and personal like this, I really believe that.”


The aquarium is one of the most visited cultural attractions on Oahu each year. The state reported that over 323,000 people visited the aquarium in 2017, a number that includes both residents and visitors.


“You reach people like we do, one at a time, either in the classroom or in this case in the aquarium,” Bruno said. “You hope that they learn, they respect and appreciate, and they tell their parents or their children or their friends, and that’s how we get to a better place as far as preserving our oceans.”

1 Octopus Coral.jpg

At 115 years old, the Waikiki Aquarium is the second-oldest public aquarium in the country. The aquarium has been part of the University of Hawaii system for 100 years and serves as a UH research site, hosting students and faculty involved in research on different species in the aquarium.


Research done at the aquarium is funded by grants from federal and state agencies as well as foundations, while maintenance and operational fees are covered by admissions revenue.


“Undergraduate and graduate students are utilizing this exhibit and utilizing our biodiversity and our resources to do research at the aquarium and a lot of this is led by some of the really great professors at the University of Hawaii,” Casey said. “We've been able to feature all of the coral research that's happening through the University of Hawaii Marine Science Program.”


In addition to students performing research at the aquarium or working as employees or interns, University of Hawaii professors are also involved in the research and daily operations on site. Even those not involved in research at the aquarium might bring classes to the aquarium on field trips to observe the diverse collection held there.


However, the aquarium does not only focus on observation of animals collected in the wild.


“The Waikiki Aquarium established the very first propagation methods for coral and the very first techniques for sustaining coral in an aquarium in under human care, which has led to thousands of institutions utilizing similar techniques to propagate coral,” said Casey.


These naturally-bred specimen can be used for outplanting – transferring propagated coral to reef in a natural environment – or for “ark” programs that work to keep species alive in captivity that might suffer from major impacts in their natural habitat. These processes can prevent the extinction of species by breeding colonies in an aquarium environment that would stay safe even in the case of extinction in the wild.

Dome-shaped octopus coral featured in The Living Reef. Photo courtesy of Waikiki Aquarium.

Blue Coral 2.jpg
Andrew Rossiter and Robin Burton-Gates 3

“In the last 10 years we've sent out 5,000 coral fragments to various research institutions and public aquarium so they're not being pulled out of the wild,” Casey said. “We're able to produce them at the aquarium and then teach people how we do that as well.”


The exhibit is dedicated to the late Ruth Gates, a coral researcher who served as director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.


“We miss her greatly,” Bruno said. “She was one of the best-known and most accomplished coral reef scientists in the world – and at the same time, she was just a really passionate educator and ocean advocate here in Hawaii.”


Gates’ research focused largely on coral reef species and their survival in the planet’s changing climate conditions, primarily by breeding coral that can tolerate the effects of global climate change on water temperatures.


“It was nice for me, and for Andrew Rossiter, the Director of the Aquarium, and for many of our faculty that we were able to have this opportunity to remember Ruth and to have a very public acknowledgement of her contributions to ocean advocacy, ocean education,” Bruno said.


Robin Burton-Gates, Gates’ wife, was present at the exhibit’s opening.


“I think she would love it, but she’d be embarrassed because you know she didn’t like that kind of attention,” Burton-Gates said at the event. “But I think that she would love that, you know, it’s being celebrated.”

Skeleton of blue coral featured in The Living Reef. Photo courtesy of Waikiki Aquarium.

Andrew Rossiter, Director of the Waikiki Aquarium, and Robin Burton-Gates, wife of the late Dr. Ruth Gates, at the opening of the new exhibit. Photo courtesy of Waikiki Aquarium.

bottom of page