May 19, 2008
Posted: 09:21 AM ET
There's an 800- pound gorilla lurking under Hawaii's beautiful waters. Several types of invasive algae (and one species is actually called gorilla ogo!), are overwhelming coral reefs and other animal and plant life.
For years researchers have been searching for a way to eliminate the alien algae, without killing or damaging the native wildlife.
(Photo shows a choked coral reef before Super Sucker)
Then a couple of years ago, University of Hawaii botany professor Celia Smith had a "Eureka" moment. She was watching her husband clean their 40- gallon aquarium at home with a small vacuuming device, when the idea hit her: what about super sizing that sucker?
"We knew that the whole dream of an underwater vacuum was technically feasible, but we had to do a lot of biological tests to determine the effects on the reef," said Smith.
A lot of brainstorming by a lot of researchers led to several prototypes of the "Super Sucker," powerful enough to clear out the choking algae and help restore the native species around the reefs.
Since there's no "Extra Large Underwater Appliances" aisle at Lowe's or Home Depot, the researchers had to design the device from scratch.
"We needed something that we could move around, because other parts of the islands, Waikiki and Diamondhead, were also being impacted by alien algae," said Smith.
While most of the work is in shallow water, (10-15 feet) there is still a significant amount of training necessary, to make sure the device's hoses don't get tangled or cause any damage to the reefs.
"The guys love this thing: It's big, and it makes a lot of noise," said Smith.
The Super Sucker can slurp up several hundred pounds of algae per hour.
Researchers on a barge above the device carefully sift through what's been sucked up, returning any captured marine life to the water. The scooped up seaweed is then bagged and taken ashore and used as fertilizer. Once an area is cleaned up, the plan is to let nature take over, relocating native sea urchins to chomp through the remaining alien algae tidbits to keep it from growing back.
(Photo shows the same coral reef after Super Sucker)
Invasive marine species can come from many places, often stowing away on ballast water in cargo ships. But this gorilla- sized dilemma resulted from a scientific experiment that solved one problem but created another.
Scientists back in the '70s wanted to find an economical way to grow algae crops in warm waters, especially to help the economies of developing countries. That seaweed would be used in the agar and carrageenan industry, growing the gelatinous material that's used in everything from desserts and firefighting foam to shoe polish and biotechnology.
While the experiment worked, creating an underwater cash crop for parts of Asia, at least a half dozen non-native algae species overwhelmed the research area.
The Nature Conservancy, University of Hawaii and Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources are all involved in the Super Sucker project. And the dilemma has taught some lessons.
Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer
Filed under: environment
From around the web
Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.