NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai was built by the Tacoma Boatbuilding Company in Tacoma, Washington. Commissioned on September 3, 2004, the ship served as a multipurpose oceanographic research ship whose primary missions included coral reef ecosystem mapping, coral reef health and fish stock studies, and maritime heritage surveys in the western Pacific, with a focus on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’ three-and-a-half million acres of coral reefs.
The 224-ft. ship was renowned for more than a decade’s worth of work assessing the health of coral reefs throughout the Pacific Islands.
Scuba diving operations played a major role in the ship’s mission, and Hi‘ialakai was equipped for both shallow and deep-water dive projects. The ship carried three small workboats that transferred divers to the working grounds, a 15-person dive locker to store scientific gear and equipment, and an air compressor to fill tanks. As Hi‘ialakai frequently operated in remote areas, the ship also carried a three-person, double-lock decompression chamber.
In 2015, Hi‘ialakai conducted a 103-day assessment of the American Samoa coral reefs. It was the ship’s longest single voyage, with 3,500 dives from all three of the ship's dive boats.
As a T-AGOS class ship, Hi‘ialakai was built in 1984 for the U.S. Navy and served as the USNS Vindicator. The ship was then transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard and finally to NOAA in 2002 when it was converted to conduct coral reef research.
"Hi‘ialakai" is a combination of Hawaiian words. “Hi‘i” means “to hold in one's arms”; “ala” is “route”; and “kai” is the sea. Thus, NOAA named this ship to signify “embracing pathways to the sea.” The name was proposed by Isabella A. Abbott, Professor Emerita, University of Hawaii.
In addition to supporting NOAA projects, Hi‘ialakai worked in partnership with the University of Hawaii, State of Hawaii, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The ship was homeported at the NOAA Marine Operations Center—Pacific Islands in Honolulu.