NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai is a multipurpose oceanographic research vessel whose primary missions include coral reef ecosystem mapping, coral reef health and fish stock studies, and maritime heritage surveys in the western Pacific.
The 224-ft. ship is renowned for more than a decade’s worth of work assessing the health of coral reefs throughout the Pacific Islands. The work is important not only to the reefs themselves, but also because the reef ecosystem sustains several endemic, threatened and endangered marine mammals, fish, sea turtles and birds.
Scuba diving operations play a major role in the ship’s mission, and Hi‘ialakai is equipped for both shallow- and deep-water dive projects. The ship carries three small workboats that transfer 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 operates in remote areas, the ship also carries a three-person, double-lock decompression chamber. In the event of a diving accident, the diver can be treated onsite.
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.
A T-AGOS class vessel, Hi‘ialakai was built in 1984 for the U.S. Navy and served as the U.S. Naval Vessel 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. The ship was commissioned in the NOAA fleet in 2004.
"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 works in partnership with the University of Hawaii, State of Hawaii, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The ship is homeported at the NOAA Marine Operations Center-Pacific Islands in Honolulu.