EMPEROR SEAMOUNTS

The Critical Link Between Land, Sea, and Air

The Pacific Ocean — ancient, volatile, and productive, is home to the greatest number of seamount chains of any of the world’s oceans. Bursting from these underwater mountain ranges are volcanoes, which give rise to biodiversity hotspots throughout the Pacific. One of the most remarkable of these areas is the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. Stretching across almost 6,200km, with three subsections ranging from 400,000 years old to 85 million years old, with 80 identified underwater volcanoes, the Emperor Seamount chain is a geological behemoth. 

The Emperor seamount chain hosts and attracts a wide variety of species, thus making it a crucial anchor for the food chains it supports. Deep sea corals, some of the oldest and longest-living species on earth, thrive on and around the seamounts. These coral communities host more than 1,300 different species, some of which are so unique they are found only on the seamounts or specific coral.

These ecosystems are so rich due, in large part, to the interactions between ocean currents and the seamount formations, which create isolated hotspots for biodiversity. The isolation and increased productivity of this region give rise to high levels of endemism, but also make the ecosystems especially sensitive to human disturbance.

Fish, cetaceans, seals, and birds all rely on the Emperor seamounts as a permanent home and nutrient rich stopover site during their epic migrations. When seamounts are mined, trawled, and fished their habitats are scarred, often irreparably. This damage spreads throughout the entire ecosystem, impacting communities from fish to birds. One of the most remarkable of the Emperor seamounts’ threatened communities is that of the Laysan albatross. The oldest known wild bird, Wisdom, is a 70 year old Laysan albatross who lives, forages and raises her young on the Emperor seamount chain along with many other seabirds. Seamounts are not merely underwater cosmopolitans, but breach the surface of the water to create and sustain terrestrial and atmospheric ecosystems.

Mōlī  (LAYSAN ALBATROSS)

One who has the kuleana, or ‘responsibilities’, of the protection and preservation of a person, place, or thing, Kia’i means guardian or protector in Hawaiian. When asked by our partners, Oikonos, to come up with a name for the Laysan albatross painting, the ‘Iolani School class chose Kia’i because it represents the crucial role these marvelous birds play in the seamount ecosystem. Important to the region and people who call it home, the Laysan albatross also acts as a mirror for our own relationship with the land, sea, and air. Like early Hawaiian mariners, the albatross uses the stars for navigation. They also rely on the oceans for food and engage in a reciprocal relationship with the islands along the seamount chain by providing fertilization in exchange for safe nesting sites. The negative impacts of climate change and human industry endangering the Laysan albatross endanger humans as well, especially those who share their homes and livelihoods with these remarkable birds.

These remarkable seabirds range across the north Pacific, with 16 nesting sites on small islands and atolls where they use sand and vegetation to nest. Laysan albatrosses mate for life, fostering strong bonds between both male and female pairs, as well as female pairs, enabling them to cooperatively raise their chicks over the course of 16o days each year. Their bonds are reinforced by extravagant courtship dances, consisting of over 25 documented ritualized movements. The pairs dedicate much of their lives to building the nest, minding the egg, foraging for, and rearing the chick. Laysan albatrosses rely on cephalopods, fish, crustaceans, and squid to sustain them while they traverse the vast ocean and raise their young.

The Laysan albatross is 32 inches in length, with an 80 inch wingspan, enabling them to soar through the sky over the Pacific. The males weigh between 5-9 pounds, and the females between 4-7 pounds, keeping them from being battered by strong winds. Both are black and white, with iconic black smudges over their eyes.  To feed, they skim the water to retrieve food just below the surface. They can be found foraging at night, when squid and other species rise from the depths to forage enveloped in the safety of darkness. After foraging, the Laysan albatrosses return to their nest sites — once barren beaches now fertilized by the albatross colony.

Home to 99% of the population, the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain supports almost 2.5 million Laysan albatrosses. At the start of the 20th century, feather hunters decimated the population. Now recovered, the Laysan albatross population is the subject of careful research and conservation. Despite these efforts, seabirds are the world’s most threatened group of birds, and the Laysan albatross is no exception. Although the population is now stable, they are listed as “Near Threatened”, and frequently fall victim to driftnets, longline fishing, plastic pollution, and sea level rise laying waste to nesting grounds. A critical link between land, sea, and air, the Laysan albatross is at risk. Its loss would reverberate through the entire ecosystem.

In partnership with

In order to protect the Laysan albatross and other seabird species for generations to come, it is imperative we unite research, conservation, and education. Oikonos, an incredible organization we are excited to partner with, translates robust research into tangible conservation solutions and a thriving education program. Their research focuses predominantly on the impact of fisheries bycatch and plastic pollution on albatross populations. By researching fisheries bycatch, Oikonos helps inform conservation management and fisheries planning in order to facilitate the adjustments needed to better protect albatrosses. Since 2005, Oikonos has been documenting the scope and magnitude of plastic pollution in the North Pacific. They found that plastic pollution affects over 90% of albatross and storm-petrel chicks. This data is critical for global efforts to manage plastics and protect seabirds. However, without adequate educational programming, this information would struggle to disseminate through the general public. Thus, the Winged Ambassador Program was formed in 2012. Used by over 383,000 students worldwide, the Winged Ambassador Program increases ocean literacy, engages students in hands-on inquiry-based scientific activities, and inspires students to advocate for conservation.

Prints Coming Soon

A special thank you to the Oikonos team for the brilliant work they do, the support they provided in building this page, and working with the ‘Iolani School class to come up with a meaningful name for the painting, K’iai.

The priority MPAs and their ambassador species:

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Costa Rica Thermal Dome

Lined Seahorse

Sargasso Sea

Juan Fernández Fur Seal

Salas y Gómez & Nazca Ridges

Laysan Albatross

Emperor Seamounts