Alexander Malahoff

Steve Murray
Wednesday - April 13, 2005
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Imagine the thrill of seeing something no one on earth has ever encountered. Though a world of mermaids or the discovery of Atlantis may be a bit too much to hope for, large tubeworms, towering carbonate structures and maybe even clues into the beginning of life are exactly what Alexander Malahoff and his colleagues are hoping to find.

Malahoff, former head of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly and professor of oceanography, and director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, is currently part of an expedition — the New Zealand American Submarine Ring of Fire 2005 — to find out what mysteries are hidden along the Kermanec Chain, a group of 24 submarine volcanoes inside the Tonga Trench.

“It’s sort of a Lewis and Clark expedition,” he says. “We’ve never really been south of the Hawaiian Islands. We’re going down to the far side of the world. It’s been my dream to get our ships and subs in that area of the Pacific.”

The ships and subs he refers to are the Pisces IV and V, which are able to dive to a depth of 2 km (or 1.24 miles), and the University of Hawaii research vessel, Ka‘imikai-o-Kanaloa. The trip, which took five years to put together, is being paid for by organizations from Germany to Mississippi and Hawaii to New Zealand.

“For us it’s a huge deal, and it takes time to get all these international bodies to come in and decide who is gonna do what.” Though the Malahoff family has gotten bigger with the addition of a son- and daughter-in-law, not much else has changed for the 66-year-old since he first appeared on the cover of MidWeek in July 1997.

“You never drop the research,” he says in a statement that pretty much sums up his life.

Now that all the paperwork is in, he’s hoping to turn what can be complex and difficult biological concepts into things of everyday importance.

“If you look at the average person, this type of research is perfect,” he says. “We’re hoping to find how life survives in a difficult environment and how it is not affected by that environment. Why don’t these organisms develop cancer, for instance? How do they live and not get damaged?”

Another question Malahoff would like to answer is how these underwater volcanoes — some of which have larger craters than Kilauea and are hotter and more explosive than Loihi — affect the world above the ocean surface. Malahoff says the volcanoes around New Zealand produce tremendous amounts of harmful gas and that they act as natural polluters. One part of the mission is to see how they may be affecting global climate changes. Whatever they find on the trip, it will be easily viewed on the Web. You can follow the journey at: http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/05fire/

— Steve Murray

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