The evolution of the vacuum: the Super Sucker project

The carpet sweeper was invented in 1860 by Daniel Hess and then the first motorized vacuum cleaner invented by Hubert Cecil Booth in 1901. Here it is over a 100 years later and the vacuum has gone to a whole new level: vacuuming coral in Kaneohe Bay on Oahu. That is right, the coral in Kaneohe Bay is being “cleaned” by an underwater vacuum. The vacuum is called the Super Sucker and it is a project operated by the State of Hawaii’s Aquatic Invasive Species Team within the Division of Aquatic Resources all under the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The State also partners with the University of Hawaii and The Nature Conservancy to help with the management and operations of the Super Sucker.

The purpose of vacuuming is not to get dust off the coral so it looks pretty for tourists but to remove two invasive species of seaweed that grows on the coral and kills it. Both of the species, Smothering Seaweed (Eucheuma spp.) and Gorilla Ogo (Gracilaria salicornia), were intentionally introduced to Kaneohe Bay in the 1970s as an aquaculture crop experiment. Unfortunately, they both can overgrow reefs and block sunlight from reaching corals resulting in a smothering of the coral colonies.

Mound of invasive seaweed vacuumed up by the Super Sucker
Mound of invasive seaweed vacuumed up by the Super Sucker

We were able to get into the water and watch the Super Sucker and team in action. The Super Sucker removes seaweed using suction generated from a pump system housed on a pontoon in the bay (Watch this video to see it in action). The divers will remove the invasive seaweed from reefs and feed it into the Super Sucker which dumps it onto the pontoon where it is bagged. The bags are then delivered to local farmers within the watershed who will use the seaweed to fertilize their crops. This reduces the amount of runoff fertilizer in the watershed which leads to a healthier bay. As a way to control the invasive seaweed after the Super Sucker does its job, the Division of Aquatic Resources’ Sea Urchin Hatchery raises native sea urchins and places them in the bay to eat the invasive seaweed.

While we were in the water, we were able to see areas with a high amount of invasive seaweed and areas cleared with the sea urchins present. It was fascinating to see how efficient the project has been at removing the invasive species and to talk with the individuals working on the project. Although the State now has to fix a problem created through bad environmental practices in the 1970s, it is interesting that the project has provided a way to mitigate the effects of invasive species while providing alternative ways to increase the health and vitality of Kaneohe Bay. If you want to find out more about the Super Sucker project, check out their Facebook page and the State’s website on Coral Reefs.