In a Dark and Dangerous Place, Surfer-Scientist Richard Grigg Hunts for Precious Coral

There’s $5 million worth of coral sitting down there,” says Dr. Richard Grigg of the University of Hawaii, nodding at the Pacific Ocean six miles off Oahu. The suntanned academic, who was the island state’s 1967 surfing champion, did not get that information out of any book. As the saying goes, Rick Grigg has been there—1,200 feet below the surface, where Hawaii’s valuable pink and golden coral flourish in darkness. From such firsthand observation, Grigg has become the leading expert in the world on the ecology of precious coral—and a major exponent of cautious harvesting techniques.

The Hawaiian coral industry dates back to the discovery of black coral by divers off Maui in 1958. Today strict state and federal quotas control all harvesting. It pleases the 40-year-old Grigg that speculators who devastated coral beds in the Mediterranean and Japanese seas have not been allowed to ravage Hawaii’s 37 square miles of valuable coral. “If indiscriminate dredging were used here,” says Grigg, “our beds wouldn’t last very long. You know, most coral only grows at the rate of three-eighths of an inch a year.”

Grigg’s marine career began atop the waves off Santa Monica. “I learned to surf,” he says. “Who didn’t?” This led to a fascination with the sea itself. “After a while it gets boring out there between sets. You start noticing things—how the kelp changes from week to week, how storms affect the beaches.”

After Stanford, Grigg got a master’s in marine biology at the University of Hawaii (“It took three years—two of them surfing”), and then applied in earnest to Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It was my transition from the yin to the yang,” he recalls. On the ocean bottom off La Jolla he found the subject for his doctoral thesis, the beautiful gorgonian sea fan coral. Grigg also found his second wife, Carol Clifford, who ran a custom bikini shop in town. “She looked so good in one herself,” he says.

At Scripps, Grigg once spent 15 days in a submerged sea lab. In Hawaii, where he is an associate professor of marine biology, he has an even more sophisticated craft for inspecting the coral, a 17-foot, two-man submarine, Star II. The sub, which belongs to the University of Hawaii, can descend five times deeper than scuba divers, who get only as far as the black coral beds at 250 feet.

When Grigg is not doing research aboard Star II, it is used by Maui Divers, which was recently acquired by Helena Rubenstein. Later this year the cosmetics company will launch a cosmetics and coral jewelry marketing campaign.

Coral comes high these days. A polished pink coral and aquamarine ring retails for more than $1,000. One pink coral tree brought up for study by Grigg and his partner Boh Bartko was valued at $10,000. “Maui Divers doesn’t use the sub for the black coral,” says Grigg. “They want its pincers full of the more valuable stuff.” (Pink and gold coral sell for $50 a pound, black for $15.)

The search for coral is dangerous work. Grigg recalls that one scuba diver was dismembered by sharks. The trunk of his body was discovered at the bottom of a coral bed. One of the first Maui coral divers, Larry Windley, was paralyzed by the bends. And Grigg’s former scuba partner, Jose Angel, disappeared while harvesting black coral. “On that particular day,” remembers Grigg, “we didn’t dive as a team. I was along in the boat to photograph his decompression after the dive. Jose was carrying a heavy sledge to cut the coral and that takes you down like a shot. He was sinking, sinking and didn’t let go of the sledge. When you get to 300 feet, it’s pretty hard not to pass out.” Angel’s body was never found.

Even underwater voyaging in Star II is no piece of fish cake. In six years, Grigg recalls, “We have been caught on the bottom in ship wreckage and cables, and that’s very frightening. We had our tail caught under a telephone cable on one dive, and it took us an hour of back-and-forth maneuvering to get free. Cables and submarines just don’t mix.” Grigg also worries about underwater currents. “Very little is known about how currents change below 300 feet. It’s a no-man’s-land.”

Carol Grigg seems reconciled to the risks her husband takes routinely. “For Ricky, life is on the edge, anyway,” she says. “He surfs big waves, he films volcanoes while hanging from cliffs. I guess he’ll always want to go a little farther over the cliff and a little deeper in the ocean.”

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