Interviews: Geologist Paul Johnson

johnson1Paul and Dan Fornari carefully guide the tow fish wire around the drum as they reel in the MR1 sonar fish.


In 1994, Paul Johnson was mapping the seafloor around White Island Volcano, New Zealand, from a fishing boat. After Paul and his team were done with the mapping, they jumped in the water dressed in wetsuits and SCUBA gear and dove 180 feet to do by hand what is normally the job of a robotic arm. With gloves on to protect his fingers, Paul reached out with a jar to catch a sample of the hydrothermal gases around the volcano. “We were doing the work by hand because it was so shallow,” Paul says. “Our dives ranged in depth from 180 feet to about two feet up higher on the slope of the volcano.”

While visiting Santa Cruz, Paul meets one of the giant tortoises that live at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Although the water coming out of the vents was extremely hot, an inch away from the vents the water would be cool again. The Bay of Plenty kept the divers cool and comfortable and the volcano supported tons of sea life. “We saw fish and lobsters everywhere and sometimes a couple of sharks.”

During that trip Paul and his colleagues examined the interior of the volcano’s crater. “We walked up into the crater, past bubbling hot water springs and boiling mud pits and saw a boiling green central lake.” The magma underground was cooking the ground above it. “I thought it was awesome. In Hawaii you get kind of used to hiking on lava flows and looking at lava lakes. It was neat to look at the regional geology of White Island.”

Paul is in charge of processing the sidescan sonar data from MR1 into beautiful maps of the seafloor. They are essential to our research program and selecting sampling and camera tow targets.
Paul grew up in Massachusetts as a tuba player. In high school he played in a quartets and quintets, giving performances in front of crowds of people. His parents still live in Holden, Mass., and his sister, Anna, and her family live in Norfolk, Mass. Paul was accepted into the University of Massachusetts as a performance major. But within a week he was having second thoughts. “The number of jobs openings for tuba players wasn't real high.” He experimented with engineering and then learned about geology. Looking for something different, he transfered to the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. “It sounded exotic, warm and it has volcanoes. At the time I didn't know I was going to stay there forever.” He first worked in NASA’s Space Grant program to create an identification key for rocks seen through a video camera. This was part of NASA’s remote sensing program, so during remote operations involving landing on different planets a rover could drive over the terrain and the images sent back to Earth could be interpreted accurately. “When NASA sends a remotely operated vehicle to Mars, they need to know what kind of rocks they are driving across. It was an up-close-and-personal key to rocks that I helped develp,” Paul says. Now, he is more familiar with looking at rocks 3,000 meters underwater.

Paul and Todd Ericksen take time out to fish the waters off of Fernandina.
After graduating from college in 1992, Paul took half a year off to travel and do research. He mapped the seafloor around Easter Island to study the regional tectonics in the area for his graduate work. He then did field work in Saipan, near Guam and backpacked through French Polynesia across Tahiti, Borabora and Huahime. He returned to Easter Island twice more that year between trips to Chile and Mexico. “I’ve gotten to know Easter Island really well.”

The tools he used to study Easter Island are similar to the ones he uses today for his job at the Hawaii Mapping Research Group as a sea floor mapper and data processor. His job has taken him all over the world. “The most frustrating thing about going to sea on a research expedition is being surrounded by water and never being able to go in it.” An avid underwater photographer, Paul SCUBA dives or snorkels whenever he has the chance at port or at home in Honolulu. “Hawaii is a wonderful place to live, because you have the ocean year round, day after day.”