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When a pond at a Hawaiian wildlife refuge unexpectedly turned bright pink in late October, word spread quickly and visitors began flocking to its banks to catch a glimpse of its stunning hue.

The sight of the bubble-gum pink pond sparked fervor on social media among amazed nature lovers. But as eye-catching as the pond may be, staff at Maui’s Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge say the sight is probably nothing to celebrate.

Drought on Maui may be contributing to this situation, which scientists say is likely the result of “halobacteria” growing in water with unusually high salt levels, according to the refuge. Maui refuge staff have been monitoring the pink coastal pond since Oct. 30 and are advising visitors not to enter the water, drink it or eat the fish caught there.

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What is Kealia Pond?

Established in 1991, the refuge spans approximately 700 acres and is one of the few remaining natural wetlands in the Hawaiian Islands.

Operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge exists primarily to protect the wetland habitat of two endangered wetland birds: the Hawaiian coot and the Hawaiian stilt, according to its website. However, the park serves as a sanctuary for a variety of migratory birds from as far away as Alaska and Canada who come to nest, feed and rest during the warmer months.

The pond itself is a natural pool for a 56 square mile watershed of the West Maui Mountains.

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What causes pink water?

Refuge staff initially suspected that toxic algae might be the cause of the pink hue that took over the pond.

But those suspicions were quickly dismissed after water samples were sent to the University of Hawaii for analysis.

Instead, scientists believe the pink color is the result of a single-celled organism called halobacteria, which are salt-loving organisms that thrive in bodies of water with high salinity. At the time the samples were studied, the salinity at the outlet of Kealia Pond was greater than 70 parts per thousand, or twice the salinity of seawater.

Further analysis will allow the shelter to determine the exact strain of the halobacterial organism.

Due to the continuing drought on Maui, refuge officials believe Waikapu Creek has not fed Kealia Pond and raised its water levels, said Bret Wolfe, the refuge director, to the Associated Press. But the pink coloring should disappear during the next heavy rain that reduces salinity, Wolfe said.

Contributor: Associated Press

Eric Lagatta covers the latest news and trends for USA TODAY. Contact him at [email protected]

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