Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth

Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226775609
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/21/2012
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gregory S. Stone is executive vice president and chief ocean scientist of Conservation International. He is the author of three books, including Antarctica: Ice Island. David Obura is founding director of the nonprofit research organization CORDIO. He is based in East Africa and works on coral reef research and conservation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

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Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth


Copyright © 2013 The New England Aquarium
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77560-9

Chapter One


July 2002, 2°50'S, 171°40'W/2.833°S 171.667°W

A raucous throng of sooty terns hovered over Kanton Island, calling out in high-pitched screeches. Beyond the low sandy atoll, the South Pacific seemed to stretch forever beneath tropical clouds topped by immense crowns of gold and red. It was 6:30 a.m., and biologists David Obura and Sangeeta Mangubhai, ship's doctor Mary Jane Adams, dive master Cat Holloway, and I adjusted our scuba gear as we sat on the pontoon of the gently rocking outboard skiff.

"This is definitely the spot," David said. "Let's hope they're here."

I bit down on my regulator, grabbed my underwater camera, and fell backward into the narrow entrance of the island lagoon. The others followed, and we descended 70 feet (20 meters) to the bottom, where we lodged ourselves against rocks and sought solid handholds. Streaming through the water, the morning sun revealed the bright reds, greens, and purples of the corals around us. A giant manta ray (Manta birostris) skimmed by, perhaps 10 to 12 feet (3 m) across. A green turtle (Chelonia mydas) gave us a sideways glance, as if curious, but too polite to stare.

Just a few minutes after finding our handholds, we felt it. Like the start of a breeze, the water began to move. Nearly imperceptible at first, the rising current gradually pulled our bubbles away at an angle as they ascended. The flow increased steadily, and a roar replaced the peaceful silence as water began to gush out of the lagoon into the ocean on the full-moon ebb tide.

Cued by this rising current, a school of perhaps five thousand green and pink Pacific longnose parrotfish (Hipposcarus longiceps) gathered around us and started to circle. Our bubbles were flowing sideways now as we clung to bottom rocks, and our hair and dive gear flapped and fluttered in the torrential tide. If we had lost our handholds on the rocks, we would have been swept out into the open ocean.

The foot-long parrotfish tightened their school and swam faster. This was what we had come to see: the spawning of the parrotfish on the outgoing tide. Within the group, a few fish swam faster still and shook, stimulating the entire school to spiral and bolt for the surface, joined belly to belly, releasing bursts of eggs and sperm like biological fireworks. The egg and sperm clouds were so dense they dulled the sunlight that had been streaming down through the water.

For almost an hour the fish repeated this act, spiraling toward the surface every 10–15 seconds, relying on the tide to carry the fertilized eggs far out to sea, where they would be safer from predators. As I watched from the seafloor, a large shadow passed over me. A half-ton manta ray, hovering majestically and somehow unmoved by the current, was feeding serenely on the parrotfish eggs and sperm. Too soon, our nearly empty air tanks forced us back to the surface and our waiting skiff.

"Incredible! I've never seen anything like it!" said David, a coral reef biologist who has logged thousands of hours underwater studying marine life. I was also deeply moved. I have made it my goal to find Earth's last pockets of "primal" ocean, those underwater havens that have remained unspoiled for eons. In this lagoon we had found such a place.

To reach this remote spot, we had motor-sailed north for five days from Fiji to reach Kanton, one of eight small islands in the little-known Phoenix archipelago. Strung like jewels on an irregular necklace, the Phoenix Islands and the water surrounding them cover over 250,000 square miles (400,000 km2) of the Pacific and are part of the Micronesian nation of Kiribati (pronounced "Kee'-ree-bas").

To say that the Phoenix Islands are not easy to get to is an understatement. These islands are about 1,600 to 2,400 miles (2,963 to 4,445 km) from their nearest neighbors, with Hawaii to the north, Fiji to the south, and Samoa to the east. There are no airports, hotels, or grocery stores. The nearest airport is at Bonriki, on South Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands—946 miles (1,753 km) away. There is only one small village in the entire Phoenix archipelago, populated by a few dozen people paid by the Kiribati government to live there.

But how we reached this spot was more than a matter of planes, trains, and boats. This expedition had its seeds in a question that has long motivated adventurers: Where can we go that hasn't been explored?

Cat Holloway and Rob Barrel—explorers, filmmakers, and owners of Nai'a Cruises in Fiji—were up to this challenge. They first went to the Phoenix Islands in 1999 when their boat, Nai'a, was chartered by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a group of historians searching for Amelia Earhart's lost aircraft in the Phoenix archipelago. The members of the TIGHAR expedition didn't find Earhart's Electra, but as Barrel and Holloway dove these magical waters, they realized they had discovered something just as amazing: this underwater Eden was the last remaining ocean wilderness.

As the importance of their find dawned on them, Rob and Cat began to plan their return. Only a full survey could tell whether they had really found one of the planet's few unspoiled ocean oases. At the same time, their excitement was tempered by concern: if this really was a rare pristine reef, there was no time to waste. Shark finners and industrial commercial fishing vessels might find the reef and strip it of its riches in a matter of weeks. As Nai'a returned to Fiji, Rob and Cat were already making plans to enlist help from the other side of the world and campaign for the archipelago's protection.

At the time, I was in Fiji conducting research. When Rob got back to Fiji, he called me to find out whether I was interested in going on this first scientific expedition, and whether I could assemble a team of scientists to explore and document the marine riches of the region. To me, the question wasn't whether to go; it was how soon.

My passion for the ocean began when I was a child captivated by the ocean documentaries of Jacques Cousteau. I spent many hours with my mask and flippers on, sprawled on the living-room floor, imagining myself as Cousteau diving some distant underwater wilderness. Now, as an experienced marine biologist and veteran scuba diver, I had explored every ocean of the world via scuba and submersible. The opportunity to explore a chain of islands that had never been scientifically studied was a dream come true.

The first expedition weighed anchor in Fiji on June 30, 2000. That expedition launched the ongoing Primal Ocean Project, a quest to identify, document, and protect the planet's remaining unblemished underwater frontiers.

During that initial 21-day expedition, I was so astounded by the abundant, apparently undisturbed marine life that I spent the next two years organizing a return expedition with the sponsorship of the New England Aquarium, the National Geographic Society, and other supporters.

Kiribati is classified as a microstate, a designation for countries with very small populations and landmasses, 280 square miles (726 km2) in this case. But the enormous ocean area controlled by Kiribati—1,370,300 square miles (2.2 million km2)—makes it an important player on the world stage, especially as ocean resources and issues become more prominent in international affairs.

Most of the approximately 100,000 people of Kiribati don't live in the Phoenix Islands. All but a few live 800 miles (1,481 km) to the west in the Gilbert Islands or 800 miles to the east in the Line and Christmas Islands. A string of five islands, three atolls, and two submerged reefs in the central Pacific, the Phoenix Islands lie just 5 degrees south of the equator. Only one of the eight islands, Kanton, is inhabited.

Most people have never heard of Kiribati, let alone the obscure Phoenix Islands. For the early canoe explorers who originally mapped the South Pacific some 1,000–2,000 years ago, the habitat of the Phoenix Islands compared poorly with the lushness and natural resources of larger and higher Pacific islands, such as Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Samoa. Archaeological evidence reveals that there have been a few Polynesian or Micronesian settlements in the Phoenix Islands, but because of the islands' isolation from larger population centers and their limited supply of fresh water, these early settlements were only temporary.

Although the islands and the surface waters have been traversed, explored, and settled before (as detailed by Christopher Pala in chapter 2), our team was the first to scuba dive among the entire archipelago's reefs and lagoons. It was an extraordinary sensation to realize that we may have been the first humans to venture to these depths, to see the corals that have been growing here for millennia and to swim among the fish, turtles, and sharks who made this their home.

Planning the Second Expedition

After returning to the New England Aquarium, I organized a second expedition to the Phoenix Islands in July 2002. We would travel and live aboard the 120-foot steel motor-sailing vessel Nai'a. Along with Rob, Cat, an able Fijian crew, and National Geographic Society photographers Paul Nicklen and Joe Stan campiano, I had assembled an interdisciplinary and multinational team of eight scientists and conservationists to inventory the extraordinary marine life of these islands: Mary Jane Adams, M.D., retired anesthesiologist, medical officer; Gerard R. Allen, ichthyologist, Conservation International; Steven L. Bailey, ichthyologist, New England Aquarium; Alistair Hutt, marine mammal biologist, New Zealand Department of Conservation; Sangeeta Mangubhai, coral reef ecologist, World Wildlife Fund; Paul Nielson, representing the Kiribati government; David Obura, coral reef biologist, Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO); and my wife, Austen Yoshinaga-Stone, bird and mammal biologist, New England Aquarium.

We set out with extremely high expectations and an ambitious science agenda. During our five-week expedition, we planned to log over a thousand scuba dives, conduct a census of bird and sea turtle nesting areas on the islands, explore the deep sea and deep reefs with special cameras and remotely operated vehicles, and survey the marine mammals in the area. If all went well, we would discover new fish and coral species and begin the work of creating the first biological map of the marine life in this remote island chain, which we believed to be the last unexplored oceanic coral archipelago in the world.

I hoped that I might finally find in the Phoenix Islands what I had long been seeking: a coral reef environment to serve as a benchmark for restoring degraded hard coral ecosystems elsewhere. Reef ecosystems worldwide are under intense pressure: coral reefs are being degraded by destructive fishing methods and warming seas, their waters polluted by coastal runoff, and their fish depleted by intense harvesting. In the Phoenix Islands, it seemed that we had found a nearly pristine reef system, all but untouched by human hands, which might help us imagine what the rest of the world's coral reefs could be like if protected and what all of the ocean may have been like a thousand years ago before people began to deeply alter the natural world.

But mere days into our second expedition to the Phoenix Islands, it was clear that all was not well in paradise.

Vanishing Sharks

On our original Phoenix Islands expedition in 2000, we had seen sharks in profusion throughout the islands. Shark numbers have plummeted around the globe due to overfishing for their meat and fins. The abundance and diversity of sharks we had seen attested to the islands' exceptionally rich and intact ecosystem.

We had found a dazzling array of the smaller reef sharks, including blacktip (Carcharhinus melanopterus), whitetip (Triaenodon obesus), and gray reef sharks (C. amblyrhynchos), that are common to all pristine coral reefs. David Obura, who is based in Kenya, where there is heavy shark fishing, had marveled at the novel sight of sharks in healthy profusion. We saw sharks by the hundreds, both on our exposed dives in deep water, when the sharks would come circling out of the blue, and on our explorations of the shallow inner reef, where we found the channels jam-packed with blacktips and whitetips, feeding in a frenzy on schools of small fish.

The 2000 expedition had recorded sharks at all but one site, and at some sites we had counted over a hundred sharks in a single dive. We had seen sharks at nearly two-thirds of the sites.

As we arrived in the Phoenix Islands in 2002, we hoped and expected to see the same high numbers of sharks on the reefs. Diving into the water at Nikumaroro, our first island stop, we again were greeted by a profusion of sharks after our two-year absence. But at our next stop, Manra, we were surprised to find only a few sharks in the water.

"Maybe they are on the other side of the island," I said. We motored in the skiff to the other side of the island, but still found barely any sharks. We next stopped at Rawaki and again saw very few sharks. By the time we reached Kanton and were able to talk to people, we were seriously alarmed: Where had all the sharks gone? What catastrophe could explain their plummeting numbers? At Kanton, again we found the sharks almost completely absent, and now we discovered the reason why.

In 2001 a boat en route from American Samoa stopped in the islands to catch sharks for their most valuable product—their fins. Shark fins are used as an ingredient to thicken a soup traditionally served at weddings and other ceremonies throughout China and Southeast Asia, and the surging demand has pushed shark-fin fishing to the farthest corners of the globe. The fishermen keep only the fins, which can be dried, as shark meat rots faster and they cannot get it to distant markets. The dried fins are sold for up to €500 or US$630 per kilo, many times the price of shark meat. Stripped of their valuable fins, the maimed sharks are thrown back into the water to die.

The shark-finning boat that visited the Phoenix Islands stopped at Kanton, Rawaki, Manra, and briefly at Orona to catch sharks using longlines. Longlining is a commercial fishing practice in which boats spool out up to 80 miles of fishing line baited with up to forty thousand hooks to reel in fish by the thousands. The shark-finning boat stayed in the islands for about three months. Luckily for the remaining sharks in the rest of the island group, engine trouble eventually forced the shark finners to head back to Samoa. But the damage was considerable: in a few short months, this single boat removed almost the entire adult population of sharks from half of the Phoenix Islands, including the three largest islands.

Commercial shark finning also affects the local human population. While the Samoan shark-finning boat was in the islands, I-Kiribati islanders were engaged in artisanal shark fishing based in Orona, both for the local consumption of meat and for the export of fins via small shipping businesses on the main island, Tarawa. The islanders reported that they had abundant catches at the beginning of their stay on Orona, but after a few months, their catches sharply declined.

By the time we visited Orona in 2002, there were few sharks left, and local income from shark fishing was near zero. Manra, Rawaki, Kanton, and Orona had drastically reduced shark populations. Enderbury, Nikumaroro, and Birnie still had healthy numbers of sharks, similar to those we'd recorded in 2000.

This one example of the incredible overefficiency of commercial harvesting of valuable products, in which a resource is extracted to the point of zero return, convinced us of the urgent need to protect the Phoenix Islands. This remarkable archipelago required quick and effective management to preserve its resources for the benefit of local people and ensure that those resources are never decimated by overuse. The race was on, and time was running out.

Expedition Diary: Swimming with Sharks, Nikumaroro, 2000 GREGORY S. STONE

I first came to Nikumaroro in 2000 to survey the sharks that gathered in the shallow lagoon in great numbers. Our plan was to survey sharks in the upper reef and to seek new species of other fish in the deep reef zone.

Exposed to waves on all sides, Nikumaroro offered no safe harbor for a boat of Nai'a's size. We left her anchored safely off the island's western point. We would have to approach this unwelcoming island by skiff. Carrying my scuba gear and cameras, I made my way down Nai'a's side deck to the dive skiffs tied off her stern. Gerry Allen, Steve Bailey (known to everyone as Bailey), and my wife, Austen, joined me in a skiff.


Excerpted from UNDERWATER EDEN Copyright © 2013 by The New England Aquarium. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 In Search of Paradise

2 History through a Watery Lens

3 Parade of the Bumpheads: Orona

4 Birds and Invaders: Rawaki

5 Beautiful Aliens: The Invertebrates

6 Coral Reefs and Climate Change

7 Ecotourism in Paradise: Kanton

8 Protecting Paradise

9 The Future of the Phoenix Islands

10 Living Blue: Making Choices with the Ocean in Mind

Phoenix Islands Timeline

Appendix: New England Aquarium Research

Expeditions to the Phoenix Islands

Species Tally


Further Reading


About the Contributors


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