Kiribati- The 408,250-km Phoenix Islands Protected Area located within Kiribati, a central tropical Pacific country, is the world’s largest and deepest marine protected area. The largely pristine oceanic sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has nestled within its eight coral reef islands and multiple submerged extinct volcanic seamounts rising from depths of over 5000m. The PIPA lies roughly 3 degrees south and 170 degrees west half way between Australia and Hawaii.
The waters and reefs are home to over 800 species untouched by fishing.
Of the eight islands, Kanton is the only one that is now inhabited. There were previous attempts to colonize other islands which ultimately failed due to their extreme isolation and protected status. Long ago though, human colonizers ventured this way from eastern Polynesia and Micronesia, leaving behind evidence in the form of shrines, fish ponds, wells and cooking pits.
An expedition, led by the Cohen Lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, returned to the Phoenix Islands for its ongoing study of the area’s dramatic and consequential El Nino fluctuations which pass through every three to seven years. These severe warming events bathe the reefs in this area with heated water from the Western Pacific as they make their way east. The water is significantly warmer than normal, sufficient to cause widespread bleaching and coral death and it is this and the reef’s recovery that we are here to study.
We joined the Pangaea Exploration’s “Sea Dragon.” Our 72ft sailing yacht in Kiritimati /aka/ Christmas Island and set sail for Kanton. The team consisted of expedition leader George “Pat” Lohmann, Ph.D students Michael Fox and Nathaniel Mollica and myself as expedition cameraman.
For six days we saw no land and only the occasional seabird, crossing the equator to our destination. During WWII, Kanton was a major U.S and British military installation with a large runway. The 17x7 km atoll is still littered with huge numbers of abandoned barracks, a power station, RADAR dish, bunkers and officers’ bungalows. There are 56 of the former officers who still live there to this day. The rest of the island is slowly being swallowed by the salt and sun-bleached vegetation. Supply boats arrive on average once every six months.
Our arrival was met by a local pod of Dolphins who ride our bow wave, rolling on their side to look up at us as we look down on them. Then the smell of guano and thousands of seabirds fill the air bringing back fond memories of Helen Reef in Palau.
For five days we dive the reefs, channels and inner lagoon. The reefs here are without doubt the healthiest I have ever seen. Initially, we are met on each dive by school of Jacks who tornado around us like excited spectators.
The larger predators then start to show up, their piscatory interests piqued by the initial commotion. Bohar snappers eye us and follow like stray dogs, the sharks keeping their distance until they feel brave enough for a close pass. I have often looked over my shoulder to find one following me. Mantas occasionally cruise by, often turning back to get a second look.
On every dive within minutes, the water is a frenzy of fish of variety and number to rival any overstocked aquarium.
When not taking in the incredible wildlife, we are taking coral and water samples to assess their current and past health. From these, we can see how well these corals recovered from previous bleaching events. We are also retrieving data loggers left by previous WHOI expeditions, each containing valuable information on water temperature, current speed, coral growth, Shark and Manta movements.
The residents of Kanton welcomed us and we are invited not once but twice to dinner and celebrate birthdays. They talk about how happy they are on an island far from the busy city, where there’s no crime, no alcohol related problems (it’s a dry island) and no traffic. They go fishing every other day only for as much as they can realistically eat, they don’t freeze their catch and the fish of course are large and plentiful and a short boat ride away.
So it’s with mixed feelings that we leave Kanton for our next destination, the smaller atoll of Nikumororo 36 hours further west. Our welcoming harbor is exchanged for the open ocean once again on our continuing voyage to unlock the secrets of one of the world’s healthiest marine ecosystems.
Richard Brooks owns Lightning Strike Production, which covers everything from underwater to aerials. See his work at www.lightningstrikeproductions.co.uk