Assignment Blog--Brian Skerry on the Return to the Phoenix Islands

Cross-posted with National Geographic Blog Central - On Assignment.

On Saturday, September 5, 2009 I was just finishing my cup of coffee at 6:45 a.m. when I heard the beeping sound of the airport van backing down my long driveway. It was time to go. I had spent the last month or so testing equipment, buying new gear and packing endless cases in preparation for this assignment, but there was no more time for prep, it was officially time to begin.

Global explorer and underwater photographer Brian Skerry

The journey I was embarking upon would take me from my home to Boston's Logan airport to Fiji, where I would board a ship and sail for the Phoenix Islands. From start to finish I would be away about 25 days. On the way to the airport we stopped to pick up Dr. Greg Stone, the expedition leader and force behind the Phoenix Islands being designated as the world's largest marine protected area (more about this later).

Once at the airport we checked in our 20 cases of equipment and hoped we'd see them all again at the airport in Fiji. Thirty hours later, we were waiting at the baggage carousel in Nadi with 15 cases--5 didn't make it. The 15 cases that did come through were immediately grabbed by the customs officials and placed in detention along with cases belonging to other members of our expedition. We needed to hire a broker to negotiate the release of our equipment, which we did after filling out the lost baggage forms and being assured our bags would arrive tomorrow. It was Monday morning now here in Fiji and after taking care of these things, we went off to our hotel.

Tuesday morning the five missing cases arrived on the 5 a.m. plane. My assistant Jeff Wildermuth and I went to oversee the loading of all of our baggage on to the broker's truck, then drove with them to the NAI'A, a 110' sloop that will be our home for the next three weeks. After everyone and everything was on boat NAI'A, lines were cast and we pulled away from the dock. Next stop, the Phoenix Islands. But there was one small detail; getting there would take us five days!

The science team selected by Greg consisted of Dr. Les Kaufman with Boston University, Dr. Larry and Kate Madin with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Dr. David Obura with CORDIO of East Africa and adjunct senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, Dr. Randi Rotjan with the New England Aquarium and Dr. Stuart Sandin with Scripps Institute. Also joining the team were diving medical officer Dr. Craig Cook, Alan Dynner with the New England Aquarium, Jim Stringer and my assistant Jeff. And we were especially pleased to have with us from the Kiribati government, Tukabu Teroroko the Director of the Phoenix Islands Protected area and Tuake Tema the Director of Research for the Fisheries Agency.

Tukabu Teroroko (left) and Greg Stone (Photo by Brian Skerry)

These remote islands we were traveling to were designated the world's largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) by the nation of Kiribati in 2008. The creation of this MPA was the result of nearly a decade of detailed work by Greg, the forward thinking officials within the Kiribati government, the New England Aquarium and Conservation International. For Greg, the Senior Vice-President of Ocean Science at Conservation International and Senior Vice-President of Conservation and Exploration at the New England Aquarium, this would be his third diving trip to the Phoenix Islands, his last one made during 2002. But this would be his first trip since the creation of the protected area and would mark the first time Tukabu and Tuake ever dived in their Phoenix Islands.

My job is to take readers to these far away tropical islands and into the primal reefs visually, making photographs that capture the coral seascapes and marine life living within. Another part of my work will be to photograph any reef stresses or recoveries. David Obura came to the Phoenix Islands in 2005 and saw substantial coral bleaching due to warming sea temperatures (global warming).

David Obura surveying corals in the Phoenix Islands in 2005 (Photo by Cat Holloway)

According to David, many of the corals have suffered severe bleaching events and had died. His hope however, is that these healthy ecosystems have great resiliency and can recover. Our collective hope is that the recovery has been abundant and that we will see lots of new coral growth. Having recently spent 5 weeks in the Southern Line Islands (video of that expedition is here), which are also owned by Kiribati, I was anxious to get in the water and see how things looked here.

The sail aboard NAI'A began quite nice, with relatively calm seas on Tuesday afternoon and evening, but by Wednesday morning we had left the lee of the Fijian islands and were in open-ocean. Conditions here were not so calm with 8-10 foot seas and the occasional 15-footer.

Rough seas (Photo by Brian Skerry)

The jib was hoisted giving us a bit more speed and steadying the ship slightly in the rolling and pitching seas, but still life aboard ship had become less than pleasant. Chairs tumbled across the salon deck and the fruit bowl flew from a table. Books and magazine scattered across the floor as waves sloshed over the mid-ship area soaking anything or anyone not under cover. Eventually we all learned to move around doing the "NAI'A Shuffle" and always keeping at least one hand firmly clasped around a railing as we walked.

A majority of folks on board had some degree of seasickness and sleeping in your bunk was a challenge, but by Thursday we had all become somewhat accustomed to the conditions. Everything had by now, found its lowest point (the floor) and the sounds coming from the galley of dishes falling and smashing had pretty much dissipated completely. Two or three more days of this and we can begin diving.

-Brian Skerry

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great dive! Except for the sad part that some of the corals have died. I'm a green supporter and I hope that people would learn how to care for earth.