Expedition Team Members' Phoenix Islands "Firsts"

So, we've had a glorious few calm days and nights moored in the lagoon of Kanton Island, the only inhabited atoll in the Phoenix Islands. We've gathered a ton of data, taken zillions of photographs, collected critical samples for scientific analysis, and shared some really special moments with the Kanton residents. In short, we've had a taste of Phoenix Islands magic. We've had dolphins and manta rays, dozens of giant humphead parrotfish, thrilling drift dives, beautiful sunsets, Southern star-filled skies.

Manta ray seen during the current expedition (Photo: Jim Stringer)

The crew and expedition members alike have had a few precious moments of relaxation, filled with song and kava. Most importantly, we've had a glimpse of a reef in recovery, with loads of promising signs. We've seen large tabletop Acroporas in the shallows, a thriving fish community, and dozens of coral recruits per square meter. We've even seen some large corals, and some areas have really high coral cover. There is a general sense of hope and contentment on the NAI'A tonight, and I think we're all sad to leave Kanton, though we're excited to see what the next island has in store.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm the most junior expedition member, having never really been to the South Pacific, and having never spent time on a live-aboard ship. So, with all of this Phoenix Islands magic, I started wondering what my somewhat saltier and more experienced shipmates were feeling: been there, done that? Par for the course? Just another day in Paradise? Never one to keep it in, I've asked my friends and colleagues onboard whether or not this trip (only half over!) has had any surprises in store. In other words, have they experienced any "Phoenix Islands First"? This is what they had to say:

Jeff Wildermuth: My "first" experience involved two coral groupers locking lips together, face to face, mouth to mouth, in a tug-of-war. This may be a behavior competing for territory on the reef.

Les: This is the first time I've ever seen grey-backed tern, but that's boring to most people. How about this: this is the first time I've felt, with full conviction, that the reduction of human coastal impacts could significantly help the ocean to heal itself (read Les' posts for more detail on this). If that's too heavy, this is the first time I've ever forgotten to take my memory stick out of my bathing suit before diving. Like burying data at sea!

Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) photographed in the Great Barrier Reef, republished here for illustrative purposes (Photo: Taro Taylor from Sydney, Australia)

Rob (NAI'A owner): This is the first time I've seen 15 Napolean Wrasse in my field of vision at the same time--and the visibility wasn't even that great!

Kate: It's all firsts! This is the first time I've been in the "South Seas"; the first time this near the equator; and the first time I've ever seen a cubomedusa (box jellyfish) swimming free on a dive. Also, it's the first time I've seen fairy terns in flight!

Schooling fish during the current expedition (Photo: Jim Stringer)

Alan: This is the first time I've seen many massive schools of so many species of surgeonfish, snapper, parrotfish, jacks, emperorfish--often together on the same dive site, with 6,8,12 rare Napolean wrasses EVERY time--a great visual kick. The mental kick is knowing that no one else is diving here, and especially that the area is now preserved and protected for future generations.

Larry: several firsts for me--first kava-klatch, first high-speed drift dive through schools of barracuda, and first exploration of the strange juxtaposition of the tropical isolation of Kanton with the rusting remnants of its previous 1930-1940s population and activity.

Stuart: Today we dove in the channel entrance of Kanton, riding the incoming current to pass from the reef into the lagoon. This was the first time that I watched a reef pass so quickly below me… the current was running as fast as a river. Pretty impressive to watch schools of large fish flitting past at (seemingly) a mile a minute.

Jim: This is the first time I have joined a research dive trip. I'm impressed with the discipline and regimentation necessary so the scientists can accomplish their goals. Also, I've never been with a group that carries their own portable hyperbaric chamber.

Craig: Having dived these reefs on the first research trip in 2000, witnessing the continual evolution of a living coral reef is truly astonishing. Nothing remains constant, the reef exhibits a remarkable metamorphosis. I am now seeing a new reef for the first time.

Brian: During this Phoenix Islands expedition, I saw the smallest shark I have ever seen. I was walking along the shoreline in the lagoon on Nikumaroro Island and decided to walk into the water up to my ankles. As I did this, a tiny little blacktip shark swam up within a couple of meters of me. Clearly a newborn, this was the first time I have seen a baby shark this small. It's obvious that this lagoon is an important nursery habitat.

Greg Stone discusses a map with Kanton school children (Photo: Larry Madin)

Greg: This is the first time I have ever given a talk to a group of school children in a school housed inside of an old hanger at an old airport in the middle of the Pacific. This is also the first time I've seen 6 green turtles, 2 stingrays, and 7 Napolean wrasses--all on one dive! Finally, this is the first time I've been back to the Phoenix Islands since PIPA was declared the largest marine protected area in the world!

Tuake: I was a bit nervous to be photographed by the National Geographic People! I was finding it hard to breathe on my tank when Brian was taking pictures of me. Normally, I like to be underwater for the fun of diving. I felt relieved when Brian was telling me that he was done with me. I hoped that I had done what I was supposed to do as part of my Phoenix Islands mission. I count myself fortunate to be attached and learning from highly academic scientists who are on this marine expedition. This was indeed a first for me--to be photographed for a magazine story.

Tukabu: This is my first time to visit the Phoenix Islands, and it is great. As PIPA's director, it is important for me to familiarize myself with the islands. The highlight for this trip to me is making contacts between the school on Kanton and with the New England Aquarium in Boston by presenting materials together with Dr. Greg Stone to the Kanton Primary school. This is an important trip for our young children to appreciate their national beauty of the islands and to keep it in good condition.

David: Firsts. It's hard, as I know these islands and reefs so well. As a coral reef climate change scientist, it's a first for us to see that reefs can heal so quickly if give a chance, so it's worth trying. It's my first time somewhat seasick for 5 days straights. First time perfectly understanding the value of such an iconic story to effect change. The Phoenix Islands reefs are rising from their ashes, and the world must understand what is happening here not just to reefs, but to all ecosystems and human systems.

As for me, all of the above and more are firsts. But I guess the most important "first" is that I've realized that I'll never have a last first. With all of the collective wisdom and experience on this trip, I find it comforting that firsts abound for everyone. It's good to know that the world will continue to surprise and amaze. I wonder what my next "first" will be?



  1. this is the first time I've learned this much about the Phoenix Islands!

  2. Great post, very emotional.

  3. Souhegan Marine Lab, Souhegan High School Amherst, NHSeptember 22, 2009 at 8:06 PM

    Hello Randi-

    What an amazing adventure you have been having--we feel so fortunate to join you virtually! Your posts have been excellent--yesterday we started class with a discussion regarding your "Points and Lines" entry. They had lots of questions about whether your "lines" actually existed in a quantitative form. I think they are having trouble conceptualizing what the data that you are collecting actually looks like. Maybe some examples of the types of things you record along your transect lines might be helpful for them. In addition, my students had lots more questions for you--but I tried to narrow it down to just a couple:

    Why did the scientists want to study the rat if its just an invasive species and not native to the islands? (my students were very concerned about the rat that was killed with a rock!)
    Are there invasive species in coral reefs? If so, does coral bleaching make invasive species more plentiful?
    Are you planning on bringing back any of the organisms you see to the aquarium?
    Happy Diving!