The Final Frontier: Deep Sea Exploration of the Phoenix Islands

Imagine a world where no one had ever seen a penguin because it lived too far away; where bacteria were unknown because it was too small to see and eagles were unimagined because they flew too high above the clouds. That's the world we live in today when it comes to the deep seas.

Orono Island, site of the ROV dive described in this post

Earth's oceans are by far the planet's largest habitat, covering more than three quarters of its surface and averaging two miles deep with the deepest point over six miles down (not all that far from where we are here), yet most of this environment is unexplored. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the sea floor of our own planet, even though our oceans provide 98 percent of the biological zones where organisms can live, produce most of the atmospheric oxygen we breathe from photosynthesis in microscopic oceanic plants, supply food to one in four people every day and shape powerful forces in our climate. We urgently need to know more about our oceans and this is one of the driving reasons for our expedition to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).

From left: PIPA director Tukabu Terooko, Expedition Leader Greg Stone, and Kiribati Fisheries Scientist Tuake Teema operating ROV from NAI'A (Photo: Larry Madin)

On this trip, we are continuing a long-term study of the shallow coral reefs, but we are also exploring and studying the open ocean with blue water dives (described earlier) and deeper regions with a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), an underwater robot with cameras and a collecting claw that can dive beyond the depth of SCUBA divers to 500 feet. The reefs are key and at the heart of PIPA, but only occupy a tiny fraction (<0.01%) of the space where organisms can live in PIPA. The reefs are very high in biodiversity and must be protected, but the deep sea is a true frontier in PIPA and an area that needs much more extensive study. Our work with the ROV is just a start.

The ROV is tiny, maybe the size of a large toaster. It is connected by A 500 foot tether to the control panel on the ship. I can drive it, using a joy stick and other controls from inside NAI'A, and see what it sees through a camera that feeds a video image to the surface.

Today, off the coast of Orona, Tukabu, Tuake and I conducted the first survey ever of this region. We found coral growing deeper than we imagines (300 feet) and lots of sharks.

-Greg Stone, PIPA Expedition Leader

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