Going back to the Phoenix Islands after seven years

It has been seven years since I last visited the Phoenix Islands and nine years, in 2000, since I first splashed into their beautiful Eden-like coral reefs. The reason the trips are so far apart is that the islands are about midway between Hawaii and Fiji, the two closest major airports/points of access, making the Phoenix Islands an 800 - 1,000 mile commute by boat whenever you want to go there to work. They are the most inaccessible oceanic coral archipelago in the world, but also one of the most special places in the ocean.

Sunset during previous expedition to the Phoenix Island (Photo: Greg Stone)

But that isolation has been their saving grace. For millennia they have remained mostly uninhabited and free of local human impacts--like intense coastal fishing, sediment run-off from building structures near the ocean and pollution. Archeological evidence points to a few small ancient Polynesian/Micronesian settlements about 800 years ago. In the days when those amazing Pacific Island navigators mapped and explored the largest ocean on Earth in sailing canoes, navigating by stars, wave patterns and birds--hundreds of years before Capt Cook did it with his relatively modern instruments of the 18th century. And today there are only about 40 people that live on one of the Phoenix Islands, Kanton. The other seven islands are uninhabited. This isolation gives the modern world a place where we can observe and study the tropical ocean in the absence of the intense human activity that permeates most every other place on Earth.

Jeff Wildermuth and Jeff Herzog packing HD camera gear at the Aquarium (photo Greg Stone)

In 2006, the government of Kiribati declared the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) and in 2008 expanded it to be the largest in the world at 410,000 square kilometers. The creation of PIPA was the result of leadership of the Government of Kiribati and a unique partnership between Kiribati, Conservation International and the New England Aquarium.

We are about to embark on the first research expedition back to the region since it was declared the largest Marine Protected Area and we will check on the status of fish, coral, birds and all ocean life in PIPA. We are especially interested to see how global warming is impacting the coral reefs. Global warming is one threat to the oceans that PIPA cannot control locally. The warming oceans can kill reefs from what is called "coral bleaching," a condition where the symbiotic algae, which gives coral its color, that live in the coral tissue dies and eventually kills the coral itself giving it a white-bleached look (see an animated explanation of this by selecting the "Color-Changing Corals" chapter of the Aquarium's Blue Impact multimedia tour). Although coral often looks like a rock, it is actually a colonial animal that relies both on carnivorous eating and absorbing sugars from symbiotic algae.

The expedition team will rendezvous in Fiji in a few days now from where we will depart on the 110 foot steel motor sailor NAI'A. We are all packing cameras, bottles, dive safety gear, regulators, wet suits, an ROV and the thousands of other items required for a major expedition to a remote part of the planet.

The expedition is being sponsored by The Oak Foundation, Conservation International's Marine Management Area Science program, The New England Aquarium, private donors, and the government of Kiribati. It will result in a research report, another National Geographic article and a film.

---Gregory Stone, PIPA Expedition Leader

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