How the Phoenix Islands Protected Area came to be

This entry is written by Rob Barrel, owner/operator of NAI'A, the research vessel hosting the expedition.

A comfortable evening at anchor in the protection of the Kanton lagoon has me reminiscing about our three previous scientific expeditions to the Phoenix Islands and, especially, the expedition twelve years ago to look for the remains of flyer Amelia Earhart (mentioned by Brian Skerry here) that launched the whole process that lead to the Phoenix Islands Protective Area (PIPA).

Kanton lagoon from the surface, photo: R. Rotjan 2009

This huge victory for ocean conservation grew directly from the first NAI'A/The International Group for Historic Aviation Recovery (TIGHAR) expedition to Nikumaroro in 1997. TIGHAR strictly prohibited diving (or even swimming) due to the vast number of sharks that they had encountered on a previous expedition. But TIGHAR director, Ric Gillespie, reluctantly gave Cat Holloway and me permission to dive in order to set a mooring in the only protection offered by the steep reefs close to shore.

Marine life in Kanton lagoon, photo: R. Rotjan 2009

When we dropped into the water we were immediately surrounded by a vast school of jacks and about 40 curious gray reef sharks. It was intimidating and exciting. By the time we made our way to the bottom, the sharks' curiosity abated, but now we were distracted by a dozen mantas tumbling in the current as they fed on goodies washed off the reef by the huge waves.

(Photo: Jim Stringer)

On a subsequent dive we had to push curious turtles out of the way to actually set the mooring. And for the rest of NAI'A's time at Nikumaroro, we convinced Ric that for the safety of all concerned we really needed to dive on the mooring at least twice daily to make sure that it was holding! So phenomenal was the experience that when one of our best clients asked us where in the Pacific we would really like to explore, we immediately thought of the Phoenix Islands.

So, in 2000, Cat Holloway organized, and NAI'A's owners and a small group of our keenest divers fully funded, a diving research expedition. We invited a team of marine scientists from the New England Aquarium including Greg Stone and David Obura. They, in turn, were so inspired that they followed up with a second full-scale research expedition with NAI'A in 2002. The resulting papers convinced the government of Kiribati that they owned a resource worthy of full protection and international recognition. Thus the Phoenix Islands Protected Area was born.

-Rob Barrel

1 comment:

  1. Have you guys need very Cetaceans on your travels though the region?