Reporting on fish populations coral bleaching in Nikumaroro, Phoenix Islands

We arrived at the first Phoenix Island, Nikumaroro to incredibly calm seas, clear blue skies and dolphins swimming around the bow of the vessel. After five days of rough passage, it was welcome by all. It did not take long before the skiffs were in the water, our dive and science gear unpacked and readied when I found myself bounding off the waves on the fat pontoon of a NAI'A skiff heading to the tree lined shore of Nikumaroro.

Rainbow near the Phoenix Islands (Photo: Randi Rotjan)

The island lies flat across the horizon with green scaveloa bushes as the dominate growth with coconut palms poking up regularly and often up through to the sky. We sped past the wreck of the Norwich City, a freighter that went aground on the island in 1918 and now all that remains are the boilers and engine sitting high on the reef. There are other pieces of the ship scattered about the coral and underwater down the slope of the island.

Nikumaroro Island

We headed to the eastern point of the islands were the water currents whip across it and the windward side waves break in long rolling white walls. In a group, we all grabbed our science gear and cameras, and fell into the water. After the bubbles cleared, I was at 10 feet and descending. The water was clear, really clear. I could see over 100 feet in all directions.

Reef fish in Nikumaroro (Photo: Greg Stone)

There were about 150 barracuda, 300 travelly and 6 gray reef sharks all around us. The current was strong, so Alan Dynner and I swam for the reef where the current would be less. Once we got there, I saw for the first time the effect of the coal bleaching event of 2002 that struck the Phoenix Islands.

Due to global warming, the water around these island warmed above what the coral can withstand. There was a lot of dead of coral, but also a lot of regrowth, the reef had begun to recover. Fish populations were as abundant as ever, diverse and very curious. These fish never see divers, so many of them, including the sharks, had to come by and take a close look at us.

Later in the day, we dove the windward side of the island where waters mix more and the coral was in even better condition, which was great. Fish populations are strong everywhere and the protection that Kiribati has given these islands in PIPA is working.

-Greg Stone, PIPA Expedition Leader

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