Assignment Blog--Rising From The Ashes - Coral Reefs in the Phoenix Islands

Cross-posted with National Geographic Blog Central - On Assignment.

I have been diving for eight days now and have seen a range of situations underwater. Much of what I've seen has been severe stress on these remote ecosystems. Many of the coral reef habitats I have dived on have undergone bleaching events in recent years and are now just beginning to show signs of new life (click here to browse posts about coral bleaching). It is actually a testimony to the overall good health of these reefs prior to the bleaching that they are able to rebound at all. So in terms of the future, these places should continue to rebuild and return to their once lush state.

Dr. David Obura measures a new table coral growing amidst fields of dead coral at Kanton Island in the Phoenix Islands (Photo: Brian Skerry).

I have also seen a noticeable absence of sharks, which indicates that these islands have been impacted by long lining. While shooting an National Geographic Magazine (NGM) story in the Southern Line Islands in March and April of this year, we saw many sharks on every dive. The reefs here are very similar to the Line Islands in terms of overall habitat, yet we see few of these apex predators. While the corals have clearly begun to rebuild, shark populations will take longer, given their slow reproductive rates. But the stresses that the Phoenix Islands have experienced in recent years emphasize even more the value of protection. All indications are that these ecosystems will come back strongly, because they were strong when the devastation hit. And with the protection given these islands last year, threats from outside impacts such as fishing have been eliminated.

(Photo: Brian Skerry)

Photographically, the challenges have been substantial. Even when all is perfect on these central pacific reefs, making great images can be difficult because fish are skittish and hard to get near. The nature of being on an expedition means we also move continually in order to collect scientific data, so each dive is in a new location. Without the chance to dive the same sites repeatedly and gain knowledge about subtle nuances, I must simply spend as much time in the water as possible and hope to find something especially interesting happening. Given the dead corals in many locations, I have shifted my focus on this story to one that shows the resilience of intact coral reefs to rebound. During our last day on Kanton Island, I dove early in the morning in a place called Coral Castles for the towering table corals that once existed here.

Today, they are all dead; ghostly-pale skeletons of their former vibrant structures. Yet within this coral graveyard I found new life emerging, single table corals sporadically springing to life from the ashes. I photographed Tuake surveying the area and David Obura collecting samples of the new corals growing (photo above). Surrounding the corals were huge schools of herbivore fishes, a key ingredient for the future rebuilding of healthy reefs.

For this assignment, I have 11 days to photograph underwater, quite a bit less than the 10-12 weeks I typically have for an NGM assignment. Still, I hope that the handful of key images I've produced so far and others I hope to make in the few days remaining will speak to the important story and illustrate the issues we are experiencing here I the central Pacific Ocean.

-Brian Skerry


  1. Hi Brian,
    I'm glad to see the coral is coming back but surprised that there would be so much bleaching in such a remote and mostly pristine archipelago.
    Do you think the effects of long lining are from before the Islands were protected, or could there still be poaching going on?
    And finally where is my good friend the Bohar Snapper? They are conspicuously absent from all the photos, an anomaly for the Line Islands!
    I'm enjoying diving vicariously through the blogs!
    Best, Shari S.O.H.

  2. Hi Shari,
    Brian answered your question here.

    Thanks for posting it!