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Phoenix Islands On Assignment

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Phoenix Islands
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Preserving Primal Ocean

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Australia's Bard @ National Geographic Magazine
By Gregory StonePhotographs by Paul Nicklen

On the healthy reefs of the Phoenix Islands, scientists find new species and clues to preserving paradise.

A raucous cloud of terns hovered over Kanton island, calling out in high-pitched screeches. Beyond the low sandy atoll, the South Pacific stretched forever beneath tropical clouds topped by immense crowns of gold, red, and white. It was 6:30 a.m., and biologists David Obura, Sangeeta Mangubhai, Mary Jane Adams, dive master Cat Holloway, and I adjusted our scuba gear as we sat on the pontoon of the gently rocking skiff.

"This is definitely the spot," David said. "Let's hope they're here."

I bit onto my regulator, grabbed my underwater camera, and fell backward into the island's narrow lagoon entrance. The others followed, and we descended 70 feet (71 meters) to the bottom. Streaming through the water, the morning sun brightened the yellow, green, and purple corals around us. A manta ray and a green turtle nosed nearby as if curious.

Then, like the start of a breeze, the water began to move. Nearly imperceptible at first, the strengthening current gradually diverted our bubbles at a slight angle as they ascended. The flow increased steadily and a roar replaced the peaceful silence as water began to gush out the lagoon's entrance into the ocean on the full moon ebb tide.

Cued by this outgoing current, a school of perhaps 5,000 Pacific longnose parrotfish gathered around us and started to circle. Our bubbles were flowing sideways now as we clung to bottom rocks, and our hair and dive gear flapped and fluttered in the torren-tial tide. If we had let go of the rocks, we would have been swept out into the ocean. The foot-long parrotfish tightened their school and swam faster. This was what we had come here to see: the periodic spawning of the parrotfish on the outgoing tide. Within the group, a few fish swam faster and shook, stimulating the entire school to spiral and bolt upward, releasing ecstatic bursts of eggs and sperm along the way like biological fireworks. The egg and sperm clouds they left behind were so dense they dulled the penetration of sunlight through the water.

Again and again the fish repeated this act, spiraling toward the surface every ten to fifteen seconds. For almost an hour the school exploded in a rite of reproduction, relying on the fast ebb tide to carry the fertilized eggs far out to sea, where they would be safer from predators. As I watched from the seafloor, a large shadow passed over me. A half-ton manta ray, hovering magically and somehow unmoved by the current, was feeding serenely on the parrotfish eggs and sperm.

Too soon, our nearly empty air tanks forced us to return to the surface and our waiting skiff.

"Incredible—I've never seen anything like it!" said David, a specialist in coral reefs who has spent more than a thousand hours underwater studying ocean life. I also was deeply moved. As vice president for global marine programs at the New England Aquarium, I've made it my goal to find Earth's last pockets of primal ocean, those underwater havens that have remained unspoiled as long as the ocean can remember. Here in this lagoon we had discovered such a place.

We'd motor-sailed five days out from the Fiji Islands to reach the Phoenix archipelago: eight small islands, including Kanton, strung like jewels on an irregular necklace. The islands cover 25,000 square miles (40,234 kilometers) of the Pacific, about one-fifth the area of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and are part of the Micronesian country of Kiribati (pronounced kee-ree-bas).

Most of the 93,000 people of Kiribati don't live on the Phoenix Islands. All but a few live 600 miles (966 kilometers) to the west on the Gilbert Islands or 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) to the east on the Line Islands. Kanton is the only permanently inhabited island in the Phoenix archipelago. But what they lack in human population, the islands make up for in animal life, much of it revolving around magnificent coral reefs that keep marine biologists like me awake at night thinking of undiscovered species they shelter.

I had first visited the Phoenix Islands two years before on a scouting trip arranged by Cat Holloway and Rob Barrel of Naia Cruises in Fiji. Encouraged by what I had seen, I chartered their 120-foot sloop-rigged motor sailer Naia to return in June 2002 with an 11-person scientific expedition to survey the biodiversity of the world's last unexplored oceanic coral archipelago. Underwater we would assess the health of various species of hard coral upon which, and within which, live fish and invertebrates such as sea cucumbers, giant clams, nudibranchs, and sea stars. On land we would study the islands' tropical vegetation and abundant birds.

Our first destination was Nikumaroro, a densely vegetated island with a shallow lagoon known for its abundance of sharks. Our plan was to count sharks in the upper reef and to seek new species of other fish in the deep reef zone. Rob found an anchorage for Naia off the island's western point.

Carrying my scuba gear and cameras, I made my way down Naia's side deck to the dive skiffs tied off her stern. Jerry Allen, an ichthyologist with Conservation International, and Steve Bailey, another scientist from the New England Aquarium, joined my wife, Austen Yoshinaga, who is also a researcher at the aquarium, and me in the skiff. Our excitement was tinged with concern as we sped toward the island and Naia disappeared from view around the point. The shadowy outlines of sharks darted beneath us in the clear water. When we got within 200 yards (183 meters) of Nikumaroro's south side we slowed the skiff to an idle. We could see the narrow lagoon entrance and palm trees jutting up through the island's dense undergrowth.

"OK, let's go," I shouted as we rolled backward into the water as a group for safety.

Divers are most vulnerable to sharks at the surface and in mid-water, so I wanted to get to the seafloor quickly. Austen and I tucked in among the coral heads at 60 feet (18 meters), then watched Jerry and Steve continue over the edge of the reef into deeper water, where they would search for well-hidden reef fish.

The water around Austen and me was filled with gray, whitetip, and blacktip reef sharks. They appeared to be hunting for food amid a school of some 2,000 striped convict surgeonfish that were grazing on algae along the bottom and several hundred bigeye trevally that passed above us. Sharks generally don't attack divers without provocation, but their shape and manner can nonetheless have an unnerving effect on you.

We moved down the reef. Austen was carrying a blunt, two-foot plastic "shark stick" to hold off curious or aggressive animals. "False security is better than no security," she had told me back on the boat. I planned to use my underwater video housing, the size of a car battery, if I needed a shark deterrent.

Turning back toward Austen, I saw silhouettes of sharks behind, above, in fact all around her. As I looked ahead, a six-foot gray reef shark shot at me like a torpedo. I hadn't been paying enough attention and didn't spot it earlier—and apparently it was surprised by me too. I stiffened, kicked back, and thrust my camera housing toward it. It veered and darted away like the snap of a whip, passing in a blur only eight inches (20 inches) away from me.

We completed our shark count without further incident. "I've never seen so many sharks!" Austen said as she pulled herself back into the skiff, clearly glad to be out of the water. We were gratified to find the shark population so healthy, having counted over a hundred of them on the reef. Ten minutes later, Jerry Allen broke the surface. Treading water next to us, he spit out his regulator, peeled off his mask, and yelled, "We got a new species!"

The unprepossessing prize was a deep-water damselfish species, pure white and one-fourth the size of a business card. Steve, who had surfaced with Jerry, had collected the specimen in the plastic bag that now rested on the skiff's pontoon. We congratulated Jerry and Steve on their discovery.

As we motored back to Naia, bouncing off waves, Steve told us he had seen several thousand surgeonfish and over 500 humphead parrotfish—numbers you don't see in most places anymore. We also found the coral in a wonderful state: 92 species of live coral covered as much as three-fourths of the seafloor at Nikumaroro, and where there was no coral we found healthy coverings of Halimeda and Corallinaceae algae, all of which indicated a healthy hard coral reef community.

Three days later we stopped at tiny Rawaki (formerly known as Phoenix Island), which is little more than a pile of coral rock in the heaving ocean. But to a wildlife researcher like Austen it was a paradise, with hundreds of thousands of birds laying their eggs there. It was her job to count this swarming mass of birdlife, including the threatened Phoenix petrel, named after this island, where it was known to breed in the past.

Less than a mile in length and barely 11 feet (3.4 meters) in height, the island was so small that Rob could find no anchorage for Naia and was forced to drift offshore while we did our work. The only way for us to reach the island was to swim from the skiff through surf breaking on coral ledges.

As the skiff nosed between the narrow, propeller-breaking limestone fissures, Austen leaped into the surf, shoes first, fully clothed for protection from the sharp coral. Clutch-ing the gear bag, she started kicking. I followed her lead, and suddenly we were both over our heads, struggling to avoid being gashed on the coral ledges or getting sucked beneath them, and trying to avoid sharks. Each wave hurled us toward the rocks and then dragged us seaward, two steps forward and one step back, until we scrambled ashore, crawling on hands and knees, with only a few bruises and scrapes, and feeling lucky.

"Just your ordinary day of bird-watching!" Austen sputtered, peeling dripping strands of hair from her face and tidying plastered-on clothing.

The birds were all around us—large and small, light and dark, squawking and screeching—and the air reeked of musty guano. To make the most of our time, Austen and I split up, walking in opposite directions around the island, counting birds and sea turtle nests as we went. With no land predators here except crabs, the terns, frigatebirds, and boobies nested right on the ground, their eggs everywhere. I stepped gingerly through the cacophony of birds, careful not to crush any eggs or disturb downy nestlings or roosting adults.

One red-footed booby watched me with incredulous eyes above a blue beak, its head jutting back and forth as it sat on a hefty egg. White terns hovered inches from my face, impossibly delicate and endearing. Dark wheels of large frigatebirds lazed up and away into the distance.

Eight hours later Austen and I met on the far side of the island, having completed our survey. We were concerned that neither of us had found any Phoenix petrels. But we did identify 13 other bird species nesting or roosting here, some of which fly a hundred miles (161 kilometers) or more offshore each day to feed. The diversity of species was low, typical of remote islands, but the number of individual birds was high. We counted 150,000 spectacled and sooty terns and more than 50,000 lesser frigatebirds. We also found five nesting sites of green sea turtles, further bolstering the island's ecological importance.

Kanton Island, the largest of the Phoenix group, was our farthest stop. The sun rose early and hot on our first morning there; we were only three degrees south of the Equator now, and the air was thick and hard to breathe. Alistair Hutt, an officer with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, and I took a skiff ashore to talk to the locals.

There to meet us, smiling and leaning on his red motorcycle, was Eketi Tokorake, the police officer, customs chief, and all-around guy in charge of the 35 people who live on the island. Eketi told us about a group of bottlenose dolphins that live around Kanton—the kind of insular population Alistair had been looking for. Working with the University of Auckland, Alistair hoped to become the first researcher to determine the local dolphins' genetic composition, unraveling the evolutionary history of some of the least studied dolphin groups in the South Pacific. While I stayed with Eketi, Alistair headed out in the skiff and obtained several tissue samples from the dolphins using a tiny biopsy dart.

On his days off, Eketi told me, his time was normally filled by "fishing, resting, and making toddy"—the local drink of fermented coconut sap, collected by climbing up coconut trees and harvesting nectar from flower bud stalks. The year before, however, Eketi had witnessed something unusual.

"A boat came here," he said, a commercial fishing boat hunting for sharks. The boat had stayed for two months, catching from 30 to 100 sharks a day, he estimated. After visiting several other islands, the boat apparently broke down, returning to Samoa for repairs.

Our dives at Kanton soon proved Eketi's report disturbingly accurate. We found far fewer sharks this year than we had seen two years earlier. Most of the other reef animals—like the spawning parrotfish we saw in the lagoon—were still there, but the absence of the sharks made the reefs seem quieter and less complete. Without the sharks, moreover, the population of bohar, a kind of snapper, had grown significantly larger.

Shark populations don't bounce back quickly. Unlike most fish, which produce thousands of eggs, the local shark species give birth to only a few live young each year. So even if the coral and other fish populations remain untouched and intact, it will take many years for Kanton to regain its sharks.

Having completed our survey of life in and around the islands, we pulled anchor and headed back toward Fiji. In about 1,000 dives at 60 sites, we had discovered six new species of coral and fish, identified 130 species of coral, 518 species of fish, and more than 250 species of invertebrates, collected 28 tissue samples from dolphins, 70 from fish, and 1,400 from invertebrates, surveyed birds, turtle nests, and vegetation, and explored the sea as deep as 3,000 feet (914 meters) with nets and cameras.

But our most valuable discovery was that the Phoenix Islands, as an entire coral ecosystem, have survived largely intact, making them one of the last havens of ocean wilderness. The world's seas are the key to global survival: They moderate climate, provide food, and generate a significant amount of the oxygen we consume. Sadly, damaged reefs now dominate tropical waters. What we learned in the Phoenix Islands, therefore, may be invaluable to help us understand and even diagnose degraded coral reef systems elsewhere. And that makes it more important than ever to save such primal ocean hideaways.

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Drape your desktop in an underwater rainbow of anemonefish near a Phoenix Islands reef.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
While the Phoenix Islands' underwater realm had only been minimally explored until Greg Stone's expeditions in 2000 and 2002, above the waterline is another story. These coral specks, despite their remoteness in the midst of a vast ocean, have had a busy history.
Archaeological traces indicate that this archipelago was settled and then abandoned before the arrival of Europeans, probably by Polynesians. The islands' recorded history really begins with the whalers of the early 1800s, when the waters around the Phoenix Islands were a prime area for sperm whale hunting, and whaling ships were often in the area. Kanton island was named after the New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling ship Canton, which ran aground on a surrounding reef. 
Following the whalers came other vessels and more sailors, who eventually discovered phosphate-rich bird guano deposits on the islands. A number of the Phoenix Islands were mined for guano in the mid-1800s, but supplies were exhausted there earlier than in the rest of Kiribati, and the miners departed after a few years.
All was fairly quiet until the late 1930s, when activity on the Phoenix Islands exploded.  Britain claimed the Phoenix Group in 1935, naming it part of its Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony and establishing a radio station. In 1937 Kanton garnered publicity from being along the path of a total eclipse of the sun, arousing American interest in the atolls.  In 1938 the United States laid a competing claim to Kanton and Enderbury Island, and Pan American Airways began blasting and dredging part of Kanton's central lagoon to make runways for seaplane stopovers during trans-Pacific air service. (The company also built a hotel for its guests' overnight stays.)  The disputed claims for the islands were resolved in 1939, when Britain and the U.S. agreed to exercise joint control for a period of 50 years.
Kiribati people (called "I-Kiribati") themselves were also starting to populate the islands. Under the first Phoenix Islands Resettlement Scheme, in 1938, I-Kiribati from the overcrowded Gilbert Islands were sent to Orona, Manra, and Nikumaroro islands.  Eventually, by 1963, the settlements had failed (one story tells of a group of colonists who threw salt into their only freshwater reserve and claimed their water was ruined so they could leave), and any remaining colonists were moved to the Solomon Islands.
During World War II British and American settlers were evacuated, and U.S. forces built an airstrip on Kanton as one of many Pacific operations bases. Later NASA used the site as a satellite tracking station, and the Air Force used it as a base for missile testing in the Pacific, finally closing it down in 1976. Most of the debris from the base was left on the island, either in place or in scattered dumps around the island. Recent visitors have noted "abandoned vehicles, motors, a bunker hospital…leaking insecticide containers…vintage trucks, burial mounds and graves of heavy equipment and other assorted debris, a disabled  bulldozer," and more. 
Apart from the detritus of previous settlements, the islands have lain mostly undisturbed since the 1970s. After Kiribati declared its independence in 1979, a small group of colonists from the Gilberts was sent to Kanton to act as caretakers for the island group, and in 2001 a settlement scheme for Orona was begun. However, settlers have numbered no more than a couple hundred people at any one time, and populations appear to be shrinking. 
The future of the Phoenix Islands may best be as a wildlife haven. Birnie Island, Rawaki, and Manra were designated bird sanctuaries in 1938 and wildlife sanctuaries in 1975 and have been mostly left to nature. With the Kiribati government's recent agreement to help protect the underwater resources of the archipelago, there is hope that the marine environment may be spared the overfishing and land development that plagues so many other coral reefs.
One mystery endures. In 1937 renowned aviatrix Amelia Earhart disappeared in the Pacific en route to Howland Island, a U.S. territory just to the northwest of the Phoenix Group. There is some speculation that she may have crashed or landed on Nikumaroro, and a group called TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) continues research in the area, hoping to finally uncover the truth about Earhart's disappearance.
—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
The New England Aquarium Primal Ocean Project
Join expedition scientists in the field through Phoenix Island Field Dispatches. Updated throughout the expedition, the dispatches, beautifully illustrated with photos by Cat Holloway, give a feeling of being along for the ride.
Phoenix Rising: The Primal Ocean Project, 2000
Step a few years back in time to the first New England Aquarium Phoenix expedition in 2000. Daily reports, press releases, and an expedition summary explain the beginnings of the Phoenix Islands project.  Explore the rest of for more information on diving in the South Pacific in and around Fiji.
Australian Museum Fish Site
If you need to look up a fish, you can find just about any fish on this extensive website. It is especially useful for looking up common or taxonomic names of species, and provides photos with each listing as well as species range and other pertinent information. There is also a reverse search feature, in which you describe the shape of a fish and can work toward identifying it by name.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery: The Earhart Project
Peruse this website for an explanation of the TIGHAR Hypothesis—a detailed re-creation of what TIGHAR believes really happened to Amelia Earhart when she disappeared in July 1937 over the Pacific. TIGHAR backs up the hypothesis with supporting evidence gleaned from years of research, but does not yet claim to know the final truth.
The OCEAN Project
Browse this conservation-minded site to learn more about the oceans and how to preserve them. OCEAN is the acronym for Ocean Conservation through Education, Awareness, and Networking. Top links are to their network of partners, a section called Actions for the Ocean that encourages involvement, and an ocean resource center highlighting topical news, educational resources, and public opinion.
The Radio Heritage Collection
Learn the history of Kanton through tales of radio broadcasting from the island between World War II and the late 1970s. Archival photos and personal accounts by disc jockeys who worked at the station enliven the story.
Kiribati: Phoenix Group
Explore the history of each Phoenix atoll individually.
Learn Kiribati, the local language also known as Gilbertese, through workbooks written by a former Peace Corps volunteer. This site is also a mini-clearinghouse of links to other Kiribati-related sites.
Icthyology at the Florida Museum of Natural History
Surf this great ocean resource for information on all fish, but especially sharks. Sections cover different types of sharks, tropical research, organizations involved in the study and conservation of fish, education, biological profiles, and fish in the news.


Lal, Brij V., and Kate Fortune, eds. The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. University of Hawaii Press, 2000.
Randall, John E., Gerald R. Allen, and Roger C. Steene. Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Sibley, Charles G., and Burt L. Monroe, Jr. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, 1990.
Stattersfield, Alison J., and David R. Capper. Threatened Birds of the World. BirdLife International, 2000.
Talu, Sister Alaima, and others. Kiribati: Aspects of History. University of the South Pacific and the Ministry of Education, Training, and Culture, 1979.


NGS Resources
Walker, Howell. "Air Age Brings Life to Canton Island: Planes Spanning the South Pacific Transform an Uninhabited Mid-ocean Coral Reef into a Busy Base," National Geographic (January 1955), 117-32.
Nicholas, William H. "American Pathfinders in the Pacific," National Geographic (May 1946), 617-40.
Gardner, Irvine C. "Crusoes of Canton Island: Life on a Tiny Pacific Atoll That Has Flashed Into World Importance," National Geographic (June 1938), 749-66.
Hellweg, J. F. "Eclipse Adventures on a Desert Isle," National Geographic (September 1937), 377-94.
Mitchell, Samuel Alfred. "Nature's Most Dramatic Spectacle," National Geographic (September 1937), 361-76.


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