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  Field Notes From
Phoenix Islands

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From Photographer

Paul Nicklen

Phoenix Islands On Assignment

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From Author

Gregory Stone

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Paul Nicklen (top) and Mary Jane Adams


Phoenix Islands

Field Notes From Photographer
Paul Nicklen

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   It was unbelievable to see the pristine, untouched habitat of the Phoenix Islands. I saw schools of trevally and barracuda not seen in other parts of the world. I also saw hundreds and hundreds of sharks. They came up and bumped against us out of curiosity, but they weren't threatening in any way. It was a special sight because so many sharks in other places have been fished out completely.
 On land I saw 20-pound (9-kilogram) coconut crabs, the largest land invertebrates in the world. They're supposedly delicious, so in other parts of the South Pacific they've almost all been eaten. It was great to see this habitat as it was before people came. It was almost like going back in time.

    We discovered that in the past two years, illegal shark fishers had killed an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 sharks. They stayed in one of the lagoons for two months and went out everyday with long lines. A few of the islands were completely wiped out. It will take at least ten years for the shark numbers to come back up.
    The fishers cut the fins off and throw the shark, often alive, back in the water. They sell the fins to the Asian market for shark-fin soup, which is a delicacy there.
    This was a lesson to us that if even the remote Phoenix Islands could be hit, then no place is safe. 

    We went to an island that had about 300,000 birds, magnificent tropical creatures such as brown noddies, fairy terns, and lesser and great frigate birds, and masked boobies. They were all ground-nesting birds since there weren't any trees. After a while I noticed a rabbit in the midst of all the birds. I thought, That's kind of weird. And then as I looked around, I saw bunny rabbits all over the place, littering the entire island. The Fijian guides were fascinated by this as they han't ever seen rabbits before.It was a strange sight, seeing a big masked booby with a bunny right next to it. They coexisted peacefully because they just ate vegetation and weren't competing for food.
    The bunnies may have been left there from the whaling days in the 1800s. Also, people once tried to run a guano mine there. They mined it for fertilizer and shipped it out. Sometimes they took rabbits and allowed them to breed on the islands so that the guano miners could have fresh meat and harvest the pelts. But they must have left some of the rabbits behind when they left the island.


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