The Ocean

Photo: Lionfish

Lionfish (Pterois antennata) hide during the day in coral overhangs and emerge at night.

Photograph by Jennifer Smith

Back on Land: What Did We Learn?

Monday, June 1, 2009 / 04:52pm, Posted by Enric Sala

All good things come to an end. After an extraordinary six weeks studying the southern Line Islands, we're back home. It’s time to reflect on what we learned, and what are the implications.

Our expedition was strenuous but it yielded amazing insights, and your support—right up to the hundreds of wonderful welcome back notes you sent our way—kept us going through it all. Thank you so much!han

We set out on this journey to discover and to share with you what coral reefs were like before the impact of humans. What we found—abundant top predators and spectacular coral formations—exceeded our expectations. Moreover, all the scientific data confirm that humans are the most important factor in determining the health of coral reefs.

What kills reef ecosystems is not natural events or oceanography, but a combination of the local impact of human activities such as fishing and pollution with the global impact of human-induced climate change. We also learned that reefs need all of their parts, including sharks and other top predators, to be functional and resilient—that is, so that they can recover from warming events and overfishing.

How can we ensure that all parts of the ecosystem are present and functioning? Simply by taking out less and throwing in less. Measures that have proven effective include marine reserves that allow for the recovery of marine life within and beyond their boundaries.

The southern Line Islands are currently unprotected, and while remote, they are not safe from human impacts. Sure enough, on Vostok, Starbuck, Millennium, and the other southern Line Islands, we encountered gorgeous coral reefs that are among the most pristine on the planet. But we also found a couple of sharks with hooks hanging from their mouths, thinned shark populations at Flint, and a tangled fishing net at Malden.

These are the first symptoms of encroaching human pressure on this remote paradise. Sharks could be eliminated from the southern Line Islands by long-liners within months, but it would take decades for them to recover. We don’t have the luxury of losing the sharks of the southern Line Islands, like we’ve lost them almost everywhere else. Sharks are the first to disappear because of humans, and this is only the first step in a path to destruction that ends with dead corals, abundant microbes, and stinging jellyfish. Sharks and other large predators are good; they keep the reef healthy. They have to be in the ocean, not in shark-fin soup.

Although the expedition is over and we're back on terra firma now, Ocean Now is just beginning. It won't be long before we set out again in pursuit of our mission: Documenting the seas' last pristine places, increasing awareness, and fighting to preserve as much of the ocean as possible. As we move ahead to the next step, we're counting on your continued engagement and support.

We have much work to do, but I have hope for the ocean.

Make sure to keep reading the Ocean Now blog. We'll keep you informed about our next expedition, as well as what's happening in the ocean all over the world, and what you can do to help protect it.

Guest Post: Thoughts From the Bow of the Hanse Explorer

Sunday, May 10, 2009 / 01:15pm, Posted by Ann Luskey

Ann Luskey joined the expedition as a guest for the final voyage to Millennium Atoll. On May 4th, she wrote about her experience on the tail end of the expedition.

I am sitting with my laptop at the bow of the Hanse Explorer as we make our way back to Papeete, Tahiti. I am challenged to find the right words to describe my experiences this last week at Millennium Atoll...

  • Free diving in the ‘big blue' with Manu, who moves underwater like a dancer on stage. Sitting with him in the evening as he shares one breathtaking photograph after the next.
  • Mauricio and Brian offering us lessons in underwater photography. Watching them work both above and below the surface was fascinating. As a team, they function like a well-oiled machine, almost as if they know what to expect before it happens.
  • This week, I became one of the privileged few who have had the opportunity to camp and walk with Mike Fay. He shared stories of his past experiences from across Africa, and in the redwood forests of the western United States. But more than this, he has monumental ideas for how to conserve the magical places on our planet. Are we ready to listen? Are we ready to act?
  • Watching Enric swim and dive over the magnificent coral gardens at Millennium Atoll, as delighted as a happy child. Here, it is as it should be. The reef is alive. The corals are more than abundant. Enric's passion is infectious. If only everyone could dive with him, people would be lined up to ask how they could help.

As we gently navigate our way home, I am left wondering, how do I contribute? How can I make a meaningful difference? With challenges as vast as the ocean itself, there is no time to waste. This is not a problem to pass on to the next generation. This is our problem...now!

We know the solution for this remarkable island chain: create a national park, a protected no-take zone, so that the southern Line Islands can survive as they are today. What we need to work on-what each of us needs to work on-is making this solution a reality.

Video: Shark Eden

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 / 03:41pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

Check out this new video that the crew compiled from some of the terrific footage they've collected around the southern Line Islands. So many sharks!

Would you brave the waters in a sea full of sharks? What do you think?

Watch Video

Mike Fay Dispatch #1: In the Washing Machine

Monday, May 4, 2009 / 02:16pm, Posted by Mike Fay

ike sent the following post on April 1st. Here, he tells us about his and Lindsey Holm's dangerous trek on to Flint Island...and the coconut crabs and rats that were there to greet them.

I was up on the foredeck before daylight the morning of the 29th. We motored 30 hours from Tahiti and, according to my GPS, we were only about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south at 5 a.m.

As day began to break, the flat profile of Flint began to appear. It was hard to imagine this speck of terra firma in the middle of an enormous blue Pacific Ocean. Yet there it was. It wasn't long before a lesser frigate bird and then sooty and white terns appeared at the stern of the boat, as if to welcome us. They were probably just surprised residents of this isle that came out, curious to see what was up. Many months, if not years, can go by without a single boat coming close to Flint, so this was a huge event.

As we closed in, the cover of coconut palm trees began to appear, and a bristle-thighed curlew flew over the boat.

Around 6:30 a.m., the boat got active. The fish, coral, and microbe team excursions took priority over our landing, but Captain Martin told us to be ready to take off before 7. He would bring us to a small inlet, blasted into the reef in the early 1800s for access when the island was used for guano exploitation, and then as a coconut plantation. It seemed hard to believe that folks were here in the 1800s growing coconuts!

To get ready, we had stayed up late packing food for three days. I got together with Vladimir, the head cook, and discussed what we would eat. If you knew Vladimir, you would know that he wanted to send us with four-course meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He assembled a pile of about 65 pounds (30 kilograms) of tomatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, apples, oranges, tuna, peanut butter, Danish cookies, muesli, noodles, rice, salt, sugar, tea, oil, and so on. Between the food, lots of water, our camera equipment, and sleeping stuff including a tent, we had at least 130 pounds (60 kilograms). Yet we had no idea if we could get on the island.

The seas were heavy-eight-foot (2.4 meter) breakers on the north side, converging in a huge clap that shot water up 20 feet (about six meters). The swell on the leeward side, where there weren't supposed to be many waves, was about three feet (one meter). We motored up to the beach access. It was right where Google Earth said it would be. Looking at the entrance was like looking at a ski jump: Scary. The breakers were going right up the channel, and then water was rushing off the reef, creating a washing machine at the exit. At the end, you'd still have to crawl up the reef under crashing waves. The captain decided to abort-he said we would wait until 2 p.m. I was not complaining, but still I was itching to get on the island.

Two o'clock arrived. Lindsey Holm and I jettisoned just about all of our equipment and all of Vladimir's food. We figured we could eat coconuts for a couple of days! I put the little video camera in a triple-wrapped bag with the machete to open coconuts and six bottles of water. We took off in the Zodiac and arrived at the jump-off point. Lindsey had a boogie board; I figured I could just use my waterproof sack as a flotation device. The captain got us in position and over the side we went, swimming to hit the channel just right because there was a wall of reef on either side.

Our first mistake: We didn't have fins. The waves came in, and Lindsey said "Let's take this one." She did, but I got bogged down with my backpack and just got washed over and thrashed around. Lindsey was now swimming way out in front of me. The backwash took me back to my starting point. It happened again, then again.

I was panicking, thinking I can't go forward, and can't go back, and the walls of the reef are not easy to see when you're in the washing machine. I signaled to the Zodiac that I needed help. Enric jumped in the water. I was really tired. Enric reached in and pulled me a bit, which helped. Finally, I was outside the breakers and safely back on the boat.

The captain said "Where is Lindsey? I don't see her." The waves were pounding the reef. I watched for about a minute, no sign of her. I knew I couldn't go in to save her. She reappeared at the end of the channel, and before we knew it she was standing on the beach: She made it!

So now what? There was no way I was going to get onto Flint Island. I didn't even know if Lindsey had matches or a flashlight. We sat there helpless for about ten minutes. We decided to go back to the boat and assemble a team that could get a radio to the island, so we could learn what Lindsey had and figure out what we would do. The thought that I was so close and yet might never get to Flint was killing me.

Back on the Hanse Explorer, Brian—a surfer, lifeguard, and strong swimmer—was on it: wetsuit, fins, mask at the ready. We were back out on the sea immediately, and as we approached the inlet, there was Lindsey running around collecting firewood, making a camp. She had already gone native!

Brian jumped in and made it look way too easy. Soon he was on the radio. Lindsey said she wanted to stay. Did she have a headlamp? No. Did she have a lighter? No. The captain made a decision: She was coming off the island right now.

She suited up fast. It was almost dark. Brian and Lindsey came to the side of the reef, jumped in, and swam. A few minutes later, Lindsey was aboard.

She said she peered into the thick forest and saw huge coconut crabs. It was infested with rats. It sounded like hell on Earth ... and I really wanted to see it now! We would try again in the morning.

Trekking in the Footsteps of Mike Fay

Saturday, May 2, 2009 / 10:25am, Posted by The Ocean Now Team

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay has devoted much of his life to studying the "human footprint"—humanity’s collective effects on wildlife, environments, and natural systems—and to documenting the “last of the wild”—the few remaining places on the planet left unmarked by human actions. His explorations have taken him to the far corners of the world.

In 1999 and 2000, Mike walked more than 2,000 miles (about 3,200 kilometers) in 456 days from central Africa to the Atlantic coast to survey the region's ecology. The trip resulted in the creation of 13 new national parks in Gabon.

Mike has spent months flying back and forth across Africa in a small airplane surveying the landscape, shooting tens of thousands of high-resolution aerial photographs—some of which helped document the ravages of elephant poaching in Chad’s Zakouma National Park. He recently spent a year walking the length of the California redwood range, collecting environmental data and people’s personal stories of these titanic trees.

And in 2009, Mike embarked with the Ocean Now team on a different kind of journey.

You've been reading about and watching what Enric and the crew have seen on their dives. Now, it's time to hear from Mike Fay.

While the rest of the team surveyed marine ecosystems around the southern Line Islands, Mike has spent days on the islands themselves, counting and chronicling indigenous and introduced creatures and documenting the human footprint on each island. Over the coming week, we'll post a series of fascinating dispatches that Mike has sent us during his treks across the islands and atolls.

How much human impact has Mike witnessed on the southern Line Islands? More than you might expect.

He has seen island ecology turned upside down by invasive species introduced by short-lived settlements and shipwrecks, human-cut channels that transformed conditions in natural lagoons. Mike visited an atoll used as a nuclear test site. Other remote Pacific islands exploited in similar fashion remain uninhabitable to this day.

Mike’s journals of his days in the southern Line Islands serve as a stark reminder that humanity’s footprint is felt across the planet—even here, on some of the most remote tropical islands on Earth.

Make sure to check the blog regularly to read about Mike's explorations with Ocean Now, and to learn how you can join Mike, Enric, and National Geographic in protecting and revitalizing precious wilderness—submerged and otherwise—worldwide.

Site No. 10

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 / 02:01pm, Posted by Enric Sala

We've come back home—Millennium, that is.

After we dropped most of our science team in port at Papeete, Tahiti, a few days ago, we picked up seven guests, including National Geographic colleagues Terry Garcia and Kristin Rechberger. We headed back to Millennium to continue photographing and filming, and to begin discussions on marine conservation and how the southern Line Islands fit into the bigger picture.

During the day of transit, we presented our scientific results to our guests, and told them of all the special places we had visited, but two in particular: The lagoon at Millennium, and dive site No. 10., a favorite of everyone on the science team with its lush coral community and its profusion of sharks. We visited Site No. 10 with our new guests, and everyone was amazed by the abundance of marine life, in particular the sharks. "I didn't think places like this existed," one Millennium newcomer confided after our dive.

For me, it was as exciting as diving the atoll for the first time last week. I fell in love with Millennium all over again.

Tomorrow we'll go to the lagoon. Over the next few days, our guests will blog and share their photographs with all of you. I can't wait to hear their perspectives. What I can already predict is that they will also fall in love with this place. It's impossible not to.

Video: Your Questions Answered, Part 1

Sunday, April 26, 2009 / 11:50am, Posted by Ocean Now Team

Hi Everyone. Thanks so much for sending in so many questions! Here are a few answers that Enric and the crew sent us from the boat. Make sure to check back on the blog, we'll be posting more shortly.

Hi crew, I'm a student at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, completing a bachelor’s degree in applied science and majoring in environmental studies. We have recently started working on marine ecology, and learned about the oceans and their currents. We have also looked at coral bleaching. In your opinion, are those coral reefs [in the southern Line Islands] truly as untouched as you believe, or has the human impact of global warming made its presence know even there? Also, what advice do you have for people like me who would like to assist and even join expeditions like yours in the future?

- Neha Bisht

Even remote reefs such as these suffer from human impacts. Although there is very little fishing here, global warming can kill some corals. And we found some human-made debris on the beaches. The good news is that these reefs are healthy and can recover quickly. Our team is composed of experienced divers and excellent scientists. My advice to future explorers is to pick a career of your choice (e.g., marine biology, filmmaking), study hard, and spend a lot of time in the water. It “only” takes passion, dedication, and hard work.

Are there vast differences between the ecosystems of the southern Line Islands and other pristine seas in the world, or does that remain to be determined?
- Mahasti

Pristine coral reefs are similar everywhere: lots of corals and large fish, although the number and identity of species vary.

What types of corals are you finding around Vostok Island? From the video, it looked like mainly hard corals. Do you have a lot of soft coral there as well? What conditions need to be met for the coral to grow and thrive? Are the water and environmental conditions different for soft and hard corals?

- Duncan Miller

Most of what we’re finding are hard corals. Almost no soft corals, except for the rare whip corals that live below a depth of 40 meters (about 130 feet). Hard corals need warm water, as clean as possible, to thrive. Soft corals are not here simply because not all species live everywhere.

You say you put your Zodiacs in the water. What are Zodiacs? Are they cameras?

- Mary Jones

Zodiacs are tough inflatable boats, 5 meters (16 feet) in length, that we store on the upper deck of our ship while we navigate between islands. We have four of them. Every morning, we lower them to the water and use them to travel from the ship to the diving sites.

Have you seen any of those huge jellyfish that have been making news in Japan, or any other jellies showing abnormal behavior?

- Delphine Erasmus

We haven’t seen large jellyfish, only small Man o’ War jellyfish on the surface, which have stung a few of us on the face—the only uncovered part of our bodies while diving.

Watch Video

A Day for Reflection

Sunday, April 26, 2009 / 10:05pm, Posted by Enric Sala

We are sailing on a calm sea, so we can traverse the decks of the Hanse Explorer safely. The science team is packing, which is always unpleasant: Many cases and boxes spread over three decks of the ship. Unpacking and preparing at the beginning of the expedition took us a full two days, but we were very excited about the unknown. Today we are leaving paradise; it's a bittersweet feeling, even if I do get to return to Millennium in just a few days.

It's 6 p.m., and after a hectic day we sit down for a beer and some relaxed conversation. We are all tired, but happy and fulfilled. We reflect on what we have discovered, and that makes us happier.

Flint was our first island. We found thriving corals and many fish, but not as many sharks as we thought we would find. Vostok came second, but that was a first - the first island we saw with both pristine terrestrial (the Pisonia forest) and coral reef ecosystems. The schools of fish at Vostok were simply spectacular. Starbuck, our third stop, had more nutrients and algae, and also more fish. There we did the first dives with more than 25 sharks swimming around us. Island number four, Malden, was wild, with more complex coral communities and sharks. The exposed points of Malden were really "sharky." And finally, we reached Millennium Atoll, the jewel of the crown, with a gorgeous lagoon, intricate coral canyons, schools of more than 50 sharks, and large Napoleon wrasses on every dive.

Some statistics on the work the Ocean Now team has done:

  • 1,000 dives conducted
  • 1,100 hours underwater
  • 111 sites surveyed
  • 325 species of fish encountered
  • more than 220,000 fish counted and measured
  • 100 species of corals identified, several possibly new to science
  • more than 100,000 coral colonies measured
  • 1,000 photos of the bottom taken and analyzed
  • trillions of microbes and about ten times as many virus specimens sampled
  • 15 microbial experiments conducted

It was a tremendous amount of work and data collection by the team, spanning all creatures great and small, from sharks to microbes. What we've done could be likened to taking a snapshot of a complex landscape using a camera with a huge number of megapixels. It will take all of our efforts in the weeks to come to analyze the snapshot, to capture the nuances and the subtleties.

The marine communities of the southern Line Islands were all different. However, they all had some things in common: All were dominated by large predators, all had substantial coral cover, and all appeared to be resilient. The individual differences among them are small compared to the differences between them taken together and most of the other reefs of the world. And this is what counts. We now know that the southern Line Islands are close to being as pristine and undamaged as it gets on our planet. Without these rare treasures, these irreplaceable gems, the world would be much poorer. We must do all we can to protect them.

Our Own Castaway

Friday, April 24, 2009 / 10:56pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Yesterday, Manu (San Félix) and I went back to the lagoon with Vladimir, the ships' chef, and Yuriy, the chief engineer. We asked them to bring full, dark wetsuits, as we were going to hang out with blacktip sharks in the lagoon shallows, and the sharks were less likely to bite dark things. Having nothing more than "shorty" suits of their own, they showed up wearing black dress pants tucked into diving booties, masks and snorkels, and big smiles. I love their attitude!

The Hanse Explorer remained on the leeward side of the atoll, sheltered from the western wind. We jumped in our Zodiac—which we had appropriately christened Vostok—and traveled slowly through a rollercoaster of dark blue waves towards the eastern, windward side. On the way, we saw one of the fish teams working in a choppy corner of the atoll, showing again their dedication and stubbornness. A turtle came to check us out, then disappeared fast as a torpedo.

After 20 minutes of slow progress, we reached the "blind passage," the only channel into the lagoon that a small boat can negotiate. Large waves break on both sides of the channel—a mere ten meters (33 feet) wide at the entrance—but the passage itself is safe, although not the best place for somebody prone to motion sickness. Waves come from outside the atoll, and the current flows from the lagoon in the opposite direction. The two forces meet at the passage, turning it into a washing machine. We made it through the channel and the water calmed immediately, although the current kept pushing us. I could only wonder how the Frenchman we found at anchor in the lagoon does this sailing, with no motor, and solo.

Mike Fay appeared from out of the blue on his kayak. We spent three hours counting and observing the behavior of the blacktip sharks, blue trevally, and red snappers that were swimming on the shallow reef flats. Hovering over us, black frigatebirds dived for small fishes on the surface. Suddenly, a blue-green fin broke the surface. It was a Napoleon wrasse swimming sideways because it was too large to swim upright. A turtle swam by, and a two-meter (seven-foot) long whipray created small ripples on the surface while swimming in an unbelievably straight line.

What a wonderful feeling to study nature in such a rich place! Vladimir's smile only got bigger as we were leaving. We all looked back at the lagoon with the pleasure of knowing how privileged we were to have experienced this place, and that Millennium still exists the way it should be.

For the next several days, the Frenchman will not be the only Robinson Crusoe at Millennium. We have our own voluntary castaway: Manu and I ferried Mike Fay in a Zodiac to the edge of the reef, where he jumped onto his kayak with two waterproof backpacks, and headed for the reef crest. He waved at us; we waved back, and I watched him with jealous eyes as we left. Mike will stay on the atoll for four days, waiting for our return. But we have to return to Papeete with our team; there's still a lot to be done!

On our return to the Hanse Explorer, Adam and others reported having seen a shark with a shiny hook in its mouth. The piece of monofilament line attached to it was clean, which indicates it's the product of recent fishing activity. The Frenchman told us that he saw a Japanese longliner not long ago operating off the leeward side of Millennium. That was the only ship he saw in the last year, apart from us. I guess it's not hard to deduce where that hook came from.

We are now sailing to Papeete, to drop our science team off, clean the ship, and bring it back to its original yacht-like appearance, after four weeks of non-stop diving, scientific work, photographing, and filming. We will return to Millennium in four days, to complete our filming and photography. But tomorrow will not be an idle day. Our science team is analyzing data, and they will leave behind a full report of their findings.

Shark Eden

Thursday, April 23, 2009 / 10:27pm, Posted by Enric Sala

We finished our surveys today. Our marine team has collected data on hundreds of species of fish, corals, and seaweed, and thousands of species of microbes at 24 sites around Millennium Atoll. Mike has walked along all of the “motus”—the small, permanently emerged islets that comprise the atoll—and collected data on the presence and abundance of plants, insects, birds, and introduced species such as rats.

We were extremely fortunate and, despite a large swell and occasional gusts of strong wind, the weather was clement, which allowed us to dive on both the windward and leeward sides of the southern Line Islands. We counted and sized fish and corals, and collected and filtered water samples looking for microbes. But we’ve done more than measure and turn an ecosystem into numbers that we could enter in our computers. Our goal was to analyze how pristine these places are, but we did not limit our study to numerical descriptions. We also observed and tried to understand in an intuitive way why these places are pristine, and what this means. Only by diving repeatedly and looking for patterns that become apparent, without the need for spreadsheets or statistical analysis, can one get a feel for an ecosystem. All it takes is an obsession for observing nature. And we are definitely obsessed.

In a future blog post, I will comment on what “pristine” means; for now I’d like to focus on the present time and place. We all agree that Millennium Atoll is a special place. There is something deeply pristine about it, despite the residual impact of former human habitation. South Island at the southern end of the atoll is dominated by coconut trees, which were planted for copra (dried coconut meat). Rats are abundant here, and Cordia trees were cut for their wood. But underwater, there’s little human impact to be seen: the odd fishing line from a longliner, and the “dead” reef around a shipwreck on the southwestern side of the atoll. Other than that, wealth and diversity are all around us.

We are very aware of the privilege of diving on a predator-dominated coral reef. This is Shark Eden. We see sharks on every dive, shallow or deep, on the fore reef or in the lagoon. To put this in perspective, on land it would be similar to taking a number of hour-long walks in Africa and seeing lions—several to thirty lions—every single time. We cannot be indifferent to this fact, this astonishing abundance of sharks.

Sharks are so feared by humans, so deeply ingrained in our collective collection of monsters! But when we see them swimming, studying us with curiosity yet caution, we are filled with awe and wonder. Sharks perform a key role in the ecosystem: They keep it healthy. Sharks are good in the water, not in soup or tangled hopelessly and helplessly in nets as unintended “bycatch.”

Millennium Lagoon Mysteries

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 / 09:55pm, Posted by David Obura

Marine ecologist David Obura is the coordinator for CORDIO (Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean) East Africa, which supports reef research and monitoring of coral reefs and coastal fisheries. CORDIO’s primary goal is to “conserve biodiversity in the context of improved livelihoods and sustainable development.”

Today’s mission: Survey Millennium Atoll’s lagoon, an exciting prospect for all of us. For me, lagoons give a picture of extreme environments for coral reefs. Each one is different in subtle ways, and this one has given hints of being unusual.

Millennium Atoll has only one major channel into the lagoon, and even that is not a real channel as it is almost a dead-end (it was widened artificially sometime in the last 150 years), forcing us to scrape and drag the Zodiacs through the final few meters.

Every time we’ve been in the channel, the water is flowing out, meaning that most of the time water flows into the lagoon from waves breaking all around the rim. The wash from the waves fills the lagoon, then has to flow out through the channel.

We’ve also seen that the lagoon is divided at various places by “line reefs” that come to the surface, blocking water flow and access. These are visible in satellite images and on Google Earth! They cut the lagoon into smaller sub-lagoons.

Unusually for a lagoon (and perhaps because of the waves lapping over the edge), here at Millennium there’s only a small difference in water depth between low and high tides. This is both good and bad news for us. The good: It means we have many hours during the day to navigate the reefs and channels within the lagoon. The bad: The line reefs all grow as close to the low tide limit as possible, leaving only a few centimeters of clearance over the tops of the reefs even at high tide, forcing us to find the gaps and mini-channels between them.

Getting through the channel was easy today as the sea was calm. We all started in the southern end of the lagoon at 10 a.m. waiting for the tide to rise the few centimeters that would let us cross the first of the line reefs. First mystery of the day: The corals in this southern part of the lagoon near the channel were mostly dead! We could see the old skeletons of the finger Acropora corals broken and scattered over the slopes, with live colonies in between. Also, we found no clams in this part of the lagoon. A report from a joint US/USSR expedition in 1988 found them here by the hundreds. We could see dead clamshells scattered all over the place, but no live clams. What happened to cause both the corals and the clams in this part of the lagoon to decline?

By noon, the tide crept up enough for us to move northward. We went as far as we could, all the way to the tip of the island, making it through two scrape-through channels and around many line reefs. The sun was bright and high, so seeing the obstacles was easy. This far up, surrounded by the small islets at the top of the lagoon, circulation was very restricted, and the corals showed how severe the environment could get here.

As in the south, we saw a lot of dead coral skeletons under the living corals, and some weird growth forms for common corals—or were they a different species? Corals are very variable animals, partly because of the symbiotic algae living inside them, and their growth forms can vary incredibly from place to place. Coral ecologist and taxonomist Jim Maragos found some samples of what he thinks may be a coral he has only seen in a couple places in Hawaii and the northern Line Islands. Will this mission extend the known range of that coral by thousands of kilometers, or is it just a weird growth form of a more common coral?

Time is short, so soon we picked our way south again, to stop in the middle of the lagoon. Rain showers were chasing us down the lagoon, making it hard to see the shallow reefs and channels. Dressed for sun and warm diving, we were chilled to the bone, and couldn’t wait to get in the water to escape the chilly rain!

Two days earlier, on a quick recon of the lagoon, some of us found highly developed coral communities while others found gardens of giant clams. Jackpot: This time, we found both! Two dives on different parts of the line reef structures turned up the most beautiful coral and clam communities—the small finger-Acropora corals lined all surfaces possible, giving a light tan tinge to the reef, and nestled between them were clams of all hues and colors. In some places, we found a single clam surrounded by a forest of coral. In other places, a cluster of 10 or 15 clams were all jumbled up with one another, their bright lips open to catch the sunlight. (Giant clams in the genus Tridacna have symbiotic algae living inside them, just as corals do.)

The other surprise finding of the day: One group made soundings of the lagoon as they went along. The southern lagoon is relatively shallow, with depths of six to seven meters (20 to 23 feet) quoted in reports. Our team found a maximum depth of more than 110 feet, or 33 meters. Two divers got down to 100 feet, about 30 meters, and found deep live corals and microbial mats.

Exploring the bottom of the lagoon, out from the base of the line reefs and into the basins between them, pillars of old dead corals poked up as much as six to seven meters. In the milky white lagoon water, they were like pinnacles in a misty landscape. Swimming up to them you could see how they were built—old coral skeletons, one layered on top of another, and the current set of live corals capping them all. But when were the pillars formed? In the last few thousand years of reef growth? Or maybe 11 to 12,000 years ago, when sea level was much lower, near the tops of the pillars? Or maybe over multiple low sea level stands going back hundreds of thousands of years? Other studies will be needed to answer these questions, but at least in this instance Millennium’s lagoon is similar to other lagoons in the Phoenix Islands, 1,000 kilometers to the west, which also contain line reefs and old submerged pillars, capped by living coral.

The question also lingers of what killed off the corals and clams at the lagoon’s southern end. Was it bleaching because of an El Niño/climate change event? Unlikely, because the outer reef corals don’t show evidence of this happening, and it would affect them too.

Was it caused by iron poisoning, as is visible on the outer reef south of the channel due to a shipwreck there? Perhaps the wreck had some effect on the southern lagoon, but the reefs don’t have the appearance of iron poisoning, a characteristic black algal community.

Perhaps it had something to do with water flow? In our discussions, we’ve speculated that perhaps the small channels through the line reefs separating the southern lagoon from the middle have slowly been blocked by corals growing up to the surface. Corals and clams in the southern lagoon might thus have lost their source of food and oxygen, and perhaps (another perhaps) they were less able to deal with some other stress, maybe a bleaching event that was not strong enough to affect outer reefs, but was enough to kill off corals and clams in this part of the lagoon?

Our work is often like a detective story … whodunit? We came here to try to understand how reefs function away from humanity’s influence, but even these reefs are not totally isolated. Perhaps most valuable for us as scientists is to see something different, a twist on a familiar story, a sight that helps us explain another reef in another study in a few years’ time. For now, though, we are still immersed in Millennium’s quirky lagoon—the corals, the clams, the line reefs and deep pillars … a dream landscape!

Doing the Big Fish Dance

Monday, April 20, 2009 / 11:09pm, Posted by Stuart Sandin

A marine ecologist who specializes in studying the fish communities that live in coral reefs, Ocean Now team member Stuart Sandin works at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

We have been on the Hanse Explorer for the greater part of a month, and our view of the world has changed quite a bit. While we increasingly lose our grasp of current events in the news, we are gaining a clearer view into the world of coral reefs. With each passing day, the underwater world becomes more familiar.

When you are in tune with a biological community, you begin to know what to expect from it. I spend my time underwater on the expedition studying the fish community, counting fish at a number of stations across each atoll. At this point, when a fish darts into a hole at the edge of my vision, I am pretty confident of the species based solely on its swimming behavior. (Still, being a good scientist, I always double-check my ID!)

The familiarity with the underwater world that our team has now is similar to the familiarity one gains when spending a lot of time in any situation. When I worked in restaurants, I could predict with pretty good accuracy what a person was going to order based solely on the way they looked at the menu and the company they kept. (For example, for a group of guys watching a football game, chicken wings and beer was always a good guess.)

While familiarity with the reef community makes a lot of the diving predictable, it never gets boring. Instead, this makes our dives even more exciting. After each dive, we have animated conversations about whatever atypical finds we made during the preceding hour underwater. “Did you see that species of collector sea urchin? That was new!” Or “Did you notice the geometric patterns that the corals made in that patch? What do you think made that happen?” The questions are many, and the answers range from recounting our previous observations from other islands to wild hypothesizing and speculation.

Without being too biased, of course, I maintain that my colleagues and I on the Ocean Now fish team are the most enthusiastic in discussing our dives. (Ok, we’re the loudest, at least!) So, what topics provoke the highest-volume chats?

1) The species of fish we found (“Did you see that surgeonfish at the drop-off? That is a new record for this island, I’m sure!!!”), and

2) the behavior of the fish (“#$&!, that snapper just bit my finger!!!!”).

The more familiar we become with the fish species from these islands, the more intrigued and excited we get: Jenn (Caselle) screams comments about new finds, using her superhuman ability to talk clearly underwater. Brian (Zgliczynski) meticulously outlines the pencil wrasses and other species that we find here, detailing their broader distribution across the Pacific. And Alan (Friedlander) exudes excitement when the dive gets “heavy.” We call this response his “Big Fish Dance.” You haven’t lived until you’ve seen him shimmy underwater in reaction to a very sharky dive!

How Much Care Is Enough?

Sunday, April 19, 2009 / 10:26pm, Posted by Enric Sala

The captain asked me today if I ever get tired of this effort. I replied that I might get physically exhausted, but that’s about it.

Who gets tired of witnessing nature at its best, of seeing abundant large fish and gorgeous coral forests every day, of flying over an enchanted landscape that seems taken from a dream? Not us. We emerge from the water with a big smile and a deep sense of fulfillment. And we don’t want to lose it.

But we might all lose this and the other few places that remain nearly pristine. Why? In a word, fishing.

How many people fish at Millennium and the other southern Line Islands? We have not seen any other boat during the expedition, except for the sailboat in the lagoon at Millennium. But we found old fishing lines at Flint and Millennium. Were these legal fishermen, authorized by the Kiribati department of fisheries? Or were they illegal? Where did they come from?

More than 99 percent of the ocean is currently open to fishing; less than one percent is protected.

How much ocean should be protected? There are as many answers as people we ask. The answer depends on one’s values. Scientific studies suggest that, for a variety of reasons, at least 20 percent should be fully protected. Many countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has a target of 20 percent by 2012. At the current rate of marine protection, however, that goal will not be reached.

Less than one percent of the ocean remains in a nearly pristine state. Let’s protect what’s left, as a baseline to remind us how much humans have changed the seas, and as a blueprint and a seedbed to help restore what can still be restored.

Reef Napoleons and an Unexpected French Import

Saturday, April 18, 2009 / 09:52pm, Posted by Enric Sala

All of the islands we’ve visited on this expedition have gorgeous corals and lots of fish. But every island is different. The architecture of the reef is most spectacular at Millennium, and minimalistic at Flint. Malden has the largest abundance of sharks, Millennium of parrotfish, and Vostok of soldierfish. However, one of the most striking characteristics of Millennium Atoll is the abundance of the Napoleon wrasse fish, Cheilinus undulatus.

The Napoleon is the largest of wrasses and one of the largest of reef fish, olive-green to bluish-green with vertical dark stripes, thick fleshy lips, and a big hump on its forehead. It can grow to more than two meters (six feet) in length and weigh up to 190 kilograms (about 420 pounds). Manu and I saw one particularly large Napoleon this afternoon, swimming 20 meters (66 feet) below us. We looked at each other and put our hands on our heads in amazement. Back on the Zodiac after surfacing, we joked “Did you see that school bus swimming down there?”

Napoleons can become so large that they have their accompanying fauna: The largest are commonly seen swimming with a jack fish next to their bellies.

The Napoleon wrasse has been hunted throughout the Indo-Pacific, and its abundance has declined dramatically almost everywhere. At Millennium, we’ve seen several on each dive, which is a good indication of the low fishing pressure here—though not a total absence of fishing, since yesterday we saw fishing lines and hooks tangled on some corals.

We have all been very excited about the Napoleon wrasses. But they are wary, and do not allow us to approach them closely enough to satisfy our curiosity. The closest I’ve gotten to one was when I turned around looking for my diving buddy and, surprise, there she was. As soon as I made a move to grab my camera, however, the Napoleon wrasse moved slowly but decidedly out of my shooting range. The photographers and videographers are trying hard to get a good close shot, to no avail. And they become crazy when the scientists tell them stories of how close they got to them while counting fish or corals. I joke and say that the wrasses are too shy of professional cameras, and that the media team should use disposable cameras. If their looks could kill...

The scientists went into the lagoon today, and saw a sailboat on top of the reef flat. There was a Frenchman, a sort of hermit, on it. But he deserves his own blog entry. We’ll talk about him very soon.

Video: Enric Talks About Diving at "Wild" Malden

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 / 10:34pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

This new video was shot shortly before the crew left Malden Island. With even more coral species than Vostok, and an abundance of marine life—manta rays, dolphins, and “sharks everywhere”—Malden’s reef communities epitomize the natural submarine wilderness of the southern Line Islands. Enric encountered a baby dolphin with a soft pink belly, and shares an image of one grey reef shark whose missing dorsal fin may have been taken by humans to make shark fin soup.

Watch Video

Garden of Eden: The Reefs of Millennium

Thursday, April 16, 2009 / 10:58pm, Posted by Jennifer Smith

Marine biologists are lucky individuals. While we spend many days sitting behind our computers processing data and writing reports and publications, most of us really live for the days that we spend in the field. Almost every time that I go SCUBA diving I get the same feeling I had when I first learned to dive almost 20 years ago—the feeling that I belong underwater. I have been fortunate enough to establish a career in marine biology, and even more fortunate to specialize in one of the most spectacular yet threatened ecosystems on the planet, coral reefs.

I have studied coral reefs around the world, and it seems that with each new reef I visit, I learn something completely new. These systems are beautiful yet complex, and they always have surprises to offer. I am convinced now that no two reefs are completely alike.

I joined this trip to the southern Line Islands as a “benthic” marine ecologist—an expert in the organisms that inhabit the bottom of the ocean. I study corals, marine plants or seaweeds, and other invertebrates such as sponges, giant clams, and sea anemones. My main goals are to use photographs and a large underwater “quadpod”—similar to a tripod on land—to document what the reef looks like. In the end, I determine the composition of the reef community and provide valuable data to document changes across space and over time.

Our goal on the Ocean Now expedition is to survey or assess as many sites as we possibly can on every island that we visit. We are now on the final island, and have seen many amazing places. Just when I think that I have seen the most amazing reef left on the planet, we arrive at yet another island that is still more spectacular.

During this trip, we have worked our way north through the southern Line Islands, and have now looped around to our final destination, Millennium Atoll.

The first island was Flint. Flint had impressive coral cover, in fact some of the highest levels of coral cover I have ever measured. We then arrived on Vostok, a tiny triangular island with hundreds of sharks and equally abundant coral—a spectacular reef. We then moved north several hundred miles to Starbuck, a very rugged and remote island. Starbuck was quite different from the rest of the islands, as it has been extensively farmed for guano and has quite large seabird populations. The reefs exhibited signs of natural “eutrophication,” or nutrient enrichment, as there was quite a bit more seaweed here than on the other islands. The furthest island north in the southern Line Islands chain is Malden. Malden was fantastic, with beautiful reefs, and very abundant fish populations.

Perhaps the most memorable experience on Malden was the morning just the other day when we had to dive the rough and rugged windward coast. The wind was blowing, waves breaking, and the whitecaps were washing over all of us on our Zodiacs as we traveled to the dive site. The next thing we knew, we were surrounded by dolphins jumping out of the water and riding our boat’s bow wave. At least three babies were traveling with the pod, including the smallest dolphins I have ever seen leaping out of the water. The babies were pink and were so small, perhaps a foot and a half (half a meter) long, they defined “cute.” To top off the morning, we were surrounded by three large manta rays during the dive that were quite curious, and continuously swam right over us as we conducted our surveys.

We left Malden two days ago and arrived at Millennium Atoll early this morning.

Marine biologists and photographers are always searching for that amazing place where everywhere you look you find something new and interesting. I think that after one day and at least three hours per person underwater, we all agree that we have found such a place. I don’t think any of us could have expected or even hoped for such an amazing reef ecosystem and gorgeous seascape. The water is so clear—“gin clear,” as we call it—at least 150 feet (46 meters) of visibility. Baby sharks, beautiful corals in purple, orange, blue, and green as far as the eye can see, and fish of all sizes and colors, including the giant Napoleon Wrasse that can be as large as a small automobile.

Despite the fatigue and exhaustion that all of us are experiencing after almost a month at sea, we have been recharged with excitement and can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store. One thing we know for certain is that Millennium is a special place—so special, in fact, that I feel somewhat guilty even writing about it now. However, the only way to protect and preserve places like this is to educate people, so that they can motivate politicians to make a difference. I look forward to the next week of diving in the Garden of Eden, the reefs of Millennium.

Sailing to Millennium

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 / 10:45pm, Posted by Enric Sala

We leave Malden with the joy of knowing that there are still wild places left in the ocean—places where animals have never seen humans before, where sharks check divers out curiously, and where healthy corals cover most of the bottom. We now have 45 hours of navigation to Millennium Island, also called Caroline Island. The sea is rough. We are tired. All we can do to pass the time is lie down and rest, work on our computers, watch movies … and think. And there is lots to think about.

For example, why are we so happy to have explored a place like Malden? Simply because it is so rare and unique? Because far less than one percent of the world’s coral reefs are in such good shape? Coming here has reset our entire understanding of what’s “natural,” and has given us a new baseline against which to measure healthy and unhealthy reefs everywhere. Without places such as Malden and Vostok, we would not know the full extent of what we’ve done to the ocean, we would not know that, before we depleted them, reefs were full of sharks and held a fish biomass ten times greater than in most present reefs.

Our study of Malden has yielded more than scientific data and beautiful images: It brings a sense of responsibility. So far, the southern Line Islands have been instrumental in reminding us how much we stand to lose. The task ahead is to remind the rest of the world.

As Wild as It Gets

Monday, April 13, 2009 / 10:31pm, Posted by Enric Sala

When I was a kid swimming in the Mediterranean, what was “natural,” I thought, was clear water and very small fish. For today’s kids, what’s natural is a sea full of jellyfish.

The first time I dived in a marine reserve and saw the abundance of marine life compared with the depleted areas nearby, I recognized that we had lost a lot. In the relatively short time since my childhood, humans have starkly altered the marine landscape. But without witnessing these pristine reefs, far from populated coasts and nearly untouched by humans, I could never have imagined how much we had actually lost.

Like a walk through a mature redwood grove after a lifetime spent in clear-cuts or orchards, a dive at Malden reveals what the seas once were, in all their richness and wonder.

We saw many more sharks today, but the highlight was the presence of several manta rays that, like quiet ballerinas, graced our time in the water. Dolphins dived with us and chirped excitedly about our presence. Malden is as wild as it gets—and you can feel it.

Marine ecologist Stuart Sandin and I dived with an underwater communication system that allowed us to speak to one another. (We sounded like Darth Vader having a conversation with his twin brother!) Adam Geiger filmed us observing large predators—sharks and red snappers.

Dave (marine ecologist David Obura) tells me that the compressor’s cooling system isn’t working. We have enough tanks for tomorrow, but if the problem isn’t solved we will not be able to fill more tanks. Without tanks, there is no diving, no science, no photography or filming. The expedition would stop! Dave will call “Nitrox” Bob tomorrow and try to figure out how to fix the problem.

There are many potential challenges on an expedition—it’s part of the work. The compressor is one (though the Hanse Explorer has a small air compressor for redundancy). Something as trivial as pencils can become another: Without pencils, there is no way to note all of the data we collect during our dives.

I hope Dave will be able to fix the compressor tomorrow.

PS: Make sure to sign up for the Ocean Now email list, if you haven’t already. Please urge your friends to do so as well, and don’t forget to check us on Facebook.

We’re Part of the Ecosystem

Sunday, April 12, 2009 / 11:09pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Malden was, once again, a marvel. You may think this is repetitive, but the reefs surrounding this island are so extraordinary! More sharks, more schools of fish, more spectacular corals. And once again, we reflect on how important it is to protect this and the other wild places left in the ocean.

As I write this blog entry, knowing that it will soon be live online via our team in D.C., it astounds me how different this project is from the classic expeditions of the past. As explorers, we don’t need to wait anymore to come back and give talks, write books or publish articles in magazines to start telling the world about what we found. (Though we’ll still do all those things.) Now we can communicate in almost real time, and have people participate in a way that was unthinkable only a generation ago. But we take technology for granted … and I still get frustrated when the satellite connection shuts down and I need to start again!

Despite the technology, here on the ship we are truly disconnected from the rest of the world. We receive no news, except email from our loved ones and great questions about the expedition from you. And that’s all we need. We’re living in the present, and that fills our days. Here, we are reminded of the excess of stimuli in our “normal” lives. We really don’t need so much to be happy.

Exploring these islands makes us happy indeed. And it’s more than happiness—it’s the deep satisfaction of feeling part of something bigger. We’re part of the marine ecosystem, too: We’re connected to marine species by links of predation (we eat fish), competition (we occupy ocean space, and catch species that are the prey of other species) and—unlike most other food webs on the planet—by links of observation and study.

Beyond even the tangible connections, we feel driven by the urgent need to protect these places and species that are not our own, and that makes us happy as well. Why is that? I think it’s because, deep inside, we know that their survival is the key to our survival.

The Most Intense Dive

Saturday, April 11, 2009 / 11:00pm, Posted by Enric Sala

How do we decide where to dive on an island we know next to nothing about? Our approach: Dive everywhere—or at least as much as possible—all around the island!

Fisheries ecologist Alan Friedlander consults a satellite map with geographic coordinates and plots points just over half a mile (one kilometer) apart. The larger the island, the more dive sites we will visit in order to obtain a representative picture of the ecosystem. For example, we plan to dive at 27 sites around Malden, while at the smaller Flint we only dived at 14 sites. Every team has a handheld geographic positioning device (GPS) with the coordinates of each selected research site. In the morning, we distribute the sites among the different teams, and off we go!

Our second dive of the day took Alan, Jen Caselle, and yours truly to the southeast corner of Malden. That point has a shallow coral terrace that extends for hundreds of meters offshore. This is a site where we would expect very strong currents, great productivity, and many fish, including grey reef sharks.

And so we found it. On our way, fifteen bottlenose dolphins greeted us and joined the ride. Before we jumped in the water, we already saw a couple grey reef sharks circling the Zodiac boat. As we jumped in, a few more came to check us out. Once we reached the bottom, there were a dozen. After five minutes, we were surrounded by 30.

Alan and Jen were counting fish while I took photographs. We could hear the underwater chirping of the dolphins, which seemed quite excited by our company. Probably none of these animals had seen humans before! Then the dolphins dived near us, swimming fast as torpedoes, and disappeared. And so did the sharks.

I have already experienced something similar on a couple of occasions. It seems that sharks are uncomfortable with the presence of the much more intelligent dolphins. But only a few minutes after the dolphins had left, the sharks returned.

One grey reef shark was especially conspicuous: It lacked a dorsal fin, possibly because the fin had been cut off. We saw this shark throughout our dive. Photographer and diver Mauricio Handler told us later that he saw the same shark shortly afterward at a site three nautical miles (five and a half kilometers) distant. This was an interesting observation, suggesting that grey reef sharks could travel extremely fast and be attracted to a human or ship presence from miles away.

Unfortunately, curiosity kills the shark: We humans have become far too efficient at removing these predators from the ocean. Do you know how many people sharks kill each year versus the number of sharks we kill? According to a University of Florida tally, shark attacks claimed four human lives worldwide in 2008. By credible scientific estimates, people kill close to 40 million sharks in a typical year, mostly for their fins and as bycatch caught in pursuit of other fish.

P.S.: It’s almost midnight, and I am on the upper deck of the Hanse Explorer sending this blog entry with our portable satellite antenna. A perfectly bright moon sheds a delicate reflection on the calm, dark sea. I feel fortunate to be here, but also to be your eyes in this remote and exquisite part of the world.

Above and Below: A Tale of Two Maldens

Saturday, April 11, 2009 / 10:35pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Malden is the largest of the islands we’ll visit, about 14 square miles (36 square kilometers). From a distance, a few coconut trees and the ruins of old guano-diggers’ buildings stand out against a flat, nondescript landscape.

We reached Malden shortly after sunrise, after a night of pleasant navigation. The first thing we did, as usual, was to send Mike ashore. This time it was easy. The landing channel is wide and sandy, and the waves were easy on our swimmers. Immediately after, we went diving. What would we find at Malden?

As we were approaching our first dive site, we saw a floating object with a few seabirds standing on it. We jumped in the water to check it out, and at once were reminded of the global impact of humans in the ocean. The floating object was a fish aggregation device (FAD), used to catch tuna offshore in the Pacific. The FAD is a raft made of wooden poles with a net hanging in the water below. A buoy with an antenna attached to the raft helps fishing boats to locate and retrieve it.

Fishing fleets around the Pacific have released thousands of FADs, which drift for weeks until they are relocated, and the fish they’ve caught harvested. Because this particular FAD had bamboo poles, it may have been deployed by an Asian fishing fleet.

(What does it mean for an island to be “remote,” when even Malden—about as far as you can get from any large harbor in the Pacific—receives these unlikely visitors?)

After examining the FAD, we started collecting data using our standard protocol: Two fish teams, one coral and algae team, and one microbe team; three dives a day per team; dives commencing at 8 a.m. and finishing at sunset. Exhausting … yet so exciting!

As soon as we jumped in the water, we recognized that Malden was different from Vostok or Starbuck. Apart from a pile of rubble beneath the tangled fishing net, the corals here are lush and healthy, and their colonies are larger than those we had found before. The reef structure here is spectacular.

And the fish! So many fish! From grey reef sharks and the ubiquitous red snappers to schools of hundreds of pale yellow convict tangs and black surgeonfish, which travel together over the reef and attack the algae with amazing intensity and persistence.

The presence of herbivores such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, which are voracious seaweed eaters, keeps the reef clean and enhances the dominance of the corals. Fishing removes the herbivores and reduces the resilience of an entire reef community. Here in these pristine islands, we have all the players, and they do their job brilliantly.

Ocean Now: The Video

Saturday, April 11, 2009 / 07:15am, Posted by Ocean Now Team

Before the expedition began, Dr. Enric Sala recorded this video as an introduction to Ocean Now. He talks about his childhood dream of becoming an ocean explorer, his goals for this expedition, and the importance of preserving the ocean for future generations.

As you know, the team has been posting fascinating expedition updates to the blog every day. At the end of last week, Enric and some of the crew were frustrated to miss out on valuable surveying time as they were stranded by high surf on Starbuck Island for more than 30 hours. Read the story and see video about the surprise ordeal here and here.

Watch Video

Video: What a Team!

Friday, April 10, 2009 / 09:32pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Photograph by Brian Skerry Friday, April 10, 2009 / 09:32pm Posted by Enric Sala

*This post was drafted on April 8th when Enric was stranded on Starbuck—but not posted until later when he returned to the ship and regained a data connection.

We’re back on the ship after treacherous swimming through crashing waves. We’ll send a video soon recounting the second part of our adventure at Starbuck. But for now, I just want to tell you about our A-team of swimmers and surfers who came to help us get off the island.

To get Mike and Lindsey on and off each island, we use a team of water fanatics who actually enjoy being tossed among big waves. They are Alan Friedlander, Stuart Sandin, Brian Zgliczynski, David Obura, and Manu San Félix. Each has a great personal story with the sea:

  • Alan is a Hawaiian who surfs and kayaks daily, and conducts up to ten (!) dives per day to count fish.

  • Stuart is one of the rare cases where a mathematical mind meets the field ecologist with an appreciation for natural history.

  • Brian is a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California who worked for the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) in Hawaii and has already dived in the most pristine places in the Pacific.

  • David is a Kenyan who has mastered the corals of the Indo-Pacific, is a world expert on coral reef resilience, and is crazy for extreme water sports.

  • Manu is a world-renowned underwater photographer and videographer who lives on the gorgeous little island of Formentera in the Mediterranean. He once had a tiger shark grab his camera in the Bahamas and take a reasonable photo of a seagrass bed!

Every one of these aquatic superstars is a strong swimmer and surfer, an excellent professional, and a pleasure to be with!

Living on a ship with other people is not easy. Ships are small places with nowhere to escape to. Tension and incompatibilities arise easily. But not with this team. They are wonderful, honest, hard-working, dedicated. They understand that we are a team, and they don’t seem to know what personal egos are. They are true gems.

Expeditions such as this are great bonding experiences. I’ve worked with most of these individuals for years, and I’m happy to be with them again, diving, collecting data, discussing, brainstorming, filming, and having a great deal of fun while we work. In a world of environmental degradation, that’s what we need: People who enjoy what they do, who keep a positive attitude, and who contribute with real effort to solve the problems. All of us can aspire to be such people, to do such things, to better our world.

Watch Video

Video: Stranded at Starbuck (Without the Latte)

Friday, April 10, 2009 / 08:39pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Photograph by Brian Skerry Friday, April 10, 2009 / 08:39pm Posted by Enric Sala

*This post was drafted on April 8th when Enric was stranded on Starbuck—but not posted until later when he returned to the ship and regained a data connection.

When we awoke this morning, we had no idea how things would turn out. There was no sixth sense, alerting us that things would go quite wrong today.

As much as we prepare, the unpredictable is, well… unpredictable. It’s only at the last minute, sometimes, that we recognize our plans are going awry. And then we have to make instantaneous decisions. All we can do is prepare well, reduce anticipated risks as much as possible, and try to make intelligent, fast choices.

I joined the film and photo crew on an excursion to Starbuck Island, to film shore-side duo Mike Fay and Lindsey Holm taking their inventories, and to visit the ruins of the huts of the long-gone guano diggers.

Starbuck was exploited for phosphate and nitrate during the middle years of the 19th century. In 1872, more than 100 laborers worked on the island. In 1874, it was abandoned.

The small buildings were made from dead coral slabs. Their remains—blackened by ages of scorching sunlight—are like ghosts from another time, witness to the dominance of nature over human. Around these small islands, the ocean is all too powerful.

There is no landing at Starbuck, and I still wonder how the guano folks did it more than a century ago. To get on land, we had to swim past the breaker zone, navigate through a 13-foot (four-meter) wide sandy channel on the reef, hop onto the reef, remove our fins, and walk to shore. On top of that, we were carrying large waterproof boxes with our cameras.

The journey in through this obstacle course was exciting, if uneventful. But when we were back on the beach after a few hours of filming, ready to swim out, we realized that it was not going to be possible. Waves were so large they would have made any surfing champion drool. And they were breaking on top of a coral reef covered by less than three feet (one meter) of water. Quite scary.

After a risky, failed attempt to leave the island right before sunset, we had no option but to stay ashore….Watch the video for the rest of the story…

Watch Video

Everyone Back On Board

Thursday, April 9, 2009 / 08:36pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

This just in from Ocean Now Team Member Rob McCallum aboard the Hanse Explorer:

“We are still at Starbuck Atoll, as we had seven people stuck ashore last night. We did send some food and shelter basics through the surf zone, but could not get them off the land with the deteriorating weather yesterday. We have just gotten everyone back on board at low tide this morning. Enric has a broken toe. (This happened 24 hours ago when he was arriving on the island, and then he had to put up with it there, as we could not get him back on the boat until the swell was calmer.)

“Also, there has been the usual: reef abrasions, one moray eel bite, and a swollen big toe on the chef—we hope he can still cook!”

BREAKING NEWS: Enric Stranded on Starbuck

Thursday, April 9, 2009 / 08:29am, Posted by Ocean Now Team

Enric Sala has been marooned on Starbuck Island with wildlife ecologist and conservationist Mike Fay since Wednesday morning, according to the latest email from the Hanse Explorer. Both are safe, well, and in regular communication with the vessel. A violent surf has prevented the team from retrieving Enric, who hadn't planned on spending more than a few hours on the island.

This news comes after more than 48 hours with no blog updates from Enric or his fellow team members, a surprising break in the steady flow of email, photographs, and video from the expedition.

More as we receive it...

Mystery Fish

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 / 04:04pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Question To kids who are following the Ocean Now Blog: What are these fish that we saw today at Starbuck?

How Much Wilderness Is Left in the Sea?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 / 03:55pm, Posted by Enric Sala

After another day of diving at Starbuck, I cannot help but wonder how many such wild places are left in the sea. How many paradise islands inhabited by sharks and other reef wildlife? Perhaps 30? 50? We simply don’t know.

What we do know is that pristine places occupy less than one percent of the shallow ocean. In the deep, it’s probably more than that, but our general lack of knowledge impedes us from guessing a number.

Why are so few wild ocean places left? The answer is simple: Because of humans. A human “footprint” that is truly global: Nobody really “owns” the ocean, though countries claim portions of it as territorial waters. So nobody really takes responsibility for the entire ocean’s health. A recent study showed that about 95 percent of the shallow ocean has been damaged by human activities such as fishing and pollution, and by environmental changes due to humans such as global warming.

Are there good stories in this sea of degradation? Yes, but only when we reduce our pressure on marine ecosystems. For example, the goliath grouper, which can reach nearly seven feet (more than two meters) in length, became so rare in Florida that the authorities decided to protect it. Several years after the beginning of the moratorium, goliath groupers started to be seen again, and a decade later they aggregate around shipwrecks and have become a tourist attraction.

A live fish is worth more than a dead fish—at least, you can sell the same fish over and over to people who just want to see them.

Back to Starbuck: Today we saw more sharks and red snappers, four sea turtles who came really close to check us out, a school of 200 jacks, and many other species. Underwater videographer and photographer Manu San Félix was bitten by a moray eel, and scientist Stuart Sandin, marine ecologist Jen Caselle, and I were all bitten by red snappers. Nothing serious, but it’s no fun to feel those sharp teeth on one’s flesh!

Every new dive site is a surprise. No time for boredom. And guess what we do in our free time? Well, as a matter of fact, we have no free time! After we come back from the last dive at sunset, we rinse our gear, have dinner, discuss the findings of the day while entering data in the computers, and then it’s about 11 p.m. and everybody crawls to their beds to fall asleep like a rock until morning. Now, everybody sleeps with a big smile.

Week 2: Why We Need Wild And Pristine Seas

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 / 01:47pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

it’s no secret: Our oceans are in danger. For years, overfishing and pollution have eliminated marine life and degraded ocean ecosystems. We are on the verge of losing the last of the pristine seas that we inherited from our ancestors.

But the story of our ocean isn’t all doom and gloom. Ocean Now is an expedition of hope, that aims to find, survey, and protect some of the last healthy, undisturbed places in the ocean.

What's the Problem?

Humanity’s impact on ocean life is global.

Scientists estimate that 90 percent of the ocean's large predatory fish have been removed by fishing, near-shore waters suffer harmful algal and jellyfish blooms, industrial fleets are harming deep seamounts that harbor unique and irreplaceable biodiversity, and a fifth of Earth's coral reefs are dead due to human-induced changes in the seas.

In particular, coral reefs have been hit hard by a combination of human activities, including overfishing, coastal development, pollution, and global warming.

A healthy coral reef is like a colorful tropical forest with rich diversity in crystal-clear waters, populated by large animals such as sharks, groupers, and sea turtles. A degraded reef is brown and ugly, most of its corals are dead and covered by seaweed, sharks and other large predators are gone, and the water is clouded with sediment and algae. In such places, the richness that Jacques Cousteau and Sylvia Earle first showed us decades ago is all but gone.

Why We Need Wild Places

The decline of ocean life is accelerating; residual healthy marine ecosystems are dwindling. Modern science began long after humans started exploiting and degrading the seas; hence, we do not have rigorous baselines for understanding what the ocean was like before, what we have lost, and what options exist for the future. These rich submarine pockets of healthy marine life preserve unique species, many of them likely never yet seen and described.

The ocean’s few remaining wild places are needed, not just to instruct us and to preserve scarce species, but also to inspire people to care about marine life, and to create public demand for conservation. Pristine places are time machines, a window to the past and a blueprint for a better future.

Healthy oceans are the main engine—storing and cycling heat, stabilizing and renewing our atmosphere, engendering life—that makes our planet a wonderful place to live. And pristine places are rare gems that need to be protected from human disturbance as soon as possible.

Why This Expedition?

This project reflects the spirit of scientific exploration that has characterized National Geographic for more than a century.

In this expedition to the southern Line Islands, the Ocean Now team will identify and survey five of the last undisturbed coral reef ecosystems on the planet. By studying the pristine coral reef communities surrounding islands of different size, we will determine the minimum critical area that a marine reserve must encompass in order to protect an entire, viable ecosystem and ensure its resilience. Scientific data, photographs, and video gathered during the expedition will be shared with Kiribati policy makers, to inform them about their natural heritage, and to document the need to preserve this unique archipelago for future generations.

Beyond the islands, we hope the project will also encourage people everywhere to regard the ocean—despite its awesome immensity—as a finite and a threatened resource, something we all affect, for better or worse, by the choices we make about what we eat and how we live.

More Ocean Facts From NG.com:

  • The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface and contains 97 percent of its water. That is why the Earth is often referred to as the “blue planet.”
  • An estimated 80 percent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean’s surface, and our ocean contains 99 percent of the living space on the planet. Less than ten percent of the ocean’s volume has been explored by humans.

Ocean Destruction:

  • Ten percent of the world's reefs have been completely destroyed. In the Philippines, where coral reef damage is extensive, more than 70 percent of native reef ecosystems have been destroyed and only 5 percent can be said to be in good condition.
  • Already, the populations of nearly 30 percent of edible fish and seafood species have declined by 90 percent—the threshold at which fisheries are termed “collapsed” and potentially beyond recovery.
  • In a study published in the journal Science, an international team of ecologists and economists predicted that by 2048, “the world's oceans will be empty of fish.... The cause: the disappearance of species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.”

A Look at Starbuck Island

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 / 03:33pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

After the Hanse Explorer left Vostok Island, it cruised 345 nautical miles (639 kilometers) northwest to Starbuck Island. While not as untouched by humans as Vostok, Starbuck still sits alone and uninhabited in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The island is named for Valentine Starbuck, who supposedly first sighted it in 1823 from the British whaling ship L’Aigle. Starbuck Island was claimed by the United States in 1856 under the Guano Act, which enabled U.S. citizens to take possession of uninhabited islands with valuable deposits of seabird guano (excrement)—an important source at the time of potassium nitrate for the production of gunpowder and fertilizer. Starbuck was later part of the British colonial Gilbert and Ellice Islands before becoming part of the Republic of Kiribati in 1979.

As with many other islands in this remote corner of the South Pacific, guano was gathered on Starbuck during the 19th century. Remnants of the era include a beacon light and several houses, long since abandoned.

More than five miles (eight kilometers) long and six square mile (16 square kilometers) in area, Starbuck is large compared with some of its diminutive neighbors in the southern Line Islands.

The island is low and flat. There are several salt lagoons, but most of the island’s interior is dry and sparsely vegetated with scrub brush and grass.

Starbuck is home to sooty terns and other seabirds, turtles, and invasive species, including feral cats.

With its broad hidden reefs, Starbuck has caused many shipwrecks. The New York Times reported on June 15, 1870, that the captain and crew of the French ship Euryale, bound for San Francisco from Tahiti, were stranded 35 days on the island before being rescued.

Wild Starbuck

Monday, April 6, 2009 / 09:52pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Starbuck is a wild place. We did three more dives today off the northern shore of the island. The surge was smaller than yesterday, the water clearer and the marine life spectacular.

There was such intense activity, a wealth of fish swimming giddily in all directions—from the small damselfish to the grey reef sharks—that we entered a vertigo of sorts. Counting fish was a seemingly impossible task, with more than a hundred species swarming over the bottom like loose electrons searching for a nucleus. A scientific treat!

We saw dozens of baby grey reef sharks, adult sharks, thousands of pale yellow convict tangs grazing the bottom while moving like a wave, three hundred parrotfish spawning at dusk, 50 small groupers and snappers on a feeding frenzy around a coral outcrop, and two seven-foot (2-meter) tuna swimming beyond the reef edge like torpedoes.

There’s nothing like diving in a pristine ecosystem like Starbuck’s to get a full battery recharge. In the presence of such beauty, diversity, and complexity, one can only feel happy and connected. It’s not email and computers that connect us to our planet, but having an awareness to live the present intensely.

On days such as this, I remember why we are here, why we go to such lengths to explore these remote places. There are very few wild places left in the ocean and they are important to us for several reasons. They are the best baseline we have, the instruction manual for our relationship with the ocean. They are also jewels that need to be preserved for their intrinsic, physical value from generation to generation.  And finally, places such as this must exist to nourish the human spirit.

In my opinion, enjoying raw nature, the extraordinary diversity of life, is the closest thing to being in love. Nobody who dives at Starbuck and calls himself human—nobody—could think of anything besides preserving this place. It’s the first thought we all had when we climbed out of the water: “This place is amazing, and we need to make sure that it continues this way.”

I feel fortunate to be a part of this outstanding team. The scientists are all world-class, they are great naturalists with an innate feel for the coral reef ecosystem, and they act as a team. Here, there are no boundaries between disciplines. The discussions in the evening, after dinner, are fascinating and fun. This is another great asset of this team: They are fun, and they have fun while conducting scientific research.

The videographers and photographers are also world-class, and are in a continuous arms race over who tells the funniest joke. Adam Geiger said wryly today that they are trying to make us look good. Hmm, I don’t envy his job!

Mike Fay just radioed from the land. He found old bottles of perfume on one of the ruins on the island. Starbuck was mined for guano briefly about 100 years ago. One of the guano folks brought his wife to this flat, dry, inhospitable landscape. I wonder what the couple thought while they were here? Probably they dreamed of leaving at the first opportunity.

A century later, we dream of staying to marvel at this natural treasure trove.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Sunday, April 5, 2009 / 10:47pm, Posted by Enric Sala

We woke up excited about exploring the unknown, underwater world of Starbuck Island. We were probably the first people to dive here. And we were not disappointed.

The diving was intense, and I am exhausted—there was a six and a half-foot (two-meter) swell, and being underwater was like being in a washing machine once again.

I have seldom seen so many fish underwater. Starbuck has more grey reef sharks than Flint or Vostok, and more fish species, forming schools everywhere. But the corals are not so spectacular, and green algae that look like little cactus cover more than half of the bottom.

Starbuck is located in a zone of colder water than Vostok and Flint: Deep water rich in nutrients ascends from the bottom of the ocean and makes these waters more productive. The visibility, unfortunately, is not great, and the water is loaded with particles that scientists call marine snow.

The waves are so impressive that they compare to Hawaii’s legendary surf breaks. A few of our team members, avid surfers, looked on with dreamy eyes. But Mike Fay regarded them with sorrow, because they meant he would not be able to get on land.

Eighteen hours and three dives after awaking this morning, my legs ache from so much kicking underwater, and my body is asking me insistently to go to bed. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about how hard it is to survey Starbuck, and why it’s so worth doing.

Diving Without Getting Wet

Saturday, April 4, 2009 / 08:19pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Last night we left Vostok, to our sadness. We fell in love with that last intact piece of the Pacific. It would have been difficult not to. We are on our way to Starbuck now, which is about 390 nautical miles (722 km) north of Vostok. We will arrive on the morning of Sunday, April 5th.

Today, the mood is completely different from yesterday. Yesterday, our small boats loaded with divers went back and forth between the ship and our dive sites, everyone was excited, and people could not stop chatting about what we saw underwater and on the island. Today, the team is entering data on computers, cleaning the photo and video gear, and planning for the survey at Starbuck. We are tired after six days of diving galore, and the atmosphere on board is quiet and relaxed.

Dave McAloney, our phenomenal medical diving expert and recompression chamber operator, locked marine ecologist Jen Caselle and underwater videographer and photographer Manu San Félix in the chamber this morning and performed a test dive. He took them down on a “dry” dive to 46 feet (14 m), simulating the pressure divers experience at that depth for 11 minutes. They were so excited and talked so much that the carbon dioxide level inside the chamber went up 600 parts per million within a minute! (By comparison, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere now is about 387 parts per million. People exhale CO2 when they breathe.)

For the same reason that bubbles appear when you open a soft drink or a bottle of champagne, if divers surface too quickly after spending time at significant depth underwater, dissolved gases can form bubbles in their blood and body tissues. Such sudden decompression can kill an otherwise healthy diver in minutes.

The chamber is therefore a vital piece of equipment in case of a decompression accident, a place where we can treat a patient and save a life. We hope never to use it for more than these tests, and we are doing everything we can to reduce the risk of an accident anyway. We’re filling our diving tanks with “nitrox,” a mixed gas enriched with more oxygen than in the atmosphere, to reduce the risk of decompression illness. Nitrox makes us feel a bit less tired after all the repetitive dives.

We are doing most of our diving in the first 66 feet (20 m) of water. We also stop ten feet (three m) below the surface for three minutes at the end of each dive as a safety measure, to let our bodies eliminate some of the nitrogen we have breathed under pressure.

Finally, every member of our team is an expert diver. Between us, we have logged tens of thousands of dives all over the ocean, from the poles to the tropics. We need to stay focused and cautious regardless. Probably the most dangerous thing is the ubiquitous swell, which plays with us as though we were in a washing machine when we are near the shallow reefs. Marine life is not so dangerous. Sharks are not very interested in us, although red snappers are too interested—and have already bitten several of our fingers. We are all diving with gloves now.

Crew Spotlight: A Q & A With Mike Fay

Saturday, April 4, 2009 / 04:29pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

Mike Fay is truly one of a kind. One of the world’s most prominent and well-known explorers, Mike Fay’s mind-boggling expeditions have resulted in the protection of thousands of square miles of wilderness.

Fay has spent his life as an explorer and naturalist—from the Sierra Nevada range and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, and on to North Africa and the depths of central Africa’s forests and savannas over the last 25 years.

Fay has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society since 1991. Now a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, he received international acclaim in 1997 when he trekked across central Africa to bring attention to its last pristine forests.

We asked him a few questions, which he answered from the ship:

You spent 455 days walking 2,000 miles (about 3,200 km) through Africa to document its environment and wildlife. Wow! What did you learn on that trip? Are there any takeaways that you’ll apply to your upcoming journey?

The takeaway message for me when you take a long walk where you are carrying a notebook, camera, and GPS is that when you are deep in a pristine ecosystem, far from humanity, you understand not only the incredible capacity of Earth to produce abundance in nature, but you see the interconnections that escape most people.

It is like figuring out an incredible complex mathematical equation that only draws blank stares from those who do not get deep.  The other thing that a walk reveals is that the hand of man, even at a very low level of influence, changes everything.

So on the Line Islands, I will be applying my standard method: Record along transects data on the living ecosystem and the human influences that have changed or are changing it.  I will pay particular attention to global change, beach erosion, and the state of the islands given their long history of seafarer visits (with the invasive species they have introduced), guano extraction, and coconut plantations.

What do you hope to learn on this trip to the southern Line Islands?

On each island we will run a series of transects, as many as we can, from the Pacific to the Pacific in various directions.  We will document the interface between the ocean and the land base, the birds, insects, and invasive species including perhaps cats and rats.  We hope to learn how the hand of man has changed the terrestrial side of these atolls, and to see the warning signs of erosion from climate change.  Also, Malden Island had three nuclear explosions detonated over it in the 1950s by the British. We will be looking for the impacts of these blasts.

In past adventures, you’ve survived plane crashes, elephant attacks, armed poachers, and malaria. Are you expecting any surprises or challenges on this trip or do you think this will be a more peaceful expedition?

Perhaps, but I have heard the landings on these atolls can be pretty bad, with shallow coral reefs and heavy swells.  There is also no cover on much of these islands and no water. That means hot and thirsty.  I just spent a week walking the coast of Mozambique. It sounds romantic but it is actually a tough environment to walk in.  We will only be able to land with the minimum because we have to take so much care getting to them safely, for us and for the habitat itself, so hopefully the logistics work out for us.

We did bring a machete so at least we can eat coconuts if we get stuck….

Your trip through Gabon resulted in the government protection of 10,000 square miles (about 26,000 square kilometers) of national parkland. That's pretty amazing! What conservation goals do you hope to accomplish on this trip?

I echo Enric on this—there’s no doubt that we humans need to span the gap between the need for marine protected areas on this planet and the paltry few that exist.  The oceans provide humanity with some of its most valuable resources and global stability.  Marine protected areas have been demonstrated to provide refuges for the biodiversity in our oceans, nurseries for the abundance that we use.

At the same time, the world’s low islands are already feeling the consequences of sea level rise due to global warming.  We as conservationists are challenged not only to do what we always did—which was to combat local extinction and ecosystem collapse because of local human actions—but also to see global impact as the new “600-pound gorilla” that has to be dealt with immediately.

We are hopeful that we can help seed a worldwide movement to bring the fraction of the seas dedicated as marine protected areas up to par with the percentage of the land that’s been set aside.  There is no reason why the oceans should be so neglected, quite the contrary.

Do you have any thoughts on how can we convince other nations to follow the model of the Republic of Kiribati and preserve vast amounts of ocean? What would you say to the leaders and peoples of these countries?

People sometimes construe conservation of a nation’s natural resource base as a luxury.  That is like a farmer saying that conserving his topsoil is a luxury.  All nations on this early trajectory in the ascendance of humanity need to make the conservation of their natural resource base their highest priority.  When we witness the collapse of global fisheries, fresh water systems, and forests worldwide, and remember that we have the rest of time to depend on this fragile base, it bodes an ominous future.

Leaders who recognize the value of their natural resource base and put in place systems to protect those resources as their most precious asset are not depriving their people of development, but rather saving them from poverty and massive hardship on a scale heretofore not experienced by mankind.

What's one way that readers at home can help protect our wilderness?

Humanity’s voyage into the 21st century must be marked by our recognition that our natural resources are our most precious asset.  Wilderness is not a romantic notion of wildness, but rather areas of the planet where human influence has not caused ecosystem collapse.  These are the Noah’s Arcs for our future.

Since we are still using a monetary system of planetary resource management, all humans must contribute monetarily to protecting wilderness.  This tithing should be regarded by all of humanity as a priority more important than their contribution to faith or charity.  This amounts to investing in our very survival.  I do not think that 10 percent of the world’s economy is too much to invest in saving the planet.

We must all contribute.  Just as religions have converted the majority of humankind to faith, our task is to make everyone a conservationist.  Let’s all give 10 percent.

Video: "The Most Amazing Place I've Ever Seen"

Saturday, April 4, 2009 / 05:10pm, Posted by Enric Sala

A few days ago, I went on the best dive of my life. My team and I spent hours underwater studying the reefs surrounding Vostok Island. It was incredible—massive schools of fish, sharks, beautiful corals. This is as pristine as the ocean gets, more pristine than Flint Island, and even more than Kingman Reef. Vostok Island and the waters surrounding it rank among our planet’s natural wonders, a priceless natural treasure that should be protected for the ages.

The reefs off of Vostok Island aren't just beautiful to look at: They're vital to our understanding of the impact humans have had on our ocean. Vostok is one of the only places left virtually untouched by humanity. It shows us how the ocean is meant to work.

Vostok is the most amazing place I've ever seen. What about you? Tell me and everyone following the expedition about your best ocean experience in the blog comments below.

Watch Video

Vostok Is Paradise

Friday, April 3, 2009 / 11:59pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Wow! What a day! We woke up at 6:30 a.m. and started preparing for diving. It is now 11:40 p.m., everybody is asleep, and I am on the upper deck of the Hanse Explorer (as I am every night) sending this blog entry using a portable satellite antenna.

Vostok is so small, and the reef so steep, that there is no anchorage. Thus, in the evenings, instead of staying near the island, we shut down the engine of the ship and drift away. The weather is so nice that the boat barely rocks, moving smoothly over a velvety black sea. It’s quite an invitation to sleep, especially after our long days—including four hours underwater.

We started sailing back to Vostok this morning before sunrise. The wind picked up en route, and dark clouds delivered sharp rain for 30 minutes. After the rain, the wind dropped and the sea became calm once more. The abrupt weather reminded me of the brilliance of the ocean’s power—we never lower our guard: The ocean is mighty, it’s unpredictable, and we should always be aware of that. We love it and respect it at the same time.

Once the ship got close enough, we swam ashore to meet Mike Fay, who had been on the island for two full days. He had surveyed the place thoroughly, and showed us around.

Vostok is probably the last island in the central Pacific that has its original vegetation: a forest of pisonia trees. The pisonia has large, soft leaves that are eaten by Vostok’s coconut crabs, which can reach the size of basketballs. I’ll let Mike report why Vostok is so unique, and why it needs to be preserved, in another dispatch.

After visiting the island we came back to the ship, drank almost a gallon of cold water, ate some of the delicious food that ship’s cook Vladimir and his galley team prepared for us, and went back diving. Our last dive at Vostok was, once again, unforgettable. We saw several blacktip sharks, schools of hundreds of fish, and two tuna swimming as fast as torpedoes. Everybody emerged from the water with happy faces and warm hearts.

Vladimir’s first and only dive at Vostok was, he told us, one of the happiest moments of his life—and now he understands why we are here, why we’ve come so far to document what’s here. Nature at its best inspires people. This is one of the many reasons we need to protect places such as Vostok, to act as beacons of inspiration so people respond, become active, make the seas a priority. We have one big ocean, and it needs all the help we can give it. That’s where you come in….

A Look at Vostok Island

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 / 02:26pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

The crew has traveled 86 nautical miles (158 km) northwest of Flint Island to its latest destination: Vostok Island.

Vostok is probably the most remote and littlest known island that the crew will visit on this trip. Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen is thought to have been the first European to see the island, during the early 19th century. He named it for his ship, Vostok—which means “East” in Russian.

Once part of the British Empire, Vostok is now a protected province of the Republic of Kiribati.

In contrast to several of the southern Line Islands, Vostok was neither mined for guano nor planted with coconuts, and thus displays few changes due to humans. But the island’s rats bear witness to human vessels, or debris from vessels, which floated ashore.


The tiny island is much less than a mile (1.6 km) across in any direction, and is no more than 15 feet (4.6 meters) above sea level at any point. The interior of the island is entirely covered in Pisonia trees, which can stand more than 80 feet (24 m) tall.

Castaways

Monday, March 30, 2009 / 10:52pm, Posted by Enric Sala

This morning, we dropped Mike Fay and Lindsey Holm on Flint Island. The only way to get on land is via a narrow channel cut through the coral reef more than a century ago by a company that planted thousands of coconut trees for copra (the dried coconut meat that yields coconut oil). Unless the swell is low, it is a dangerous business. Our inflatable boats cannot go in for risk of being punctured by the sharp corals, so the only solution is to swim in. Stuart Sandin and Brian Zgliczynski, strong surfers, joined Mike and Lindsey for the channel swim, then swam back to the boat to resume their diving.

Our volunteer castaways will spend two days walking around and across the island, inventorying every animal and plant they see. As they landed, they radioed to let us know they saw giant coconut crabs and rats. These are Polynesian rats, introduced accidentally by ancient seafarers from their ships. Unlike many of the surrounding reefs, the emergent portion of the island—the dry land—is not pristine. Nevertheless, I cannot wait to hear about what they find.

We did see more sharks today, and several large green turtles. We mistook two of them for a lost diver, and rushed with one of our Zodiacs to rescue him. To our surprise, when we got there, we saw two green turtles mating, as well as several octopuses—the male octopus placing the sperm into the female using a thin tentacle. And the ubiquitous red snappers followed us and bit our gear at every opportunity. Lots of busy animals in the water...

Where Are the Sharks?

Sunday, March 29, 2009 / 11:01pm, Posted by Enric Sala

I woke up at six in the morning, and there was Flint, a tiny island with the shape of an elongated diamond in the middle of the Pacific. The sun rose from behind the island, and sliced through the silhouettes of thousands of coconut trees on the light blue sky. We had a quick breakfast and put our Zodiacs in the water—we couldn’t wait to jump in. And so we did, despite the large swell that made getting too close to the reef dangerous.

“Wow, this is a gorgeous coral reef!” I thought to myself as soon as I jumped in. The bottom was covered by living, healthy corals, which grew on a steep slope that disappeared onto the deep blue. Many small reef fishes swam nervously above the corals—but something was missing.

Where were the sharks? We expected to find many, as Flint is an uninhabited remote island. But we saw only a handful of reef sharks per dive. A few sharks per dive is still healthier than most diving locations worldwide, but accustomed to being surrounded by sharks in pristine places such as Kingman Reef, we were puzzled. There should be many more sharks here. Has Flint been fished recently? We did see some fishing lines tangled on the corals. We’ll try to learn more in the next few days.

But nature also surprises us: Shipmates Alan Friedlander and Stuart Sandin were counting reef fishes when they turned around and found a whale shark 13 feet (four meters) long following them.

Why Do We Explore?

Friday, March 27, 2009 / 04:53pm, Posted by Enric Sala

Why do we explore? Why do we go to such lengths to survey remote islands? No person in her right mind would crave a year of preparation, hundreds of emails and phone calls, and a logistical nightmare, to spend only a few days on each island. But space exploration is still more complicated—and far more expensive—yet we seldom question it. We don’t go to these islands simply “because they are there,” but because they are among the last places left untouched by human activity. We want to show the world how wonderful and essential they are, and to demonstrate the need to protect them. In the midst of our global environmental crisis, the modern explorer should not be searching for glory and being first, but inspiring people to care about the planet and to take action.

Our goal is to embark on a mission that is like a time machine, to travel back to Earth’s ocean as it likely was thousands of years ago. We don’t know what we are going to find, but we expect it to be extraordinary. We hope to find many sharks and large reef fish that have never seen humans before, to be approached curiously as though we were visitors from outer space. We will be allowed to catch a glimpse of a forgotten world, which has disappeared from humanity’s collective memory. And we will share it with you. I cannot wait.

About the Ship: Hanse Explorer

Friday, March 27, 2009 / 02:59pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

Enric Sala and the initial expedition team are sailing aboard the Hanse Explorer.

Built in 2006, the 157-foot (48-meter) German-built Explorer is tough and versatile. It can be used as a charter vessel or a training ship for sailors, or for research expeditions such as this one.

The Explorer is powered by a 900 rpm engine and two auxiliary Caterpillar C9 DITA engines, which give it a top speed of 13.2 knots (15.2 miles an hour). Ice-fitted to Worldwide Trading Ice Class E3 standards, the ship was dispatched on a recent expedition to Antarctica, where it cut through packed ice. The ship also meets high international safety design standards for professional navigation.

To protect marine life, the Explorer has a highly efficient water conditioning system designed to minimize pollution.

The ship comfortably sleeps 12 guests plus its crew, or 32 passengers in all.

An Uncharted Sea

Thursday, March 26, 2009 / 03:47pm, Posted by Enric Sala

We are about to achieve a dream: to explore and survey one of the last unknown places on the planet—a mare incognitum, an uncharted sea—after a year of preparation, many hurdles, and a great team effort.

The southern Line Islands are a blank spot on the ocean map. We believe it is one of the last pristine archipelagos left on the planet. At a time when satellites can photograph every square meter of the globe and make it available to anyone on Google Earth, it is unbelievable that there are still spots for which we have virtually no information. Our goal is to fill this gap.

We are at the port of Papeete, in Tahiti, about to depart. We are almost, almost ready to sail off, but we cannot yet! Organizing an expedition is a complex business, and our to-do list is composed of several hundred items that seem to multiply over time: The more we do, the more is left to do. I feel like a space explorer entering a new dimension where the laws of physics we are comfortable with do not apply anymore.

Preparing our ship, the Hanse Explorer, for the expedition has been one of the most fun challenges. We have received extraordinary support from the ship’s owner, Peter Harren, captain Martin Graser, and his terrific Ukrainian crew. “Nitrox” Bob Olson is finishing the last touches on the diving compressor as I write, and Dave McAloney is preparing the recompression chamber that we have on board in case of a diving accident. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay arrived this morning from Mozambique, and the rest of our team is also here, unpacking the hundred cases of equipment and gear we shipped. We cannot contain our excitement, and our words are blurred by it.

We hope to depart tomorrow morning, March 27, 2009.

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    Expedition Leader, Enric Sala

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  • The Importance of Pristine Coral Reefs

    Join Dr. Enric Sala and a team of scientists as they spend six weeks exploring the pristine waters of the southern Line Islands in the South Pacific.

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    Meet Conservationist Mike Fay

    National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay, joined Sala's team to conduct a series of transects across the southern Line Islands.

  • A Survey of Flint Island's Coral Reefs

    Enric Sala and his team of scientists survey and document Flint Island's coral reefs, diving up to 50 times a day to get a complete picture of this marine ecosystem.

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Video: NG Live! Pitcairn Islands



National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala dives deep into the waters of one of the most pristine places on Earth—the Pitcairn Islands—only to discover its delicate ecosystem is not as unspoiled as it may seem.

Ocean Topics

Your Ocean

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    For Kids

    Learn about the ocean with activities, photos, and games.

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    Ocean Education

    Bring engaging and important ocean learning to your classroom.

Explore the Ocean

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    Ocean Life

    Order ocean books, DVDs, maps, and more from the National Geographic online store.

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    Ocean Special Issue

    Explore the world's oceans, from their prehistoric beginnings to modern-day efforts to preserve their natural wonder.

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    Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas

    Immerse yourself in the wonders of the deep through colorful maps, photos, and satellite images.

Engage, Conserve, Restore

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    Freshwater Initiative

    The National Geographic Society’s freshwater initiative is a multi-year global effort to inspire and empower individuals and communities to conserve freshwater and preserve the extraordinary diversity of life that rivers, lakes, and wetlands sustain.