Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Revealing an Underwater Paradise

Last night we stayed on deck late, watching with awe the Milky Way cross the dark sky. A thin slice of the crescent moon set over the horizon with a pale red glow, as though she did not want to disturb the starry show. Watching the night sky always humbles me, and reminds me of the fragility of life. Four days of diving at Ducie Atoll reminded me of the fragility of coral reefs.

Ducie is, by any standard, a pristine coral atoll. It has all the necessary ingredients: up to 90 percent of the bottom is covered by live coral, fish biomass is very large, and top predators such as sharks, jacks and groupers are abundant.

There are very few truly pristine reefs left in the ocean – the Southern Line Islands, the US Pacific Remote Islands, and a handful more. They are the last tropical marine paradises, memories of what the ocean used to be like before extensive human impacts. Yet all together these pristine coral reefs would occupy an area smaller than Mexico City. Adding the larger ecosystem around them, they would still account for far less than two or three percent of the global ocean. However, many of these pristine reefs are unprotected.

That thought kept me awake in my cabin. If the most intact coral reefs represent such a small fraction of the ocean, and they are so precious, why isn’t there a rush to preserve them? Ducie is one of these places of universal value, without which our planet would be much poorer. Thinking of the night sky, who would want one without the brightest stars in the Milky Way?

As we sail away from Ducie, I cannot wait to see what Henderson Island and Oeno Atoll, our next destinations, will show us.

Wildlife

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Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.