Wildlife & Wild Places

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.

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.

  • Joanna

    Hi Andrew,
    what type of shark is on this picture?

    • Andrew Howley

      Hi Joanna, I believe it’s a grey reef shark.

  • miguel hilario

    It is a white tip reef shark. Juvenile grey reef sharks can be seen in the fore and background.

  • pierre p mbedi

    Interresting, to see how the deepest of the see is look like!!!

  • Joanna

    Thank you for the explanation. Andrew, I really envy you that you can dive there!

  • […] Read more… […]

  • Giorgio Franco

    very, very interessant.

  • Tulu

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  • Joanna

    Hi Andrew,
    can you tell us when we gona be able to see the documentary from your expedition? I just watch the preview on the Pitcairn Island tourism website and can’t wait to see the whole thing.

  • Joanna

    Hi Andrew,
    can you tell us when we gona be able to see the documentary from your expedition? I just watch the preview on the Pitcairn Island tourism website and can’t wait to see the whole thing.

  • Sam

    I am researching a visit to Oeno Atoll. Did you visit? Is the interior lagoon accessible by boat? How deep do you reckon the channel is from the lagoon to the pacific?
    Thank you for time.

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