Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Sharks and Coral at Ducie Atoll

After five days at Pitcairn Island we sailed to Ducie Atoll, the most remote of the islands of the Pitcairn archipelago. It is one of the least visited places in the ocean, uninhabited, and as far as we know, unfished—because it is so difficult to get here, even when you are determined as we are. We hoped that Ducie was going to be a healthy coral reef, near pristine. But we did not know; that’s why we came here to explore.

Coral Paradise

Ducie fulfilled our expectations. It has a healthy and gorgeous coral reef, where thriving corals cover up to ninety percent of the bottom. Compared to the Caribbean, where corals cover a minuscule five percent of the seafloor, Ducie is paradise. As soon as we put our heads underwater from the side of our small boat, our hearts went crazy. This is what we were looking for.

The most extraordinary feature of Ducie’s reefs is an extensive reef formed chiefly by a single species of coral of the most delicate pale blue, which grows like giant roses, as far as the eye can see. The visibility is the most extraordinary any of us has ever experienced—more than 60 meters. At the edge of the shallow reef, the blue corals form terraces that drop off into the deep blue. It seems there is no limit for coral growth here.

Up Close With the Sharks

A few minutes after we reached the bottom the sharks showed up. They were whitetip reef sharks and grey reef sharks. There were ten of them, ranging from one meter to almost two meters. The little grey reef sharks swam like lightning, switching directions within microseconds. If they had wanted to bite us, we would not even notice until it was too late. Fortunately for us, these reef sharks are typically not aggressive—just very curious. When they show signs of unease, like when a couple of grey reef sharks arched their pectoral fins and started swimming with exaggerated movements near our fish expert Jen Caselle, we just swim away, very slowly.

In addition to the sharks, the ubiquitous “nanue” (rudderfish) once again followed us during entire dives. Red groupers with bright yellow spots checked us out shyly, always staying close to the corals in case a quick retreat would be in order. Myriad little hawkfishes and damselfish swam above the corals.

One for the Record Books

After our dives we all agreed that Ducie is one of the best coral reefs we know. The health of the coral reef and its fish assemblages is unparalleled. Ducie’s coral reefs are only 320 hectares in surface area—a mere speck in the Pacific Ocean, and only 0.0004 percent of the exclusive economic zone of the Pitcairn Islands—yet it is one of a handful of pristine marine ecosystems left. This place is part of the heritage of all humanity.

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Meet the Author
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.