Why Clipperton Island Is a ‘Beautiful, Powerful Surprise!’

One of the most significant discoveries made by the Pristine Seas researchers has been that a healthy reef can support far more apex predators than people suspected. Even the number of sharks seen here at Clipperton is low relative to what we now know is possible. Photo by Manu San Felix

We arrived here at Clipperton Island in the eastern Pacific excited, full of anticipation, and yet slightly concerned about what we might find, because although this is one of the most remote tropical islands on Earth, there has been significant human impact here.

Traces of the Past

On the narrow band of land encircling the lagoon are the remains of the guano (bird poop) industry with rusting engines and generators, small railroad tracks, and carts.

The military footprint can be seen in the concrete bases for buildings, the remains of heavy equipment, and even some ammunition. With the passage of time, a precarious treetop lookout post now looks fun and the crushed coral runway is home to thousands of birds.

Photo by Kike Ballesteros Sagarra
At eye level, Clipperton might not look like much, but its land holds traces of earlier human use, and its waters contain a treasure of endemic species. Photo by Kike Ballesteros Sagarra

Early expeditions to Clipperton reported these waters to be incredibly rich: There were huge numbers of hammerhead, galapagos, silky, white-tip, and black-tip sharks along with massive schools of manta rays and some of the finest tuna fishing grounds in the world. The beautiful nearshore reefs—measured in species per area—held the highest number of endemic species anywhere in the world.

What would we find?

Clipperton Today

After 140 scuba dives, 14 submarine dives, 16 drop camera drops, 32 pelagic camera deployments, 10 remote stereo camera drops, 8 diver-operated stereo camera surveys, a 5-day land survey, a 2-day snorkeling study of the lagoon algae, many evenings tagging sharks, and hundreds of hours of underwater and topside filming, I can happily report that Clipperton is alive and well!

The reefs are bursting with life. Endemic fishes are seen in abundance on every dive, the corals are healthy and fabulous, the moray eels appear to be the world’s bravest and most successful, sharks accompany us on every single dive, and there is a tremendous sense of wildness, beauty, power, and vitality here.

Photo by Kike Ballesteros Sagarra
Coral hawkfish were among the many colorful and unique species observed. Photo by Kike Ballesteros Sagarra

There is still clear evidence of the fishing pressure felt here: On most dives we see lines amongst the coral from commercial long-line fishing, we are not seeing the numbers of sharks that we should be, we have found no mantas, and illegal fishing fleets are regularly seen here.

Clipperton is clearly at a turning point: Protect these waters from overfishing now and they will bounce back to full pristineness in only a few years.

Now we have to lift our anchor and depart, but it’s made difficult by the love we feel for this wild, powerful, stunningly beautiful, and surprising island.

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Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Paul Rose is an ardent explorer, television presenter, journalist, author, and Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, and an Expedition Leader on the Pristine Seas team.