National Geographic Society Newsroom Press Releases

Pristine Seas to Document the Coral Reefs of Niue—the “Rock of Polynesia,” an Ocean Protection Success Story

Forty percent of Niue’s waters are fully protected; Beveridge Reef harbors large abundance of gray reef sharks, 80-pound groupers, and other marine life. Photo Credit: Manu San Félix/Pristine Seas

Alofi, Niue (July 5, 2023)—National Geographic Pristine Seas, in collaboration with the Governments of Niue (GON) and Tofia Niue, embarked today on a scientific survey to document marine biodiversity in the small island nation known for its crystal clear waters teeming with sealife—from humpback whales  to marine snakes.  Pristine Seas researchers and filmmakers and regional experts are aboard the R/V Argo, a vessel outfitted with cutting-edge scientific equipment, to survey the fully protected, 127,000 square-kilometer Niue Moana Mahu Marine Protected Area (MPA), established in 2020 by the Niue government. Pristine Seas conducted scientific research that informed the creation of the MPA. 

“Niuean’s, like most voyaging Pacific Island people, come from a long history of living in harmony with the ocean – we only exist because of her rich ecosystems” said Coral Pasisi, President of Tofia Niue, a local nonprofit organization leading a public private partnership with the GON to protect Niue’s ocean in perpetuity. “Fewer than 1700 of us live on our tiny island nation, a mosaic of ancient coral gardens rising from the glistening turquoise waters of the South Pacific, but each and every resident depends on and respects the moana (ocean) around them. Niue has continued its collaboration with Pristine Seas on this expedition to further survey and document difficult-to-reach marine areas to learn more about how the country can safeguard its precious marine ecosystems, for the sake of the nation, the region and the planet.”

Located in the South Pacific, 1,300 miles northeast of New Zealand between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, Niue is one of the largest elevated coral atolls in the world. The small island nation has made recent moves to gain recognition as a unique cultural and ecotourism destination with draws like snorkeling the amazing tide pools, respectful interactions with nursing humpback whales, and uga—or giant coconut crab—tours, spectacular star gazing as a Dark Skies Nation, and a role model for global marine conservation.  

In 2022, Niue put 100% of the waters in its Exclusive Economic Zone under the protection of a Marine Spatial Management Plan.  Known as Niue Nukutuluea, the expansive marine park has five different zones with varying levels of protection. All extractive human activity is banned in the expansive Niue Moana Mahu Marine Protected Area, which makes up 40% of the country’s waters. Within this area, the Beveridge Reef, a coral atoll east of Niue, is the jewel in the crown of this protected area and under special management. In other zones, local and commercial sustainable fishing and tourism are permitted. 

“Niue’s ambitious ocean protection shows the world that protecting and carefully managing marine areas are an increasingly important line of defense against the rising threats to the ocean and its biodiversity—from climate change, pollution, overharvesting and illegal fishing,” said Pristine Seas Chief of Staff Dan Myers. “Countries worldwide should find inspiration in their innovative, science- and traditional knowledge based approach to marine protection.”

Pristine Seas played a critical role in supporting the establishment of the Niue Moana Mahu MPA. In 2016, the Government of Niue and Tofia Niue invited the team of scientists and filmmakers to help the island community survey and document its unique underwater environment in an effort to ensure the long-term sustainable use of its resources. When they arrived, Beveridge Reef was largely unexplored and many Niuean residents had never seen footage of the reef and its underwater bounty of biodiversity and beauty. This was a critical factor in soliciting the full support of the entire nation to protect these important ‘taoga’ (natural treasures).

In partnership with the Niuean government, Tofia Niue and Oceans 5, the Pristine Seas team conducted comprehensive surveys of the half-submerged reef using a variety of observation and sampling techniques, including shallow and deep water drop-camera deployments, scuba surveys, and seafloor sampling for micro-fossils. 

Working alongside four Niuean scientists, they conducted 236 dives, made 11 deep-water camera deployments (to a maximum depth of 2,500 meters), and surveyed more than 300 fish species, 60 algae species, and 121 coral species. They discovered that the Beveridge Reef had higher populations of marine life , including sharks and stingrays, humpback whales, and giant clams, than anywhere else in Niue’s waters. 

“On every dive at Beveridge Reef, we saw sharks—up to eighty gray reef sharks at a time and our baited cameras documented some of the highest densities of this species found anywhere in the world,” said Alan Friedlander, chief scientist of National Geographic Pristine Seas. “We also heard the song of calving humpback whales, powerful enough to travel miles underwater, and also noted the little known Blainville’s beaked whale. At Niue, we spotted the graceful katuali, an endemic sea snake that lives in the island’s underwater caves—it’s the only place in the world where you will find these venomous but beautiful creatures. It’s essential that we study remote and hard-to-reach places like Niue and Beveridge Reef to establish baselines and better understand how nature ecosystems work so that they are protected from threats.”

The Pristine Seas Niue expedition is the third stop on The Global Expedition, an ambitious five-year collaboration with central and western Pacific Island nations. The Pristine Seas team is working alongside island communities, Indigenous People, government officials and local marine scientists to assess the potential benefits of expanding protections in waters that are critical to the survival of what these countries call the Blue Pacific Continent. 

The region covered by The Global Expedition harbors earth’s greatest ocean biodiversity—and also the largest industrial fishery in the tropics and a growing number of potential deep sea mining ventures. Yet much of the vast Pacific Ocean remains largely unexplored and unprotected.  

Previous Pristine Seas expeditions, often probing waters never before explored by humans, have produced more  than 250 peer-reviewed scientific studies that have transformed our understanding of ocean ecosystems. Their insights have supported the establishment of 26 marine protected areas worldwide that cover more than 6.5 million square kilometers.



Pristine Seas works with Indigenous and local communities, governments, and other partners to help protect vital places in the ocean using a unique combination of research, community engagement, policy work, and strategic communications and media. Since 2008, our program has conducted 39 expeditions around the world and helped establish 26 marine reserves, spanning more than 6.5 million square kilometers of ocean.

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