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    A beautiful green moray eel emerges from reef in Phoenix Islands. Divers from the New England Aquarium in Boston found some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. (Courtesy of the New England Aquarium)
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    Spectacular table corals that take decades to form are found throughout the shallow water coral reefs of the Phoenix Islands. These types of corals can be easily destroyed by commercial fishing activity. (Courtesy of the New England Aquarium)
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    Shorebird on the Phoenix Islands in 2002. (Photo by Greg Stone.)
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    A school of brass striped barracuda swims by New England Aquarium divers. As they entered the waters of the Phoenix Islands, they were awed by the high density of a number of species. (Courtesy of the New England Aquarium)
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    Two green sea turtles are celebrating nature's version of Valentine's Day! Sea turtle populations in the Pacific are in dramatic decline due to by-catch in much commercial fishin gactivity. The new Phoenix Islands Protected Area will provide an important habitat reserve for hese turtles, which can weigh several hundred pounds as adults. (Courtesy of the New England Aquarium)
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    The shallow, remote coral reef systems of the Phoenix Islands provide an ideal shark nursery ground. When New England Aquarium scientists first dove here, they were struck by the abundance and curiosity of the sharks. Unfortunately, subsequent expeditions saw fewer sharks as a result of illegal shark fishing. (Courtesy of the New England Aquarium)
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    Sunset over the Phoenix Islands in 2002. (Photo by Greg Stone)

This September an international team of scientists, divers, photographers and officials are heading to the Phoenix Islands, a remote archipelago of coral islands in the equatorial Pacific, on a 3-week research mission to survey what may be the most pristine, intact coral reef ecosystems on Earth, in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).

The PIPA reefs are a nearly-untouched underwater wilderness of lush and diverse corals; abundant fish of many kinds including sharks; sea turtles; manta rays; and uncounted invertebrate species.

The focus of this expedition is to survey the reefs, count and identify coral and fish species and continue a long-term monitoring program begun on previous trips. The researchers will also take coral samples, assess coral health and predation on corals.

WHOI biologist Larry Madin is participating in the expedition, to conduct the first survey of planktonic invertebrate animals in the open water around the islands. Madin will also bring back samples of corals and coral skeleton for Anne Cohen and Konrad Hughen, WHOI scientists studying coral growth and responses to environmental and climate change.

Where is the expedition?
In the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the Phoenix Islands lie halfway between the islands of Hawai’i and Fiji. They are eight small islands fringed by coral reefs, all but one uninhabited, and 800-1,000 miles by boat (more than four days’ travel) from the nearest accessible airports – the world’s the most remote coral island archipelago.

The Phoenix Islands are owned and administered by the Pacific island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-ree-bas), which established the PIPA in 2006, and in 2008 expanded it to its current size – 410,000 square kilometers – making it the largest marine reserve in the world.

Why study these reefs?
Coral reefs worldwide are in declining health due to human influences such as overfishing, pollution and silt runoff from coastal construction, and rising ocean temperatures. Because of its remoteness, the Phoenix Islands have experienced very little human influence for millennia. Its coral reefs may be the world’s least affected by human activities, and closest to their natural state. Studying these reefs will give scientists a baseline of an undisturbed reef system to use for comparison by scientists studying coral reefs in other parts of the world.

Very little of PIPA has been studied or documented. Previous science explorations of the Phoenix Islands took place in 2000, 2002 and 2005, but the current expedition is the first scientific visit since PIPA was established. Expedition scientists want to learn whether the reefs have recovered from a 2002 bleaching event, see what other changes have taken place in coral and fish populations since the establishment of the reserve, and expand basic information about the reefs and deep water.

Who is along?
The science team, working from the live-aboard dive boat Nai’a out of Fiji, includes scientists from Kiribati, Kenya, New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Boston University, and photographers for National Geographic Magazine.

The expedition is sponsored by the Oak Foundation, the New England Aquarium, the Conservation International Marine Management Area Science Program, private donors, and the government of Kiribati.

Cruise objectives
  1. To conduct reef surveys to identify and count coral and fish species in predetermined sites in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area – continuing a long-term monitoring program begun on previous expeditions.
  2. To collect hard coral samples and other invertebrates on the reefs
  3. Additional studies of corals, including testing methods for surveying coral reproduction and assessing the effects of predation on living corals
  4. To survey, collect and identify planktonic animals that live in the open water away from the reef

September 8, 2009, depart Fiji aboard Nai’a, headed for the Phoenix Islands
September 12, arrive at the Phoenix Islands
September 13-23, diving and surveying reefs and open water in PIPA
September 24, depart PIPA for Fiji
September 28, arrive in Fiji at the end of the expedition

Last updated: September 22, 2009