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A trip to the state of nature

Phoenix Islands The 408,250-km Phoenix Islands Protected Area located within Kiribati, a central tropical Pacific country, is the world’s largest and deepest marine protected area. The largely pristine oceanic sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has nestled within its eight coral reef islands and multiple submerged extinct volcanic seamounts rising from depths of over 5000m. The PIPA lies roughly 3 degrees south and 170 degrees west half way between Australia and Hawaii.

Underwater treasure

The waters and reefs are home to over 800 species untouched by fishing.

Of the eight islands, Kanton is the only one that is now inhabited. There were previous attempts to colonize other islands which ultimately failed due to their extreme isolation and protected status. Long ago though, human colonizers ventured this way from eastern Polynesia and Micronesia, leaving behind evidence in the form of shrines, fish ponds, wells and cooking pits.

An expedition, led by the Cohen Lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, returned to the Phoenix Islands for its ongoing study of the area’s dramatic and consequential El Nino fluctuations which pass through every three to seven years. These severe warming events bathe the reefs in this area with heated water from the Western Pacific as they make their way east. The water is significantly warmer than normal, sufficient to cause widespread bleaching and coral death and it is this and the reef’s recovery that we are here to study.

We joined the Pangaea Exploration’s “Sea Dragon.” Our 72ft sailing yacht in Kiritimati /aka/ Christmas Island and set sail for Kanton. The team consisted of expedition leader George “Pat” Lohmann, Ph.D students Michael Fox and Nathaniel Mollica and myself as expedition cameraman.

For six days we saw no land and only the occasional seabird, crossing the equator to our destination. During WWII, Kanton was a major U.S and British military installation with a large runway. The 17x7 km atoll is still littered with huge numbers of abandoned barracks, a power station, RADAR dish, bunkers and officers’ bungalows. There are 56 of the former officers who still live there to this day. The rest of the island is slowly being swallowed by the salt and sun-bleached vegetation. Supply boats arrive on average once every six months.


Our arrival was