A Rare Trip To Palmyra Atoll

By Nigella Hillgarth,
Executive Director, Birch Aquarium at Scripps

This blog first appeared in the Nov. 23, 2010 online version of The Guardian (UK).

The plane seemed to take forever to get off the runway in Hawaii and then we were finally on our way to Palmyra Atoll in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. As the small Gulfstream G.I. weaved its way around storm clouds, scientists and visitors from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and other universities discussed their upcoming plan to study some of the last pristine coral reefs in the world.

Giant clams on Kingman Reef. Copyright: Jennifer Smith.

After flying over a thousand miles of ocean, the atoll suddenly came into view and within seconds we landed on the bumpy, crushed coral runway that had been constructed during World War II when the United States used Palmyra as a military base. The Nature Conservancy, in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), now oversee this once privately owned area. (See this website for more information about the fascinating history and wildlife of Palmyra Atoll.)

Palmyra Atoll. Copyright: Nigella Hillgarth

As many people know, coral reefs all over the world are disappearing fast due to multiple pressures, including pollution, overfishing, development and climate change. In the Northern Line Islands, the uninhabited islands/reefs are the US territories of Palmyra and Kingman. These uninhabited portions of the Northern Line islands (made a U.S. National Monument by President George W Bush in 2009), have almost pristine reefs that are wonderful, living laboratories where scientists come to study the natural ecology of coral reefs.

Orthographic projection over Palmyra Atoll (that teensy white dot in the middle of the map). Wikipedia Commons

I was lucky enough to be invited to visit scientists working at Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef before they set out to do more research on the inhabited regions of the Northern Line Islands. Scientists Dr. Stuart Sandin and Dr. Jennifer Smith from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD, and Dr. Forest Rohwer from San Diego State University, are members of a group of experts who, along with their students, are gathering vital information about the Line Island reefs (See their excellent web site for more information and to follow their 2010 expedition.).

Even though I am fortunate enough to be part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as Director of the Birch Aquarium, my background as a biologist is almost entirely terrestrial. Although I had visited other coral reefs in the past, I was totally unprepared for my experience at Palmyra and at nearby Kingman Reef. The whole trip was wonderful and the seabird colonies at Palmyra were as fantastic as I had hoped, but the sheer sensory overload when I first put my head underwater at Kingman reef is one thing that I will never, ever forget. I became so excited that I opened my mouth and shouted which, of course, as I was snorkeling, resulted in a large mouthful of seawater!

Palmyra Atoll reef. Copyright: Stuart Sandin

I was looking down into a brightly lit world of large cream-yellow mounds that looked like giant toadstools interspersed with crowds of giant clams in vibrant colors and pulsating patterns — better than any fashion show. Suddenly a grey shadow appeared on my left, then several more: grey reef sharks, curious and graceful.

Gray reef shark. Copyright: Jennifer Smith

Then a large red snapper that was as big as some of the sharks but with beautiful golden eyes hovered in front of me. Looking down, it seemed as if the aquarium’s tropical tanks had spilled out into the ocean and multiplied a hundred times. I hovered beside a clump of clams and watched the fish glide by, sometimes in shoals but often in small groups or alone: bright blue parrot fish (crunching audibly), damsel fish, wrasse, angel fish, some pausing briefly whilst clouds of convict fish passed by. There were so many species that it quickly became difficult to remember their different markings when I tried to identify them later.

Over the next few days, I snorkeled on several different patch reefs and walls, delving further into this new universe that overwhelmed me with its beauty. In the evenings, I talked with scientists and friends about the important reasons we had come to see this paradise. These pristine reefs hold the keys to understanding the highly complex ecology of reefs. Coral reefs all over the world are in severe trouble and many are dead or dying. Research shows there are multiple causes for this, including overfishing, pollution, disease and climate change.

Through research, we will gain a clearer understanding of healthy, natural reef ecology — free of the influence of human activities. This will provide a better grasp of the issues that lead to reef decline and provide clues for how we can restore and maintain these precious and delicate habitats that millions of people around the world depend upon for survival. Scientists are not only looking at the uninhabited Line Islands on this expedition, they are also studying the reefs on the three inhabited Northern Line Islands. They are conducting research to understand the ecological changes on the reef and to learn how they can work with the local people to promote the health of these reefs.

These challenges seemed far away in the island paradise of Kingman and Palmyra until one afternoon when we landed on one of the two thin strips of land — or rather, coral rubble — that are above water at Kingman reef. An old fishing ship is wrecked on one side and debris is scattered far and wide in and out of the water. Much of the coral in proximity to the wreck is dead.

Plastic trash on Kingman Reef. Copyright: C. Walsh

Recovering from this startling contrast to the vibrant reef around me, I picked my way along the shore in thin neoprene booties, flippers in one hand, onto the ridge of the acre or so of small clam shells and coral rubble. Looking around me, I felt very vulnerable as the waves of the open Pacific Ocean crashed onto the fore reef. I was standing on one of the least visited and most remote places on Earth and yet, when I looked down by my feet and along the strip, I saw piles of old plastic bottles and other junk that had been swept up onto the high tide mark and deposited there.

I sadly realized that even pristine and protected Kingman reef is not immune from man-made debris. I slipped old grey plastic shoes over my thin booties and hobbled along, helping my colleagues pick up the trash. We filled three industrial-sized rubbish bags.

Kingman Reef. Copyright: Jennifer Smith

Afterwards, I returned to snorkel on the pristine patch reefs, relieved to see this thriving ecosystem with so many large predators and carpets of healthy corals. However the need to protect and understand these fragile ecosystems was all the more obvious. Later, back at Palmyra Atoll, I visited the lab and saw the intensity of the work being done there and felt a sense of urgency to understand the complex combination of natural and human impacts on coral reefs. Sitting on the plane during my return flight to Hawaii, I pondered about what a privilege it had been to experience such a beautiful part of the Earth and to spend time in the field with this team of dedicated scientists who are doing so much to protect the future of our planet.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego