Sharks on Prozac, Coral on Steroids

By Cat Holloway

All human endeavors are motivated by just a few primitive urges: eat, sleep, reproduce … and explore !

Five divers, five scientists, a doctor and a filmmaker tap into those gut feelings and set sail in search of the Primal Ocean.

“Oh no, what have I done?”

It was a sentiment I'd expressed privately more than once during those weeks - like an older brother tapping my shoulder and peering down his nose at my abundance of enthusiasm and deficit of good sense.

“Ugh, we should have sold this as a crash-diet cruise.”

“Just take a pill and stop groaning,” said Rob, he of the iron stomach.

Fine sailors among the seasick are as painful to endure as reformed smokers and as self-righteous as early-risers. As Rob bounded gleefully to the dawn-kissed deck for his rostered whale watch, I wondered about the other suffering fools on board NAI'A. Wedged into bed with extra pillows, curled against the glare of an unread copy of Moby Dick or The Perfect Storm , squinting through the port-holed sunbeams at their clocks - only 22 days of this misery to go . I know exactly what they were thinking because I was thinking the same thing: “It's all Cat's fault, she made me do this.”

It's true, I'm afraid. You see, my boyfriend - that's Rob - has this big sailing boat, sorry, ship – that's NAI'A. And while he and his family partners diligently attempt to pay relentless bills by hosting scuba diving expeditions in our delightful home country of Fiji, I feel compelled to lure them off-the business-course for cool new places. It's not like they are too hard to convince, though. It's that urge to explore. It rumbles and roars: “Let's do it. It sounds so wild!”

Well, it is wild. It's the same impulse that makes us strap a bomb to our back, breathe through a rubber hose and pretend that we (and our outrageously expensive cameras) are great mates with deadly sea snakes. It makes us reach out of a cage waving and smiling preposterously at a massive shark passing inches away en route to festering bovine bait. It makes us diver deeper than we planned. Stay longer than we ought. Go alone.

Look, I'm not justifying it. I'm not saying it's right. But, c'mon, we've all done it. Risk. Possibility . It's intuitive, not intellectual. We take risks because of the remote possibility of synergy with the awesome, the beautiful and the mysterious: God.

Some risks are calculated – to the tune of many thousands of dollars, in fact. Which is what we'd asked these retching divers to pay for the privilege of joining this expedition and sponsoring a bunch of geeky Latin-speaking biologists. Our concept was humble:

  1. Team up eco-divers with adventurous scientists;
  2. Explore a place that no-one has ever been before;
  3. Gather fascinating facts and heady experiences to enlighten and inspire;
  4. Save the world.

I am no vacilando . (Incidentally, the only good thing about ocean passages is that you read, thereby developing superfluous vocabulary with which you look forward to impressing landlubbers upon return – assuming you have not coughed up your voice box in the process.) According to John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley ,” If one is vacilando , he is going somewhere but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there.” I admit to being a destination kind of girl. I may not have embraced the wisdom of ages that tutors us to love the journey of life, trust the process, go with the flow. But I do know this: Steinbeck was no high-paying tourist and the Dalai Lama has never been seasick. The sole desire linking everyone aboard NAI'A during that costly, stormy, five-day crossing was: just get us there. Phoenix Islands or bust. Seriously.

"...more than an ocean, the Pacific is like a universe, and a chart of it looks like a portrait of the night sky… an immensity of emptiness, dotted with misshapen islands that twinkle like stars”
Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania

It all started with a familiar lament and a vanished pilot. Rob and I have an adventurous friend, video producer, Kandy Kendall, who admitted that she yearned for some raw remote diving but that every location seemed explored already.

“Jacques Cousteau, Stan Waterman, Hans Hass – they pioneered all the great destinations. What is left for our generation to claim? Where can we go?”

Rob and I turned to each other and smiled - a metaphoric light bulb glowing over our heads. Rob whipped out the Central Pacific Ocean chart and circled a small cluster of dots in the middle of nowhere called the Phoenix Group. One of the eight islands, Nikumaroro, was an atoll we had visited with NAI'A twice previously as part of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) quest for the remains of the world's most famously disappeared aviator, Amelia Earhart. TIGHAR believe Earhart successfully landed on Nikumaroro and perished there. An early TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro had included some underwater searches and, despite a sport diving prohibition on later TIGHAR journeys there, Rob and I had sneaked a couple of sensational hours underwater while setting moorings. We did not find Amelia but we vowed one day to return to explore the other islands for great diving. Kandy was now vowing to join us and sponsor an expedition there.

We searched and discovered that, other than those few TIGHAR divers in 1989, no one had dived Nikumaroro and the only other diving in the Phoenix group had been done at Aba-Riringa in the early 70s by some Waikiki Aquarium biologists. While Smithsonian ornithologists surveyed bird populations on a few of the Phoenix atolls in 1964 and 1975, the only other marine research was a census of fish netted in 1939 by Smithsonian ichthyologist, Leonard Schultz. In Phoenix, we had ourselves one of Herman Melville's “ milky-ways of coral isles, low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes” almost entirely uninhabited and with the promise of untold underwater treasures.

The Phoenix Islands lie more than 1000 nautical miles northeast of Fiji and within the long stretch of equatorial Pacific Ocean territory claimed by the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced kitty-bus). Although Kiribati earns significant income from selling international fishing licenses and such a remote location could hardly be considered safe from illegal fishing, one thing gave Phoenix enormous possibility : a lack of human settlement. Tropical atolls may look idyllic from a distance and romantic in our collective consciousness. But in fact they are harsh hostile places, bleak and forbidding beyond the fringing palm trees, without life-sustaining fresh water and ceaselessly exposed to the wrathful intensity of the open ocean. Guano miners and copra harvesters left their mark on the islands briefly in the early 1800s. Settlers from the overcrowded Gilbert and Ellice Islands attempted a new life on three of the Phoenix Islands in 1938 but the British colonial scheme was all but abandoned early in the 40s. The final few desperate and determined villagers were evacuated in 1963. Only Aba-Riringa has any inhabitants now: less than 40 people from eight families assigned to the desolate strip of scrub-covered coral in a care-taking role for the Kiribati government. The really stimulating and hectic years on Aba-Riringa are those during which more than two sailing boats pull in to the lagoon to rest.

Everywhere nowadays there is terrifying evidence that coral reefs (as we know them, at least) are dying. Marine life is disappearing faster than we can even identify, let alone understand it. For us, Kandy, and the other sponsors who signed on for this expedition, just going diving wasn't enough. We all wanted to learn as much as we could and make the journey as meaningful as possible to the rest of the world. We called the expedition Phoenix Rising, reflecting on the eternal cycle of death and rebirth symbolized by the mythical Egyptian bird, the Phoenix, who rises again from its own ashes just as coral builds and blooms on the skeletons of old reefs – for all eternity, we hope.

We dreamed that in Phoenix we would find a pristine place free from the disease, pollution and abuse cloaking our seas in doom. And we shared a grander ideal: that we might actually find a wilderness worth saving. We needed grass-roots science to ascertain Phoenix's importance and then strategy to encourage preservation. For this we turned to another friend, Dr Gregory Stone, the Director of Conservation at the New England Aquarium. Greg and his wife, Austen Yoshinaga, are ardent field biologists and were immediately inspired to make the Phoenix Rising Expedition the first in the New England Aquarium's Primal Ocean Project: a quest to identify, document and protect the planet's final unblemished underwater frontiers.

According to Greg: "There are just a few isolated places left on this planet where we have any hope of seeing ocean environments in pre-historic rawness, free of the destruction of development and over-fishing.”

“There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar”

That old seafaring cliché about getting your sea legs in three days turned out to be entirely accurate. Voyagers emerged miraculously from their cabins in cheerful anticipation of an arrival to gaze at the horizon on whale watch, ready dive gear and cameras and gather for research briefings. Debate even became heated. It wasn't just that the expedition ichthyologist, New England Aquarium Curator of Fishes and Reptile, Dr Steven Bailey, wanted to collect fish specimens. It was also that he was keen to do it down deep, forcing a long decompression and luring an unpredictable audience of sharks. I volunteered to help but the expedition's physician, a diving and emergency medicine specialist, Dr Craig Cook, reminded us to temper zeal with sagacity.

“We are three days from even the most basic medical facility, five days from Fiji's recompression chamber. Whatever happens, we have to fix it on board. Is this really worth the risk?”

“Like going to the moon and not bringing back moon rocks!” countered Steve.

So, Craig assisted us in the dive planning and equipment preparation. Rob hovered over videoing us and counting the dozens of sharks patrolling behind our catch bags and NAI'A divemasters stood by with extra Nitrox tanks for shallow-water changeovers. We passed our decompression time examining and collecting in the shallow reef gullies. Hours later we returned with several fish species not previously identified in the region and a couple of species that possibly had never been described at all.

In fact, the scientists recorded many such exciting finds. As well as identifying some previously unrecognized sea bird and turtle nesting sites, Austen collected 69 species of algae including one that had only been reported in the South Pacific once before. The team's coral biologist and rapid site assessment expert, Dr David Obura, from East Africa's CORDIO program, completed the group's first-ever coral abundance and diversity surveys and found unparalleled coral health. Photographer, Mary Jane Adams, captured the world's first image of a rare blenny, Cirripectis jenningsi , alive in the wild. The National Geographic Society's deep-sea baited camera rig, on loan to us from Emory Kristof, filmed the region's first six-gill and Pacific sleeper sharks as well as several other fish and invertebrate species living at 3000 feet. Our single deep tow-net collection to 1000 meters revealed strange new creatures. We even found sunken ship wreckage, including what appeared to be harpoons from whaling vessels in the early 1800s. During the 13 diving days in Phoenix, we completed 50 research dives for biological surveys among seven islands, Nikumaroro, McKean, Sydney, Aba-Riringa, Enderbury, Hull and Phoenix. It was often the most demanding diving we had ever done - and by far the most exhilarating!

“There is absolutely no way we could have fulfilled these scientific ambitions without the help of the divers,” said Greg while compiling the results en route back to Fiji.

“Not just for their generous funding, diving skill and extra effort underwater, but for the amazing amount of marine life knowledge and intelligent observation they brought to the party.”

“This was a tremendously successful collaboration, educational for the scientists too!”

Each diver had a specific job and with it a deep sense of purpose. Representing one of the expedition's sponsors, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), marine biologist, Sangeeta Mangubhai, braved the pounding surf to get ashore on several islands and hike the perimeters counting turtle nests. While Mary Jane Adams kept a meticulous list of small reef fish and built an equally impressive library of matching photos, Bruce Thayer used his video skills to complete the invaluable documentation of reef transects at every site. Craig Cook tried valiantly to estimate numbers in the massive hordes of herbivores grazing the reefs. Sometimes the schools were so tight and thick and moving so quickly and frantically they looked more like carpets unfurling and flying over the slopes and between the bommies. Rob captured all this underwater action on digital video and drew the dive site maps. Australian cameraman and sound technician, Alex Morrison, pitched and tossed about topside filming shipboard and shore side activities and interviewing the characters. Everyone believed that they had the best job. But, in truth, I did. My role was to swim as far as I could to count and identify the big blue-water predatory fish such as snapper, tuna, trevally, rays and sharks.

So what of all that risk ? Sound like too much fun to be dangerous? Hardly a breathtaking rush of fear akin to skydiving! True, this was no sudden adrenaline high lasting a few fleeting seconds. But, as 23 days of delicious continuous-release stimulant, it was just as intense.

Sure, there were plenty of those “Oh no, what have I done?” moments. Mighty currents ripped us to windward. Threatening sharks warned us out of the water. A cornered surgeonfish delivered a nasty thigh laceration. Small concerns were exaggerated enormously by the sheer distance we traveled away from civilization and from, well, anything at all .

But better, this experience was a gift of enduring thrills: memory flashes a year later as we recount our favorite wild encounters or review our images; a stirring sense of unique achievement with tangible rewards of public and private knowledge. This is the rare kind of thrill you can share with others, be they scientists, sport divers, old friends or new neighbors. Because, everyone - old or young, rich or poor, divers or mountain climbers – everyone knows that urge to explore.

© Cat Holloway, 2001

From Expedition Diaries

Dr Gregory Stone - Scientific Director, New England Aquarium
This is like stepping back into the land time forgot. For marine biologists, it's like going to the moon. The reefs show evidence of extreme isolation and, as a result, have interesting species assemblages and prolific growth. The reefs are in excellent health, free from the bleaching that has plagued other parts of the Pacific. Healthy coral reef fish populations are nearly impossible to find in areas inhabited by people. In Phoenix, free from human impact, the fish communities are diverse and abundant. We are seeing what pristine coral reef ecosystems can – and should - be!

We have discovered green turtle nesting sites on several islands and logged numerous pods of bottlenose dolphins as well as one beaked whale sighting. The surprising and disturbing news is the lack of sperm whales. This Phoenix Island group was one of the 19 th century's richest sperm whaling grounds, attracting hunting ships from all over the world. However, we have found tens of thousands of nesting spectacled, sooty, little fairy and blue-gray terns; masked brown and red-footed boobies; red-tailed tropicbirds; brown noddies and greater and lesser frigate birds. The bird noise on some islands was so loud that researchers could barely hear each other during the surveys!

We deployed the National Geographic-sponsored deep-sea camera seven times, on each occasion to 3000 feet. During three deployments, the bait pole used to attract animals was violently torn off the rig by six-gill sharks! Six-gill sharks live only in deep water and this is the first confirmed record of these sharks in the region. We also filmed the massive deep sea Pacific sleeper shark.

Sangeeta Mangubhai – Conservation Management, WWF
It's incredibly thrilling diving as we have no idea what to expect from the currents or the creatures. Inside the lagoon we found a field of thousands of colorful giant clams. As we snorkeled into the shallows, sharks started darting towards us – mainly black tips three or four at a time. But, as we lifted our heads and looked inshore we saw the most astonishing gathering of a hundred or more small reef sharks swarming in just a couple of feet of water! Seven turtles and two mantas later we finally hung up our fins for the day.

Cat Holloway – Predator & Pelagic Surveys, NAI'A
Our calendars are marked more by diving discoveries than days, miles rather than minutes. Today at Aba-Riringa proved beyond any doubt how incredibly lucky we are to be here doing this.

By 8am we had rolled into the mouth of a channel and were immediately engulfed near the surface by hundreds of unusual parrotfish rushing at us in storm of synchronized spawning! We descended through this mass onto thousands more parrotfish literally carpeting the channel floor, swirling and rising in waves of sexual frenzy. They had timed the mass conception immaculately. As the outgoing tidal current strengthened, the eggs and spawn would be mixed and carried out to sea - hopefully away from predators.

Surrounding this scene were hundreds of hungry tangs and easily a thousand bigeye jacks. Enormous Napoleon wrasses cruised overhead followed by two feasting manta rays! An eagle ray negotiated the traffic and a giant marble ray sat on the edge of the drop-off. A green turtle hovered in the blue while surgeonfish cleaned the algae from its shell. We turned the outside corner to find a spiraling school of chevron barracuda, more hundreds of trevally and 50-odd huge bumphead parrotfish thundering along the reef. All this before breakfast? Phew.

The afternoon was equally exhilarating. Alex and I had an astonishing dive with two more manta rays. One of the pair checked us out carefully then ‘flew' away. But the second circled us ever closer looking us square in the eye. Clearly intrigued, she played with us for nearly 20 minutes. Bottlenose dolphins escorted us back to the anchorage while tens of thousands of terns migrated back to shore under a brilliant sunset. We settled in to watch the day's much anticipated deep-sea camera footage – knowing that the bait stick was untimely ripped from the rig in another attack from some unfathomable beast. After some weird shrimp, conger eels and a bizarre unidentified shark, a huge six-gill shark swam perfectly into frame! The room erupted with cheering – most loudly from the NAI'A crew who worked for hours to set and retrieve the camera in deep water each day.

The sharks are the best. So handsome, so curious and so many of them! Every dive has at least 10, usually more like 20. On one dive at Nikumaroro we rolled into a school of about 40 juvenile gray reefs! Add to this the ubiquitous blacktip sharks and the sleepy shy whitetips. This truly does feel like the long lost primal ocean paradise that we dreamed it might be.

Dr David Obura – Rapid Site Assessment & Coral Biology, CORDIO
I never imagined a coral landscape like Aba-Riringa's lagoon could exist. Coral hills and valleys built from table and staghorn corals. Riding the tidal current is like flying a jet through craggy mountain passes, dodging bombardment by titan triggerfish and coral-eating buttterflyfish. Craters in the sand interrupt expanses of shy garden eels and attest to the abundance of clams - and rays that feed upon them.
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