You’ve got to travel pretty far these days in order to find an ecosystem unaffected by human activity. Just ask National Geographic Fellow Enric Sala, who is currently studying some of the most remote, pristine coral reefs in existence around the southern Line Islands, a province of Kiribati located about 2,000 miles south of Hawaii. The team will spend six weeks aboard the 157-foot Hanse Explorer, researching the reefs around the islands of Flint, Vostock, Millenium, Starbuck, and Malden in an effort to document and study every aspect of these untouched ecosystems. If his crew, which includes renowned biologist-explorer Mike Fay, can understand how reefs work without human interference, the hope is that they will better understand how to preserve these threatened natural wonders in other parts of the world. "This is the very best dive of my life," Sala proclaimed in a video dispatch. Needless to say, we wish we were there.We got this highly entertaining dispatch from Sala yesterday. Track his progress and follow his daily blog at ocean.nationalgeographic.com
ADVENTURE: Can you give us a sense of how much more vibrant the southern Line Islands coral reefs are than other more famous reefs?
Enric Sala: The main difference is that there are no people on the southern Line Islands, so there is no fishing or pollution. These reefs may be still affected by global warming, but if these corals have bleached in the past, they have recovered very well.
So these reefs are intact simply because humans can't get there very easily to mess with them?
These reefs are intact because people have not touched them. It’s as simple as that. We know that humans can degrade the entire coral reef ecosystem, from microbes to top predators such as sharks. Here the ecosystem is intact, with all its components; it’s an ecological machine that functions optimally.
What's the funniest thing that's happen since you departed?
Mike Fay left his headlamp at Vostok Island by mistake, retraced his steps, but couldn’t find it. He thought he had gone crazy. The day after, he suddenly saw a light inside the forest. Puzzled, he went toward it and saw his headlamp turned on and all chewed up. An inquisitive coconut crab, a gorgeous animal of bright blue and orange color that can reach the size of a basketball, had grabbed his lamp while he left it on the ground next to him, and ran away with it. Unimpressed by the taste of plastic, he dropped it in the forest. The same coconut crab hung around Mike’s camp and interacted with him for three days. He named that crab Vostok.
How is GPS part of the expedition? Any other technical innovations?
Technology is a key component of this expedition. First, satellite photos and GPS are essential to find the very islands we want to visit. Traditional marine charts are several miles off their real position! So we rely more heavily on Google Earth and GPS coordinates. Second, we use GPS to decide where to conduct our surveys. We try to spread our sampling stations evenly around the islands, about one kilometer apart. With GPS we can draw the sites on a satellite photo before arriving to the island, and then dive on those exact spots with very marginal error.
Can you give us a sense of your daily routine while on this expedition? Are you living aboard the boat?
No doubt about it, an expedition like this is exhausting. We wake up at 6:30 a.m., have breakfast at 7:00, and then lower our four inflatable boats to the water. We have two teams of scientists, and two teams of photographers and videographers diving at the same time. Getting into the boats and taking off from the back deck of the ship can be slightly nutty. There is gear everywhere, lots of gear, and people everywhere; but everything works out extremely effectively despite the apparent chaos. We do two dives in the morning, come back to change tanks and replace batteries, eat a quick lunch, and go back in the water in the afternoon. We return to the ship from the last dive of the day at sunset, which is 6:00 p.m. We rinse our gear, recharge batteries, download photos, and have dinner. After dinner we enter the data we collected in our dives in the computers, edit photographs and video, and discuss what we saw during the day and make plans for tomorrow. Yours truly writes a blog entry and climbs to the upper deck to send it back to the headquarters in Washington D.C. By that time it’s already midnight. As soon as touch my bed I collapse into a deep sleep. We are sailing to uninhabited islands where getting ashore can be very dangerous. Mike and Lindsey are the only people staying ashore overnight. The rest of us stay on the Hanse Explorer.