Phoenix Islands: The Holy Grail of the Ocean

I’ve been a scientific explorer for most of my adult life, and this work has taken me all over the world. I’ve made over 7,000 dives in every sea on Earth, explored depths of 18,000 feet in submersibles, and even lived underwater for 30 days in a specialized habitat..

About 10 years ago I was asked to lead a scientific expedition to the remote Phoenix Islands, one island group of the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific, five days from anywhere. At that time these islands had never been dived, so this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that proved to be a turning point for me, both personally and professionally.

During this expedition, I felt I had found the holy grail of the ocean; the corals on the islands were healthy and the life there was incredibly abundant — an underwater Eden. If there was any place on Earth that should be protected for future generations, this was it. Following the expedition, I was excited to share what I had seen with the government of Kiribati; this engagement began a long-term partnership, which is highlighted in this month’s National Geographic Magazine.

In 2008, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) was created, and this year it became the world’s largest World Heritage Site. It gives me great pleasure to see Kiribati take the steps necessary to protect its marine ecosystem and resources; they are without a doubt a national and international treasure.

The eight Phoenix Islands rise out of a very deep area of the ocean averaging 12,000 feet [3,660 meters], and are surrounded by underwater mountains. These mountains are called seamounts and are great places for marine species to thrive; each seamount could be a unique ecosystem that contains marine life that is found nowhere else in the ocean. However, these seamounts have yet to be explored. I hope to make that my next project.

Greg Stone is chief scientist for oceans at CI. To learn more about conservation efforts in the Phoenix Islands, read the dispatches from his 2009 expedition, or check out his recent TED talk, “Saving the ocean one island at a time.”


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