Phoenix Islands Protected Area
PIPA: Paradise Found
When asked what “paradise” looks like, a preconceived image typically pops into one’s head. No doubt this image varies quite a bit from person to person, but my definition includes a white, sandy beach lined with palm trees swaying to a gentle breeze. Sounds pretty good, right? Although I’ve held on to some hope, I never truly expected to get a chance to visit such a place. It turns out that I was wrong. This week, the Robert C. Seamans and her crew were anchored offshore of my “paradise” for nearly three days. To be fair, I didn’t actually get to set foot on the island. But I did get three opportunities to scuba dive in her local waters, and it was an underwater paradise just as beautiful as that sandy beach.
Orona Island, the 2nd port stop for SEA Cruise S268, is one of four true coral atolls within the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). As such, the land portion of Orona forms a ring around a central lagoon and is surrounded on the outside by a narrow fringing reef that quickly drops off into deeper waters. As we were anchoring offshore, the narrow fringing reef could be detected under a lighter shade of blue. With my dive partner and as a representative of NEAq, I was going to have the honor of exploring the reef on the leeward side of the atoll. Our goal was to document the health of the reef by taking underwater photographs at sites which already had baseline data from previous expeditions. I was more than hopeful that we would find healthy reefs, and my excitement had been building during the short voyage from our previous port stop (Kanton Island). Following a short boat ride from our anchorage, my buddy and I slipped underwater with minds set to the task at hand.
In my experience, the first image you see of a reef as you descend can sometimes be misleading. It takes a second for your eyes to both adjust to the light levels underwater and to spot movement against a background that can vary wildly in terms of color and topography. Thanks to clear water and the sun being directly overhead, it didn’t take long to get an accurate picture of the reef. And boy was that picture a sight! Shades of pink and purple and blue and green seemed to fill up my view. There was movement everywhere; damselfish and butterflyfish darted into cracks and crevices while snappers came closer to investigate us. Soft corals seemingly created by spray foam swayed in the surge, while hard corals appeared as mounds or encrusted masses covering any bare substrate. When I listened carefully, I could even hear the many sounds that come from a healthy coral reef – some scientists have shown that the larvae of some reef organisms can use sound characteristics to find their way back to their natal reef. With all the action around us, it felt as if we had joined rather than just visited the local reef. Needless to say, the remainder of the first dive at Orona felt less like work and more like a gift.
Our final two dives were much like the first. In addition to documenting what were seemingly healthy coral communities, we were able to swim with sea turtles and sharks and a plethora of other reef fish. My streak of seeing at least one individual of my favorite reef fish species per dive also continued – humphead wrasses are the coolest! My dive buddy and I became two of the few blessed individuals lucky enough to get to explore the amazing underwater environment surrounding the atoll of Orona within PIPA. But most importantly, and thanks to the gracious people of Kiribati, I get to share this experience with others with the hope that raising awareness will continue to promote the conservation of these delicate but vital habitats. Places like Orona may truly fit my definition of “paradise”, but they will only remain this way if we stay vigilant and continue to protect our blue planet.