National Geographic : 2004 Feb
SHARK POPULATIONS DON'T BOUNCE BACK QUICKLY. LOCAL SPECIES GIVE BIRTH TO ONLY A FEW LIVE YOUNG EACH YEAR. I had first visited the Phoenix Islands two years before on a scouting trip arranged by Cat Holloway and Rob Barrel of Naia Cruises in Fiji. Encouraged by what I had seen, I chartered their 120-foot sloop-rigged motor sailer Naia to return in June 2002 with an 11-person scientific expedition to survey the biodiversity of the world's last unexplored oceanic coral archipelago. Underwater we would assess the health of various species of hard coral upon which, and within which, live fish and invertebrates such as sea cucumbers, giant clams, nudibranchs, and sea stars. On land we would study the islands' tropical vege tation and abundant birds. Our first destination was Nikumaroro, a densely vegetated island with a shallow lagoon known for its abundance of sharks. Our plan was to count sharks in the upper reef and to seek new species of other fish in the deep reef zone. Rob found an anchorage for Naiaoff the island's western point. Carrying my scuba gear and cameras, I made my way down Naia'sside deck to the 56 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2004 dive skiffs tied off her stern. Jerry Allen, an ichthyologist with Conservation International, and Steve Bailey, another scientist from the New England Aquarium, joined my wife, Austen Yoshinaga, who is also a researcher at the aquarium, and me in the skiff. Our excitement was tinged with concern as we sped toward the island and Naia disappeared from view around the point. The shadowy outlines of sharks darted beneath us in the clear water. When we got within 200 yards of Nikumaroro's south side we slowed the skiff to an idle. We could see the narrow lagoon entrance and palm trees jutting up through the island's dense undergrowth. "OK, let's go," I shouted as we rolled back ward into the water as a group for safety. Divers are most vulnerable to sharks at the surface and in mid-water, so I wanted to get to the seafloor quickly. Austen and I tucked in among the coral heads at 60 feet, then watched Jerry and Steve continue over the edge of the reef into deeper water, where they would search for well-hidden reef fish.