Wednesday | August 3, 2005
This morning 16 scientists from nine institutions, a photographer and a cinematographer, boarded the research vessel White Holly, after our first night in Kiritimati (Christmas Island). This is the first day of our expedition that we spent at sea. Our mission is to survey coral reefs from degraded to pristine, from the smallest life being to the largest. Our goal is to determine what reefs must have looked like in prehistoric times, and to understand how we have transformed them.
We spent all day preparing for the diving days to come: unpacking boxes, preparing the small boats, conditioning the lab, planning the sampling routine, etc. After many months of preparation, the excitement only grew today, and what could have been considered a tedious day under a scorching sun was in fact an exciting day in a tropical island. Christian MacDonald, our diving officer, was invaluable in setting up the boats and the diving compressor to fill our tanks, and in making sure that everything is ready for the beginning of the research and exploration.
Kiritimati is the largest of the low coral islands in the central Pacific, 35 by 24 miles, and it is located 105 nautical miles north of the equator, or 1160 miles south of Honolulu. It is inhabited by approximately 10,000 people, which makes it the most populated place in the Line Islands.
We have not dived yet, and we expect to do so tomorrow for the first time. However, some of us snorkeled on a shallow reef near a village and were able to catch a glimpse of the human impact on the reefs. Ed DeMartini was struck by the vision of a small surgeonfish with a hole through the middle of its body. This one was lucky and escaped from a spearfisherman.
Shooting surgeonfish means that there are not many large fish left in the shallow reefs. Our snorkelers did not see large fishes, but they saw many locals with small boats, free-diving and spearfishing.
To learn about human activities on the reefs, we invited Kim Andersen, an expat who runs the only diving center in Kiritimati, for dinner. He told us that the locals spearfish and use nets and longlines to catch all kinds of fish for local consumption, from milkfish in the lagoons to jacks and surgeonfishes on the fore reef. In addition, they collect small colorful fishes to sell to traders in the aquarium fish business, and sharks to sell to the Asian sharkfin market. It�s only 10,000 people, but it is also an island in the middle of an empty ocean.
Despite the alarming signs of degradation of the reefs in Kiritimati, the ocean provided us with a beautiful gift. At night, and attracted by the lights of the ship, clouds of small shrimp aggregated around us. Small fishes came to eat the shrimp, and larger fishes, mainly flyingfish, came to eat the small fish. At the top of this very food chain, a pod of dolphins showed up and had a feast on the flyingfishes. It is the old story over again, only that this time we are not the top predators.
—Enric Sala and Dr. Stuart Sandin