Thursday | August 4, 2005
Diving in a vanishing world
Today was the day we were all waiting for, the result of more than a year of planning and dreaming, the day in which we finally started diving in the Line Islands. The outcome of this first day was simply outstanding.
We woke up on our calm anchorage on the leeward side of Kiritimati, near London, the main village in the atoll. The warm sunrise light painted a long sandy beach crowned by coconut trees. We were all on deck early, with a cup of coffee or tea, full of excitement. With our three small boats in the water, we started loading our diving, sampling and camera gear.
Our team left the White Holly by mid-morning, and we were diving shortly afterwards. After what we saw and heard yesterday about the tremendous fishing pressure in Kiritimati, we expected the reefs to be empty of large fishes. In addition, Jim Maragos told us of a huge mortality of corals a few decades ago probably due to an El NiÑo event. Thus we also expected the corals to show signs of decline. As a matter of fact, we expected Kiritimati to be the most degraded site in our gradient of human disturbance.
Along the shore we saw many small boats, full of local divers fishing for the coveted aquarium fish that will be later shipped to Honolulu for distribution around the world. There were also fishing lines and nets targeting larger fish for human consumption. Terns flying above us must have had a view of a blue sea spotted by hundreds of colorful buoys. These buoys are nothing but markers of human predation.
Underwater, we found a changing reef in the midst of a vanishing world. The vanishing world is a reef full of healthy corals, a countless number of invertebrates living among them, and abundant, large fishes including sharks. The changing reef is a world where diversity and abundance is lost in a fast forward mode.
Today we dived on two sites covered by corals, dead or alive, and sandy patches. Corals were in pretty good condition in some places, and partly dead in other places. Underwater, our eyes moved from the bottom to the moving clouds of fish. In a pleasant surprise to most of us, there were fishes everywhere, although most of them were smaller than a foot. These were clearly impacted reefs.
Despite the reef degradation, at the end of the afternoon dive we had a snapshot of what these reefs must have been like not too long ago. A large Napoleon wrasse, a green fish the size of a car windscreen with a big bump on its forehead, swam serenely around us, watching us with indiference. After dinner James Neihouse showed us video footage of a school of a hundred bluefin trevally. However, we have not seen any large grouper or shark. These reefs were like the Serengeti with a few jackals but without the lions.