Sunday | August 7, 2005
Gradients in miniature
One of the main goals of our expedition is to take a snapshot of the reefs along a gradient of human disturbance, from the most impacted to the untouched. By putting together pictures from five different islands we expect to see a gradual improvement in reef health. Looking in the opposite direction, we will see a gradual degradation. Or maybe not. Perhaps there is an abrupt transition in the health of reefs between the uninhabited and the inhabited islands.
Kiritimati showed us a miniature example of such a gradient. The reefs near London, the largest village in the atoll, looked impacted, with a large amount of diseased and dead corals, algal turfs overgrowing the dead corals, a thin microbial mat overgrowing the algae, and lots of small fishes but no large ones. After diving near London, Olga Pantos said "these reefs look like the Caribbean."
For most non-divers the Caribbean might seem like a paradise with gorgeous beaches and diverse, colorful reefs. It is indeed a wonderful place, but the coral reefs are in an ongoing trajectory of degradation. Exactly like the reefs near London.
Diving farther away from London reef health appeared to increase: more live corals, larger fishes, and no conspicuous slime. After making a fish count just a few kilometers south of London, Alan Friedlander stated that "finally there were some fishes larger than my clipboard".
However, we have not seen a single shark yet. The top predators have been removed by a fishery targeting shark fins. The local I-Kiribati, as the inhabitants of the Kiribati Republic are called, exploit the fishes on the shallow reefs. The sharks are targeted mainly by foreign fishing boats belonging to Asian nations and Spain.
We have seen conspicuous differences in just a few miles. We cannot wait to see what this miniature gradient will turn into as we sail north, as we move from this exploited atoll to the protected Palmyra and Kingman.
We are used to diving in reefs missing parts, in limbless by-products of our activities. However, we crave for archaic places where time has stopped. Humans became aquatic only recently and we do not have a strong historical memory of the sea, but there is something in our inner depths that calls us back to the sea. We need to know what the sea was like when modern humans started looking with both fear and fascination at that vast blue expanse. I believe it is a process of rejuvenation.