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SEA Currents Blog

SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans

August 03, 2016

At the End of the World

William Feeney, Macalester College

Protecting the Phoenix Islands

Birds and Bait Balls , photo by author

4° 39,7’S x 174° 32.8’ W

Anchored off of Nikumaroro Island (Gardner Island)


Souls on Board

It’s fitting that Nikumaroro is an island of spirits in I-Kiribati culture, because it certainly feels possessed by something not present in the other islands we’ve anchored by—it feels like the end of the world, or at least the human one. Extremely isolated, heavily forested, guarded by steep underwater slopes and an expansive reef, and home to thousands of seabirds, innumerable schools of fish, turtles, sharks, and unnervingly large crabs, it is not a human place.  The wreck of the HMS Norwich City rests and rusts on the rocks it wrecked on almost a century ago. Amelia Earhart most likely crash landed on the island during her fateful final journey.

We arrived off of Nikumaroro during the night. The day began with the return of a Brown Booby (a type of seabird) who has been frequenting the deck lately, notably spending much of Monday perched on various spots around the quarterdeck.  This time he sat on the deck’s railing, ignoring the morning proceedings in favor of grooming himself.

After anchoring, we met on the quarterdeck to discover that we were being watched by a large sea turtle, a dark patch of water theorized to be a manta ray (it wasn’t), and a large school of fish (“roughly eighty”).  One party went ashore to explore, while another was taken on a snorkel trip, and the third monitored the ship to make sure we weren’t going to crash into the reef.

The snorkel party made off for a set of boulders on the far east of the island.  So far, every snorkel trip has begun in 20-30 foot water, typically in a lagoon or very close to shore.  Today we entered the Pacific in at least 150ft of water, unsurprising in theory, given the sharp angle of Nikumaroro seaward slopes, but very surprising in person. Swimming towards shore, the bottom quickly came into view.  Soon it became apparent that this was not the bottom—instead, it was the first of several massive stone slabs, hundreds of meters in length and width.  The large boulders we had seen above water had been just the tip. Jan, the Chief Scientist of the expedition described the area as one of the most wild seascapes he had seen—he was clearly right. Canyons and valleys appeared the closer we got to the shoreline filled with fish of every description. King Mackerel, Trevally, Surgeon Fish, and many others showed great skill in ignoring us completely, in more than one case schooling around us in large groups.

Other residents were more intrigued by our presence, including a reef shark who, after nine or ten circles around the group, decided that we A. weren’t fish, and B. weren’t anywhere as interesting as the reef fish. As you follow the stone slabs to the surface, you begin to notice the island’s wall. Water streams down from the islands shallow rocky flats, exposed at low tide to form a waterfall. Underwater, waves pound the wall, creating massive clouds of silt that cloud your vision. The seascape of Nikumaroro is awe inspiring in the most fundamental way.  Returning to the ship by small boat we saw the telltale sign of a bait ball (a large, compact, school of small fish being fed on by larger predators) in the distance: wheeling and diving seabirds.  Relenting to the very convincing arguments of “come on, it’ll be cool”, our driver (Nick the Assistant Scientist) decided to check the area out.  Within the fray Fairy Terns, Brown Boobies, and Shearwaters dove again and again, while Rainbow Runner (species of fish) hunted from below.

Minutes before sunset, Frigate birds began to appear in the sky, hanging in place far above us. From below, frigate birds look like pterodactyls and sound like them too.  They hang in the sky like paintings placed on invisible hooks, occasionally offering a loud, squawking commentary on the day’s events. Soon they were followed by Brown and Masked Boobies, Shearwaters, Terns, and more.  Half an hour later, the tide of birds had not slowed—looking into the distance hundreds, even thousands more clouded the sky in long streams flowing back towards the island. 

Nikumaroro is truly a wild, special place.


Categories: Robert C. Seamans,Protecting the Phoenix Islands, • Topics: s268  port stops  phoenix islands • (0) Comments
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