The Wayback Machine -

More to Explore

Did You Know?
Related Links
NGS Resources

Phoenix Islands On Assignment

Phoenix Islands On Assignment

Phoenix Islands
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

Phoenix Islands Zoom In

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer's technical notes.

Phoenix Islands Zoom In Thumbnail 1
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Phoenix Islands Zoom In Thumbnail 2
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Phoenix Islands Zoom In Thumbnail 3
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Phoenix Islands Zoom In Thumbnail 4
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Phoenix Islands Zoom In Thumbnail 5
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Photo captions by
Peter Gwin

Phoenix Islands Map

Preserving Primal Ocean

Map Thumbnail

Click to enlarge >>

By Gregory StonePhotographs by Paul Nicklen

On the healthy reefs of the Phoenix Islands, scientists find new species and clues to preserving paradise.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

A raucous cloud of terns hovered over Kanton island, calling out in high-pitched screeches. Beyond the low sandy atoll, the South Pacific stretched forever beneath tropical clouds topped by immense crowns of gold, red, and white. It was 6:30 a.m., and biologists David Obura, Sangeeta Mangubhai, Mary Jane Adams, dive master Cat Holloway, and I adjusted our scuba gear as we sat on the pontoon of the gently rocking skiff.
"This is definitely the spot," David said. "Let's hope they're here."
I bit onto my regulator, grabbed my underwater camera, and fell backward into the island's narrow lagoon entrance. The others followed, and we descended 70 feet (21 meters) to the bottom. Streaming through the water, the morning sun brightened the yellow, green, and purple corals around us. A manta ray and a green turtle nosed nearby as if curious.
Then, like the start of a breeze, the water began to move. Nearly imperceptible at first, the strengthening current gradually diverted our bubbles at a slight angle as they ascended. The flow increased steadily and a roar replaced the peaceful silence as water began to gush out the lagoon's entrance into the ocean on the full moon ebb tide.
Cued by this outgoing current, a school of perhaps 5,000 Pacific longnose parrotfish gathered around us and started to circle. Our bubbles were flowing sideways now as we clung to bottom rocks, and our hair and dive gear flapped and fluttered in the torrential tide. If we had let go of the rocks, we would have been swept out into the ocean. The foot-long parrotfish tightened their school and swam faster. This was what we had come here to see: the periodic spawning of the parrotfish on the outgoing tide.
Within the group, a few fish swam faster and shook, stimulating the entire school to spiral and bolt upward, releasing ecstatic bursts of eggs and sperm along the way like biological fireworks. The egg and sperm clouds they left behind were so dense they dulled the penetration of sunlight through the water.

Again and again the fish repeated this act, spiraling toward the surface every ten to fifteen seconds. For almost an hour the school exploded in a rite of reproduction, relying on the fast ebb tide to carry the fertilized eggs far out to sea, where they would be safer from predators. As I watched from the seafloor, a large shadow passed over me. A half-ton manta ray, hovering magically and somehow unmoved by the current, was feeding serenely on the parrotfish eggs and sperm.
Too soon, our nearly empty air tanks forced us to return to the surface and our waiting skiff.
"Incredible—I've never seen anything like it!" said David, a specialist in coral reefs who has spent more than a thousand hours underwater studying ocean life. I also was deeply moved. As vice president for global marine programs at the New England Aquarium, I've made it my goal to find Earth's last pockets of primal ocean, those underwater havens that have remained unspoiled as long as the ocean can remember. Here in this lagoon we had discovered such a place.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

E-mail this page to a friend


Drape your desktop in an underwater rainbow of anemonefish near a Phoenix Islands reef.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
While the Phoenix Islands' underwater realm had only been minimally explored until Greg Stone's expeditions in 2000 and 2002, above the waterline is another story. These coral specks, despite their remoteness in the midst of a vast ocean, have had a busy history.
Archaeological traces indicate that this archipelago was settled and then abandoned before the arrival of Europeans, probably by Polynesians. The islands' recorded history really begins with the whalers of the early 1800s, when the waters around the Phoenix Islands were a prime area for sperm whale hunting, and whaling ships were often in the area. Kanton island was named after the New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling ship Canton, which ran aground on a surrounding reef. 
Following the whalers came other vessels and more sailors, who eventually discovered phosphate-rich bird guano deposits on the islands. A number of the Phoenix Islands were mined for guano in the mid-1800s, but supplies were exhausted there earlier than in the rest of Kiribati, and the miners departed after a few years.
All was fairly quiet until the late 1930s, when activity on the Phoenix Islands exploded.  Britain claimed the Phoenix Group in 1935, naming it part of its Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony and establishing a radio station. In 1937 Kanton garnered publicity from being along the path of a total eclipse of the sun, arousing American interest in the atolls.  In 1938 the United States laid a competing claim to Kanton and Enderbury Island, and Pan American Airways began blasting and dredging part of Kanton's central lagoon to make runways for seaplane stopovers during trans-Pacific air service. (The company also built a hotel for its guests' overnight stays.)  The disputed claims for the islands were resolved in 1939, when Britain and the U.S. agreed to exercise joint control for a period of 50 years.
Kiribati people (called "I-Kiribati") themselves were also starting to populate the islands. Under the first Phoenix Islands Resettlement Scheme, in 1938, I-Kiribati from the overcrowded Gilbert Islands were sent to Orona, Manra, and Nikumaroro islands.  Eventually, by 1963, the settlements had failed (one story tells of a group of colonists who threw salt into their only freshwater reserve and claimed their water was ruined so they could leave), and any remaining colonists were moved to the Solomon Islands.
During World War II British and American settlers were evacuated, and U.S. forces built an airstrip on Kanton as one of many Pacific operations bases. Later NASA used the site as a satellite tracking station, and the Air Force used it as a base for missile testing in the Pacific, finally closing it down in 1976. Most of the debris from the base was left on the island, either in place or in scattered dumps around the island. Recent visitors have noted "abandoned vehicles, motors, a bunker hospital…leaking insecticide containers…vintage trucks, burial mounds and graves of heavy equipment and other assorted debris, a disabled  bulldozer," and more. 
Apart from the detritus of previous settlements, the islands have lain mostly undisturbed since the 1970s. After Kiribati declared its independence in 1979, a small group of colonists from the Gilberts was sent to Kanton to act as caretakers for the island group, and in 2001 a settlement scheme for Orona was begun. However, settlers have numbered no more than a couple hundred people at any one time, and populations appear to be shrinking. 
The future of the Phoenix Islands may best be as a wildlife haven. Birnie Island, Rawaki, and Manra were designated bird sanctuaries in 1938 and wildlife sanctuaries in 1975 and have been mostly left to nature. With the Kiribati government's recent agreement to help protect the underwater resources of the archipelago, there is hope that the marine environment may be spared the overfishing and land development that plagues so many other coral reefs.
One mystery endures. In 1937 renowned aviatrix Amelia Earhart disappeared in the Pacific en route to Howland Island, a U.S. territory just to the northwest of the Phoenix Group. There is some speculation that she may have crashed or landed on Nikumaroro, and a group called TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) continues research in the area, hoping to finally uncover the truth about Earhart's disappearance.
—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
The New England Aquarium Primal Ocean Project
Join expedition scientists in the field through Phoenix Island Field Dispatches. Updated throughout the expedition, the dispatches, beautifully illustrated with photos by Cat Holloway, give a feeling of being along for the ride.
Phoenix Rising: The Primal Ocean Project, 2000
Step a few years back in time to the first New England Aquarium Phoenix expedition in 2000. Daily reports, press releases, and an expedition summary explain the beginnings of the Phoenix Islands project.  Explore the rest of for more information on diving in the South Pacific in and around Fiji.
Australian Museum Fish Site
If you need to look up a fish, you can find just about any fish on this extensive website. It is especially useful for looking up common or taxonomic names of species, and provides photos with each listing as well as species range and other pertinent information. There is also a reverse search feature, in which you describe the shape of a fish and can work toward identifying it by name.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery: The Earhart Project
Peruse this website for an explanation of the TIGHAR Hypothesis—a detailed re-creation of what TIGHAR believes really happened to Amelia Earhart when she disappeared in July 1937 over the Pacific. TIGHAR backs up the hypothesis with supporting evidence gleaned from years of research, but does not yet claim to know the final truth.
The OCEAN Project
Browse this conservation-minded site to learn more about the oceans and how to preserve them. OCEAN is the acronym for Ocean Conservation through Education, Awareness, and Networking. Top links are to their network of partners, a section called Actions for the Ocean that encourages involvement, and an ocean resource center highlighting topical news, educational resources, and public opinion.
The Radio Heritage Collection
Learn the history of Kanton through tales of radio broadcasting from the island between World War II and the late 1970s. Archival photos and personal accounts by disc jockeys who worked at the station enliven the story.
Kiribati: Phoenix Group
Explore the history of each Phoenix atoll individually.
Learn Kiribati, the local language also known as Gilbertese, through workbooks written by a former Peace Corps volunteer. This site is also a mini-clearinghouse of links to other Kiribati-related sites.
Icthyology at the Florida Museum of Natural History
Surf this great ocean resource for information on all fish, but especially sharks. Sections cover different types of sharks, tropical research, organizations involved in the study and conservation of fish, education, biological profiles, and fish in the news.


Lal, Brij V., and Kate Fortune, eds. The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. University of Hawaii Press, 2000.
Randall, John E., Gerald R. Allen, and Roger C. Steene. Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Sibley, Charles G., and Burt L. Monroe, Jr. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, 1990.
Stattersfield, Alison J., and David R. Capper. Threatened Birds of the World. BirdLife International, 2000.
Talu, Sister Alaima, and others. Kiribati: Aspects of History. University of the South Pacific and the Ministry of Education, Training, and Culture, 1979.


NGS Resources
Walker, Howell. "Air Age Brings Life to Canton Island: Planes Spanning the South Pacific Transform an Uninhabited Mid-ocean Coral Reef into a Busy Base," National Geographic (January 1955), 117-32.
Nicholas, William H. "American Pathfinders in the Pacific," National Geographic (May 1946), 617-40.
Gardner, Irvine C. "Crusoes of Canton Island: Life on a Tiny Pacific Atoll That Has Flashed Into World Importance," National Geographic (June 1938), 749-66.
Hellweg, J. F. "Eclipse Adventures on a Desert Isle," National Geographic (September 1937), 377-94.
Mitchell, Samuel Alfred. "Nature's Most Dramatic Spectacle," National Geographic (September 1937), 361-76.


© 2004 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe