for National Geographic News
After 20 days at sea, Jean-Michel Cousteau and his crew of 22 landed the Searcher July 26 at Kure, the northernmost atoll in the world and turning point of their expedition to make a documentary film about one of the last pristine, large-scale coral reef ecosystems on the planet.
Speaking via satellite phone from the sun-splashed deck of the vessel en route back to the mainland, Cousteau told National Geographic News that now more than ever he and his crew believe every effort must be made to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
"We want to do everything we can to make sure these unique treasures are being properly managed and protected," he said.
The natural landscape in question is a 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) long chain of islands and coral reefs in the tropical Pacific Ocean nearly void of humans and teeming with marine life. More than 7,000 species have been recorded in the islands, including corals, algae, sea grasses, fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and diverse sea bird species. (The archipelago is home to an estimated 14 million birds.) Scientists believe hundreds more species remain to be discovered.
President Bill Clinton established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000. The region is currently proposed to become the United States' 14th National Marine Sanctuarythe highest form of protection afforded a marine environment. If established, it will be larger than the 13 other sanctuaries combined.
Cousteau and his crew embarked on the five-week expedition through the region on July 6. They have visited islands teeming with thousands of sea birds and scuba dived with Galápagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis), spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris), monk seals (Monachus fleming), and hundreds of unique fish.
The crew will continue to film and dive over the next week as they make their way back to the main Hawaiian Islands. However, Cousteau believes he and his crew have captured enough footage to make "an extremely compelling documentary" that will showcase the islands and promote their protection.
Michael Weiss, deputy director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland, applauds the effort of Cousteau and his Santa Barbara, California-based Ocean Futures Society.
"Anything that adds information that helps in our decision-making process is welcome," he said. The agency's goal is to see the region awarded sanctuary status. A final decision will be released in fall 2005.
Voyage to Kure is scheduled to air in fall 2004 on public television stations in the United States. Those who can't wait to watch the adventure on television can follow along via the Web site of Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society (see link below).
After nearly a month gathering impressions of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to share with the world, highlights for Cousteau include a thriving Galápagos shark population, the endearing curiosity of a well-known monk seal, and the territorial dominance gained by schools of giant trevally jacks (Caranx melampygus).
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