Cousteau to Explore Remote Pacific Islands

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 7, 2003
Jean-Michel Cousteau embarked Sunday on a voyage along a 1,200-mile (2,000- kilometer) chain of remote islands and coral reefs in the tropical Pacific Ocean to document the marine life that thrives there and the traces of humankind that linger.

The atolls stretch out towards Asia from the main Hawaiian Islands and are known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The islands serve as nesting grounds for green sea turtles (Chelonia brongniart), home to millions of seabirds, and a refuge for rare monk seals (Monachus fleming). The surrounding reefs swarm with life. But their remoteness has kept them out of the public eye and out of reach of even the most intrepid ocean explorers.

"I am always excited to go places I've never been, never taken a team," said Cousteau in a recent telephone interview. "People say I've been all over the world and seen everything. That's not true."

Jean-Micheal Cousteau, son of the famed late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, hopes to raise awareness of the islands and the need for their protection in a revved-up version of the documentary filmmaking genre that made his family name synonymous with ocean adventure.

Voyage to Kure will air in fall 2004 on public television. Kure is the outermost of the ten islands in the chain. En route to Kure, Cousteau and his crew of 22 will study and film the coral reefs and tiny patches of land, bringing them to the fore of the public eye.

"It is huge. It is as big as the Great Barrier Reef and, although probably quite different, there might be as many species. Who knows?," said Cousteau. "It is definitely the richest marine environment in the tropical part of the U.S."

In parallel with the Cousteau crew, a group of Polynesian sailors will "wayfind" to Kure as they explore the culture of the people who originally settled the islands. Wayfinding uses the ocean currents, wind, stars, sun, clouds, and birds as navigational guides.

The Polynesians originally settled the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands 3,000 years ago. Several of the islands contain archaeological remains of their shelters, agricultural terraces, and religious sites.

For the next six weeks those who can't wait to watch the adventure on television can participate virtually as an expedition account unfolds online. Expedition logs, photos, and e-mail messaging with the crew is available through the Web site of Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society.

Protecting the Islands

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands account for 85 percent of the tropical coral reefs controlled by the United States. It is the site of one of the country's oldest National Wildlife Refuges and was established as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

The region is proposed to become the 14th National Marine Sanctuary, a designation that would afford it even greater protection. Cousteau hopes that his film will support this initiative.

"It's a high opportunity to protect and preserve a part of the ocean which the U.S. can control and administer for the benefit of every citizen and every human being," he said. "That opportunity to me is something that I want to assist and push."

If established, the sanctuary would be five times larger than all of the existing 13 refuges combined, according to Cousteau. The sanctuary would be managed in a fashion similar to the U.S. National Park system, he said.

Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, said the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are symbolic of the resilience of nature and that Voyage to Kure will raise awareness of the need to protect them for future generations.

"If we secure this as a national treasure it will be a signal of hope that this country really cares about the ocean and that we can take measures at this pivotal point in history…to turn things around," she said.

Island History

The Polynesians retreated from the islands during the 18th century, leaving them largely void of human contact until they were exploited by Western businessmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Westerners sought riches mining guano produced by an estimated 10 million nesting seabirds for use as fertilizer on the main Hawaiian Islands. They also exported millions of albatross eggs and killed thousands of seabirds for their feathers which were used in clothing and pillows. Rabbits introduced to several islands destroyed native flora and fauna.

In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt established the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, closing them to exploitation. "In the early 20th century the foresight of the U.S. was to say, 'Enough was enough,'" said Cousteau.

Until 1996, the U.S. Navy kept an active base on Midway Atoll, which served as a refueling depot for transpacific flights during World War II. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now working to restore the atoll.

Today, visits to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are restricted to scientific expeditions. Cousteau and his crew must adhere to requirements that ensure the islands remain protected. One such measure dictates that the crew wear only new clothing that has been frozen to kill any foreign substances.

Earle, the marine biologist, said that the greatest threat facing the islands today comes from commercial fishing, particularly the practice known as longlining which strings baited hooks along the ocean for distances as long as 80 miles (130 kilometers).

The lines are set to catch species such as tuna (Thunna) and swordfish (Xiphias gladius linnaeus). But the bait also attracts seabirds such as albatross (Diomedea linnaeus) which dive after the bait and end up being dragged to their deaths. This practice in the islands would be controlled as a consequence of making them a marine sanctuary, said Earle.

"Protection for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is a starting point for what must be done on a grand scale worldwide," she said.

Editor's note: Check back for more stories on this expedition.

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