for National Geographic News
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.
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