Phoenix Islands Protected Area

 

Schmidt Ocean Institute website

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage Site on Earth. Approximately the size of California, PIPA was the first Marine Protected Area (MPA) of its kind. Created in 2008, it is about halfway between Hawaii and Fiji within the territorial waters of the Republic of Kiribati. Above the water, eight low-lying islands exist in the MPA, but the real beauty is below the surface. Huge tracts of deep ocean are pierced by over 25 underwater volcanoes. Seamounts along with atolls and submerged reefs create one of the last isolated coral archipelago ecosystems, virtually untouched by mankind. The biological density is phenomenal with more than 500 fish species, an abundance of sharks and turtles, and at least 120 types of coral – but that is just in the shallows. PIPA is also the first protected area in Pacific where depths exceed 16,400 feet (5,000 meters), and entirely unknown species are sure to live at those depths.

In October, Dr. Erik Cordes (Temple University) and his team will explore never seen before seamounts and atolls within PIPA. Along with Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) SuBastian, the science team will conduct some of the first ROV dives in these locations, some down to 4,000 meters. The dive missions will provide a first glimpse of many of these habitats that will help determine what PIPA is protecting at these depths, and inform the future management of this area. In previous seamount expeditions high proportions of new species have been found, and therefore the team is expecting to observe new types of deep-sea corals and their associated species. Scientists also plan to explore how countercurrents running through the study area could create boundaries, providing a better understanding of coral connectivity across the Pacific.