"Voyage to Kure" Discovers a Paradox in Paradise

From Jean-Michel Cousteau's Expedition Log - Voyage to Kure
August 2003

In more than four decades of exploring the world ocean, I have learned with each expedition to expect the unexpected. Our "Voyage to Kure" once again confirmed that for everything familiar, we find the astonishing. This truly was a discovery of a paradox in paradise.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a 1,200-mile chain of islands and atolls that form one of the most remote places on Earth, gave us a remarkable glimpse of an ecosystem largely untainted by human interaction, yet still impacted by the modern world far beyond the horizon. We studied and filmed a realm that is thriving in many respects, but is perched on a very precarious balance between boundless diversity and ominous destruction.

Sprawling out before us, the coral reefs along the NWHI live in a hostile environment. They are among the northernmost coral reefs on the planet and live in more temperate conditions than their southern relatives. The slightest change in water temperature of these "reefs on the edge" could alter everything. Ever present, unpredictable weather conditions also make this coral kingdom a city under siege.

On land, the story is much the same. These islands are a celebration of the uniqueness brought on by isolation, and those who are dedicated to protect them—the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources—do their utmost to safeguard these terrestrial treasures. To prevent the introduction of new and intrusive species from microbes to foreign plants and insects, our crew literally had a set of brand-new clothes designated to wear on remote Laysan Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll and Mokumanamana. The clothes had to be frozen for 48 hours to kill any potential invaders, then worn only for that island. These are precautions most people think only apply to hospitals and sealed vapor locks of outer space. But, this is care we must take to keep one of the last remnants of a mostly intact ecosystem from fracturing forever.

The NWHI are healthy, but under attack. The main enemies are the byproducts of the human world. We found a place that is fragile and where time is of the essence to correct the reckless habits of humankind. But, we are not too late.

First, the good news. Along this ribbon of life, we found teaming populations of spinner dolphins and large apex predators such as reef sharks, jacks, and amberjacks. We encountered many of the Hawaiian endemic species of reef fish, including the rare masked angelfish and Hawaiian grouper; all perfect reminders of an intact coral reef ecosystem.

While their population has dwindled to less than 1,500, the seldom-seen monk seals were our companions at many of our dive sites, frolicking around our vessel, sunning themselves on the beaches and were inquisitive around our divers.

What struck our crew most was that these creatures, both fish and mammal, showed no fear of humans. Because they have so little contact with people and have lived in or near a national wildlife refuge, they did not know to be afraid. This natural trust, borne from an ignorance of what is happening elsewhere in the ocean, gave us all pause. If not for state and federal protection and the splendid work of dedicated yet undermanned authorities, could a rapacious fishing industry deplete these beautiful creatures in only a few weeks time? The thought is frightening to those of us who have seen these magnificent beings for ourselves.

The signature seabirds of these islands—Laysan and black-footed albatross, and sooty terns—abound by the millions. Like their marine neighbors, they too knew no fear. They alighted on our heads, our cameras, and our shoulders; wherever they could find a place to perch. But, this seabird plentitude is in peril.

There is grim news we must all face. Many of you who have been following our logs, or reading and viewing news reports, are aware of the shocking scenes that we found along the shoreline and reefs of these islands. Hundreds of seabirds, mostly young albatross, lie dead along the beaches with an endless variety of plastics lodged in their decomposing bodies. On almost every island we explored, the landscape was littered with the discarded products of human society from thousands of miles away—cigarette lighters, golf balls, toothbrushes, children's toys, and fishing floats among others.

While the NWHI are largely uninhabited, the North Pacific gyre, a convergence zone of the entire North Pacific Ocean acts as a "pollution highway," bearing plastic debris along its path. These plastics become encrusted with fish eggs and are plucked from the ocean by albatross adults seeking food for their chicks. They swallow the eggs encasing the plastics, return to their chicks, and regurgitate the deadly combination into the hungry mouths of their young. These young birds simply cannot digest plastic materials and the accumulation of plastics over the first six months of their lives can result in starvation and possible death.

We collected and documented thousands of plastic products that covered the NWHI. They came from all over the world—the U.S., Japan, France, countries throughout Asia and around the globe. Pollution like this knows no nationality. We cannot blame one country or culture. The "citizenship" of this pollution belongs to all of us, and it is our charge to find an answer for the proper disposal of non-biodegradable products that are affecting every level of this delicate food chain.

I am hopeful. When our photos of the plastic-strewn beaches of the NWHI first appeared in the world media, our Ocean Futures Society office in California received hundreds of emails from outraged people, mostly from the State of Hawaii, wanting to help clean-up this scar upon their environment. I want to thank you all for your concern and commitment. It is our goal to return with a large volunteer crew one day in the near future to completely remove all plastic debris from Laysan Island so we can measure, for the first time, how quickly the blanket of foreign objects takes to return. Gaining approval for this task from the various government agencies charged with protecting the NWHI will take time as we navigate the process. But, we will keep the public notified of our progress.

The devastation we witnessed from pollution was not limited to plastics. Hundreds of tons of fishing nets clog the reefs along the NWHI, tearing away precious coral and entangling all sorts of marine life, including sea turtles, Monk seals and seabirds. Valiant efforts by NOAA to retrieve these mountains of abandoned nets can’t keep up with their sheer numbers. Our divers assisted in hauling up some of the nets we found in deeper waters, and I can assure you it's a tedious and difficult task to disentangle these monstrous webs caught on the fragile coral reefs.

Threats to marine life, and especially seabirds, in the NWHI are not limited to plastics and fishing gear. Authorities estimate more than 4,500 Black-footed albatross die every year in this region, becoming snared by the long-line fishing industry.

While we were often overwhelmed by the vastness of the challenges the NWHI faces, we were heartened daily by the small, intimate stories we found during our journey. Our crew was enamoured with our precocious playmate, Monk seal #030, who was always there to greet us on our night dives, three evenings in a row . We became instant friends with the Bodeen family who live on Midway Island and reside in a "neighborhood" few of us can image. And, of course, there's Lanai, our Laysan albatross mascot, who warmed all of our hearts. The injured fledgling joined our ship as we brought her to an animal rehabilitation park in Honolulu where she will serve as an ambassador representing all the species found in the NWHI.

Why was the expedition team so touched by these vignettes? Because this team has heart that goes far beyond the science and the filmmaking we set out to do. Twenty-three people from four countries bound by one common goal—explore this rare spot on the globe and tell the world the exceptional sights, sounds and stories we had the privilege to see for ourselves. In five weeks aboard the Searcher, we all made the inevitable compromises in close quarters to make both living and working a pleasure.

You can have great leadership on your team, but it would be meaningless without a formidable crew who are highly trained, prepared and imbued with the spirit of discovery. I am very proud of each and every member of this expedition, and they have my respect and gratitude.

The statistics themselves tell an important part of the story. We landed on seven different islands throughout this vast archipelago. Our team made 269 dives, including 17,208 minutes underwater. That translates into 287 hours of filming beneath the surface or one diver underwater 12 days around the clock.

Only the technology we have today allowed us to make this documentary in five weeks. These are wonders of design and technical skill that my father could have only dreamed of when I was a child.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will always remain a special place for our team, and we hope this documentary, Voyage to Kure, will make their conservation and preservation important to the world. We need a global, comprehensive management plan for the entire NWHI chain, and we must continue to support the process to elevate its status from a coral reef reserve to a national marine sanctuary. This will build upon the existing safeguards afforded by the reserve and current U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services' protected waters and lands, ultimately providing even greater protection than exists now.
Just as importantly, we need to provide more research funding and support to the dedicated men and women of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA who are giving their all to safeguard the NWHI. With the constant threat of illegal fishing, intrusive species and human pollution, we should give them the opportunity to succeed at the highest level.

When we embarked on this expedition, our native Polynesian friends described to us the ancient wisdom of malama—a caring for our land and sea to ensure a balance among all forms of life. What we saw and filmed over five weeks showed that balance to be threatened, but unbowed. Now, the outcome belongs to all of us and our collective will to protect one of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth.