By Daniel de la Calle
In a world of persistent human interference and degradation we sometimes forget that, unbelievable as it now may seem, there still are a few barely touched paradises left in this ever-shrinking planet. While extreme northern and southern locations have inclement weather and remoteness as their accomplices, to imagine a tropical nirvana of atolls, coral reefs, turquoise waters and swaying coconut trees atop bright sands is almost impossible without at least a handful of exclusive bungalows on stilts and room service added to the picture. And still, the truth is that a handful of such places are out there, like this small atoll some 1,000 miles south of Hawaii in which our presence is mostly noticed in what the currents and winds choose to blow its direction. The waters remain pristine, virgin.
I simply cannot visualize a place like Palmyra. I come from an eroded continent where all that could be touched was, and many times. For us over in Europe every inch of ground has been paved, built, pounded, burnt, bled on, extracted or cultivated; scars cover every inch of soil. Although I love those marks, those traces like the wrinkles, scars and lines on a hand that speak as much of time past as are windows to the future, the yearning for a primeval, wild landscape is the true river within me. I would go quite a ways to once set foot on a Palmyra; I find it soothing to simply know it exists. The closest I have ever been to Palmyra or to the idea of paradise is the Big Island of Hawaii. Here is a picture of its coastline, looking north towards Alaska, unfortunately.
But do not let me deviate from what I meant to write today. Palmyra has been a Nature Conservancy preserve for the past 10 years (saved in 2000 from becoming a retirement development or a nuclear waste dump). With a protected area of 13 million acres, it is a fundamental research site for scientists, an environment devoid of most human pressures. That is because, as Dr. Jenn Caselle of the University of California at Santa Barbara puts it “many scientists have come to the conclusion that studying degraded reefs will not give us the answers we need to restore them. We’ve got to study healthy reefs like those at Palmyra to understand how coral reefs used to be and how they should be in the future. That’s the only way we are going to restore reefs worldwide. […] We can’t effectively restore coral reefs if we don’t know what a healthy one looks like. Palmyra provides a baseline for how a healthy reef functions, so we can set the right conservation and restoration goals for other reefs that have been damaged by pollution and overfishing.”
One of the first shocks researchers go through when diving in Palmyra is the number of sharks in its waters. Their studies conclude that large predators comprise more than half of the fish biomass in the atoll, a much higher figure than anticipated. You can see for yourself in this video that Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, posted on the web last month.
Mr. Tercek mentions in an article for the Huffington Post that the atoll corals seem to be coping better with bleaching and ocean acidification. It could be because they do not have to fight on too many fronts all at once. He adds that “if pollution and over-fishing are kept to a minimum, corals are stronger and much more resilient than previously thought”.