“You'll never look at another reef the same way again,” says Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic divemaster, Justin Hofman, heaving his dripping gear into the Zodiac.
Known until the year 2000 as Caroline Island, Millennium Atoll was so named by the Kiribati government – thanks to some deft realignment of the international dateline - as the first place on the planet to see in the new millennium. Today a little cairn marks the occasion, around which remains the evidence of the celebration in the form of empty champagne bottles strewn in the sand.
Despite occasional visitation by humans over the centuries, including ancient Polynesians, Millennium Atoll stands as a biological 'baseline' for researchers wanting to compare today's stressed reef ecosystems with what is believed to be the most pristine such example anywhere on the planet. Certainly none of the several naturalists and biologists aboard could cite any system in better condition.
“It makes you wonder what our famous sites like the Great Barrier Reef or Raja Ampat would have been like when Captain Cook or Magellan sailed through here centuries ago,” says Justin, a staunch advocate for reef and marine preservation.
"The presence of such vast numbers of top predators is a key indicator of the reef's well-being," notes NG Naturalist guide, Dave Cothrane, "scientific folks call this 'an inverted trophic pyramid' where there are more predators than prey."
On every dive we are shadowed by schools of giant trevally, skittish jacks, cheeky snapper and even barracuda. There are so many sharks, we stop paying attention to them after a while. Silver tips, white tips, black tips and the bold and curious greys are always there wherever you look.
Another guest aboard the newly renovated National Geographic Oriongave pause to reassess the much overused superlative, 'paradise'.
“If paradise is supposed to be a place of perfect harmony, then humans have no place in paradise.”
That prophetic analogy certainly applies to such relatively unspoiled locations like Millennium and indeed many of the sites throughout the Southern Line Islands, like Flint Island we visited the day before.
These precious sites need our protection more than ever today, and with such concentrated populations of sharks and top predators, the ever-present danger of of unregulated fishing hangs like a dark shadow over what remains of the beautiful South Pacific Ocean.
For more information on the National Geographic Pristine Seas Project, visit here.
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About the Expeditionist
Roderick Eime has spent his whole life getting lost and the last two decades doing it professionally. From 4WD journeys across Australia to icebreakers in the polar seas, Rod isn't happy unless he's wondering where he is. In his quest to find oblivion, he's sailed all five oceans and many of the great rivers reporting for magazines and newspapers but has yet to fall off the edge of the world.