Location: Starbuck Island, Kiribati
by Wayne & Karen Brown
It's a little breezier this morning. We are in the wheelhouse with Captain Frank. Off in the distance we can just barely see our next stop -- Starbuck Island! It is a lot smaller and flatter than Christmas Island. It looks like a white line drawn across the ocean. It is only 8 square miles (21 sq. kilometers). The highest point of land is only 15 feet (4.5 meters) above sea level. No one lives on this island. We can see why. It's all sand and no trees!
As we get closer it looks like there are a few trees growing here, but only about 16 palm trees growing in the middle of the island. Big John was here 10 years ago and he says that when he was here before there were only 3 palm trees here. These new palms must be from those original three. Like most coral atolls this is the top of a submerged volcano. The sides are very steep, so the reef drops off into deep water very close to shore.
We stop about 1/4 mile (4.4 kilometers) off the island and lower the Zodiacs in the water. It are no harbors, docks, or coves here. Because of this we can only land on this island if the conditions are perfect. Unfortunately it is choppy and there is a strong breeze, so we will not be going ashore here. We are probably won't be missing much. Unlike Cook Island there are no swarms of birds to watch. There are probably plenty of fish to watch, though. And that is what we will be doing...We will be snorkeling on the reefs from our Zodiacs.
The reef starts very close to shore. In fact, the shore is actually a raised part of the reef! With our Zodiac anchored, and our AQUA LUNG snorkeling equipment on, we back-flip into the warm, blue water.
The water is extremely clear. The underwater visibility is over 200 feet (60 m). This is some of the clearest water we have seen anywhere! Unfortunately most of the reef is dead corals. A few clumps of corals (6"-2'/0.15-0.6 m in diameter) grow scattered across the reef.
A lot of the reef is covered with green and grey algae. This is surprising to us. In this remote area, with no pollution or sediment that could damage and kill corals we expected to see lots of corals. Maybe there are not enough sea animals here that eat algae, like sea urchins and fishes. We see hardly any sea urchins. We do see several different kinds of algae-eating fish, just not in large schools as we saw at Cook Island.
Maybe many of the algae-eating fish are being eaten by lots of predators. Swimming across the reef is one of those predators right now -- a shark! Actually, as we look around we see more than just one shark. There must be a least 8 sharks that we can see swimming all around the reef, between the cuts in the reefs, in the shallow water, deep water, close to the corals!
These sharks are from 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 m) long. We are not worried about these sharks, though. These are blacktip reef sharks. We can tell they are blacktip reef sharks because of the black tips on their fins. These sharks are the most common sharks in the shallow lagoons and coral reefs of the tropical Pacific Ocean. The biggest they get is only 6 feet (1.8m) long. With their narrow, sharp teeth, they catch and eat reef fish.
We were surprised that we did not see blacktip reef sharks at Christmas Island because that is were many of them have been caught and sent to aquariums around the world. (If you have blacktip reef sharks at your local aquarium they are probably from Christmas Island.)
The sharks obviously know we are here, but they are just ignoring us. The only time we get any reaction from them is swim under a coral ledge and pop out as a shark swims by. Then the shark turns around and swim back the other way. The sharks are just slowly cruising around. They are usually more active at dawn and dusk, because that is the time they usually feed.
As the sharks swim around the other fish seem to be ignoring them, too. They must know that this is not the sharks' feeding time.
As we watch, one shark swims by some fish and it casually turns its head and sucks up a fish that swam a little too close to the shark. The shark did this is slowly and casually it looks like the other fish do not even notice that one of their buddies is missing. Even though this is not the normal feeding time for the sharks we can see that the sharks may grab fishes that are not alert for a quick snack. The moral of this story is -- never trust a shark!
As we hold our breath and swim down, close to the reef, we discover an animal that the shark would probably not try to eat. It is a devil scorpionfish! It looks just like the algae-covered corals it is laying on! Unlike other fish, scorpionfish can grow algae on their skin to help them camouflage themselves. Scorpionfish do not swim around as other fish do. Scorpionfish lay still on the bottom, looking like part of the reef. If a small fish comes by too close and doesn't see the scorpionfish, the scorpionfish will leap up and grab it for lunch.
Sharks would not want to eat a scorpionfish, because, like a scorpion, it has poisonous stingers. Its poisonous stingers are its hollow dorsal spines. The scorpionfish sitting so still and close to us, that we could actually touch it. We don't. Like the sharks, we don't want to be stung either! The sting wouldn't kill us, but it would hurt a lot, like we were stung by a bee.
Unfortunately, we can't stay here all day. We return to the ship for lunch and start our voyage to our next stop. Tomorrow we will visit another remote and uninhabited island -- Vostok Island.
Wayne & Karen Brown
Starbuck Island, Kiribati
Position: 5º 38' S / 155º 55' W
Air Temp: 84ºF
Weather: strong breeze, clear skies with scattered clouds
Sea Conditions: choppy seas
Water Temp: 82ºF
Underwater Visibility: 200 feet
Clownfish Seen: 0
Sharks Seen: 8
In the distance you can see the white line in the ocean that is Starbuck Island. (Enlarge the photo to see the palm trees growing in the center.)
We have our Zodiacs pulled up on the beautiful white, coral sand beach at Cook Island.
On the reef, clumps of corals grow among patches of green and grey algae.
A small school of algae-eating white-spotted surgeonfish and convict tangs swim across a narrow canyon in the reef.
Cruising across the reef, this 6 foot long blacktip reef shark, just grabbed a fish and ate it!
Laying still on the coral reef is this devil scorpionfish. (Enlarge the photo to more easily see its eyes, fins, and mouth.)