What that alien would see is one part of perhaps the most pristine archipelago in the Pacific: five remote isles named Caroline (commonly called Millennium), Flint, Vostok, Malden, and Starbuck, together known as the southern Line Islands. The waters around these uninhabited specks of land, located 1,500 to 2,100 miles south of Hawaii, are among the last truly wild places in an overexploited ocean.
Now that area will be protected. The Kiribati government recently declared a 12-nautical-mile fishing exclusion zone around each island, part of an effort led by Sala, a marine ecologist, and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project to document and conserve what’s left of the planet’s least spoiled marine environments. The creation of a southern Line Islands marine preserve is something Sala has been hoping for since he led an expedition to the region in 2009. “These islands help us understand what ‘pristine’ means,” he says. “From every perspective—coral density, fish biomass, the number of top predators, the biodiversity—their ecological story is amazing.”
During the 2009 expedition divers spent more than a thousand hours underwater around the five islands. What they found astonished them. On some reefs the corals were so dense they covered 90 percent of the seabed—vastly more than the 5 to 10 percent coral coverage found in the Caribbean.