Millennium Atoll… a biological baseline for reef health?

Mill sala caption

“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.

Shark at Millenium Atoll

Grey reef shark – so close, it would easily fill the frame (Roderick Eime)

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.”

Millenium Atoll divers with sharks

Grey reef sharks displayed no fear around divers (Roderick Eime)

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 Orion gave 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.”

Snapper at Millennium Atoll

Fearless snapper would approach us, even nibbling at threads on our wetsuits and camera cables. (Roderick Eime)

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.

Divers with manta at Millennium Atoll

Manta Ray swam through our group of divers (Roderick Eime)

More here about National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project.

Roderick Eime is a widely published award-winning travel journalist combining his love for expedition cruising with diving to produce occasional location reports for