Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures

about this episode
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About: Voyage to Kure

Originally broadcast on April 5, 2006.
(check local listings for repeat airings)

"We are doing justice to the ocean. A lot has to be done, and it's going to take a lot of work. Perhaps with this expedition we can highlight to the world that it's not too late, the fact that it is time to recognize that our life support system has problems and thus, so do we."

- Jean-Michel Cousteau at the farewell ceremony launching the Kure voyage

red-footed boobies in tree
Red-footed boobies roost near the beach on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals. Photo credit: Tom Ordway
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Stretching more than 1,200 miles from Honolulu, the chain of islands and atolls known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) is one of the most remote places on Earth. Home to one of the largest coral reef systems in the world -- nearly as vast as Australia's Great Barrier Reef - the NWHI archipelago composed of 10 islands and more than 100 reefs and shoals. They create a rich tropical marine environment and form the foundation of an ecosystem that hosts more than 7,000 species, including marine mammals, fishes, sea turtles, birds and invertebrates. Many are rare, threatened or endangered. At least a quarter of them can be found nowhere else on Earth. They are protected by America's largest National Wildlife Refuge, open only to scientists.

The islands are an extension of the more familiar Hawaiian Islands, but few people have ever set foot on them or dived in their surrounding waters. Their remoteness, inaccessibility and protected status shield them from tourists. Parts of the NWHI are truly unexplored territories. Because of infrequent human contact, these islands and reefs, vibrant and rich with diverse underwater and avian life, create an amazing habitat for unique endemic species.

In Voyage to Kure, Jean-Michel Cousteau and his team of 20 experienced divers and scientists travel for six weeks aboard the Searcher to the farthest edge of the NWHI, the remote Kure Atoll. Along the way, they stop to explore reefs and islands teeming with life and to meet the researchers and scientists working to protect these fragile ecosystems. The Cousteau team's goal is to explore a realm that seems beyond human impact, to show its wonders to the world and to encourage its protection. Using the latest diving, filmmaking and communication technology, they are truly modern-day explorers.

Part I

double-hulled canoe with Searcher
Hokule'a, a traditional Hawaiian double-hulled canoe, escorts Searcher out of the harbor and out to open sea.
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Because Kure Atoll is so remote, the expedition ship, the Searcher, needed to be self-sufficient for the duration of the journey. The team packed the vessel with supplies -- including diving, filming and emergency equipment and a decompression chamber for diving emergencies -- for a crew of 20 for six weeks.

Before the expedition begins, some of the team dives off of the heavily populated Waikiki Beach, where they swim along desolate, dying reefs, brown in color.

"It's a heavily impacted situation," Randy Kosaki, a marine biologist with the NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, tells the team. "Unless you see someplace like the NWHI, I don't think you really understand that this is not how these reefs are supposed to be."

The value in exploring the NWHI is to create a comparison, he explains. The NWHI serve as a window to the past to see what fish populations once were like around the main islands and maybe what they could become again -- with proper management.

The first stop on Voyage to Kure is Mokumanamana Island, 300 miles from the main islands. It is a treeless rock that was once a sacred destination for ancient Polynesians. This is the team's first dive on the expedition, a shakedown dive during which they test equipment and practice diving together in rough seas and strong winds -- with 10 divers operating lights, cameras and cables, dives can quickly become complicated. After initial glitches with the light system and housing, the divers turn their attention to the stark and rugged beauty around them.

dead albatross chick
A Laysan albatross chick carcass shows a gut containing a toothbrush, a cigarette lighter, and a pencil. Photo credit: Holly Lohuis
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The team explores the sacred island on foot, and it is here that they encounter the first example of the paradox in paradise. Jean-Michel fills a bag with man-made debris he picks up on the island that was brought here in the bellies of birds. The birds had ingested the debris, then died on this island, leaving behind the indigestible contents of their stomachs. The debris is a powerful reminder of the far-reaching impact of humans.

The team continues on, to explore two rich and vibrant dive sites 100 miles west at French Frigate Shoals, a coral atoll that once surrounded a large volcano. At nearby Tern Island, the site of a World War II landing strip and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife field station, the Cousteau team encounters thousands of nesting seabirds and the resident scientists who count and research the birds. Because the island is a former military installation, many man-made structures remain, providing nesting habitat for the birds. Life revolves around the birds on Tern Island, and the researchers, who have had a presence here since 1979, work around the wildlife.

"If a bird nests in the middle of the path," says one researcher, "we make a path around it."

brown noddy
The brown noddy is one of several seabird species found on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals. Photo credit: Tove Petterson
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The team stays four days, learning about bird feeding and nesting behavior from biologists on the island and watching fascinating sea turtle, shark and seabird behavior from a web cam positioned on one of the island's beaches.

At La Perouse Pinnacle, biologist Jim Maragos documents the status of the corals and creates a baseline of information on healthy systems to be used as a comparison for corals in heavily impacted regions. He counts growth rings to tell the age of the corals. Here, in these healthy reefs 400 miles away from the main islands, the team finds the beauty and biological exuberance that may have once adorned all the Hawaiian Island reefs.

Two hundred miles farther, at Raita Bank, an undersea mountain peak, the team completes a deepwater dive to 140 feet. Some divers use open-circuit systems, and others take advantage of the more advanced rebreathers, which allow divers to stay underwater longer. The team's excitement grows because they are diving and filming in a place no other diver has ever seen. They are 100 miles from the nearest island, and they must be careful not to be swept away in the strong current. In this deep dive, they enter a world of sharks and other top predators.

coral reef ecosystem
Invertebrates, reef fish and a Galapagos shark - a top predator in the food chain - are key components of a healthy coral reef ecosystem in the NWHI. Photo credit: Tom Ordway
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At 746 square miles, Maro Reef is the largest coral reef in the NWHI. Because it is dangerous to navigate, it has not been studied very closely. Here the Cousteau team explores the delicate and beautiful creatures of these lush, jungle-like reefs. Using their lights, Jean-Michel and Holly Lohuis closely examine exotic reef creatures, including sea slugs and sea stars. Suddenly a pack of Galapagos sharks cruises into view. Although these sharks are considered dangerous, on this time they do not exhibit the telltale sign of aggressiveness -- an arched back. The divers continue their exploration with a heightened sense of awareness and appreciation for the vast, beautiful and unpredictable underwater world around them before returning to the surface to share their tales of discovery with the rest of the crew.

Part II

Having covered more than 900 miles of the ancient Pacific, exploring the remote tropical paradise of islands and reefs, the Cousteau team continues its unique adventure on tiny Laysan Island. Because of this island's unique history and its exceptional vulnerability to invasive plants and animals, the crew takes radical precautions to avoid accidentally contaminating the island. Before they had set out on this journey, they each had packed a set of brand-new clothes, which were sprayed with DEET, sealed, frozen for 48 hours, then stowed aboard the ship. These measures prevent foreign seeds and tiny creatures from taking over the island.

marine debris littering beach
Jean-Michel Cousteau walks along one of the most remote beaches on Laysan Island, littered for miles with all kinds of man-made debris. Photo credit: Nan Marr
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife workers on the island are fighting to revive the island's native ecosystem, which was decimated by guano miners, poachers and the rabbits imported by humans in the 1880s to supplement their food supply. The rabbits eventually overran the island and left it entirely devoid of vegetation. Sandstorms were common, and with no vegetation left to hold down the soil, the sand would drift into piles, burying seabirds and killing them. Even today, workers say, they sometimes come across birds buried in the sand. To revive the island's vegetation and prevent further destruction by sandstorms, they are planting native plants. Scientists show the Cousteau team their nursery, and the team helps to plant a native grass.

"We want to make the community as much like before as we can," says Dr. Elizabeth Flint, the expedition's supervisory wildlife biologist and seabird expert.

Before leaving Laysan, Jean-Michel explores the wreck of a Japanese longliner and something even more sinister -- piles of man-made debris strewn across the beaches, swept here from the open ocean. The trash is brought by ocean currents and by birds who mistakenly feed on the debris.

"Nature can take a lot of punishment. These creatures here are doing unbelievably well when you think what they have to put up with. At the same time, perhaps too much is too much," says Jean-Michel as he sifts through the piles of brightly colored lighters, mascara tubes, toys, toothbrushes and vials.

divers collect nets
Director of Photography, Paul Atkins, films Chief Diver, Blair Mott as he helps the NOAA Marine Debris team pull up a net at Midway Atoll. Photo credit: Tom Ordway
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But the same ocean currents that bring trash from all over the world to these islands also nourish these exceptional seascapes of abundant diversity and beauty. The currents act like a giant whirlpool, concentrating everything, trash and nutrients, at the center of the ocean -- the NWHI.

At the next stop, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, the team embarks on a night dive. There is a problem with one of the rebreathers, and one of the dive teams is delayed. When Jean-Michel and Holly are finally able to get in the water, strong currents make diving and filming difficult. Suddenly their light goes out, and they are blinded, suspended in the dark sea. The problem is temporary and the light goes back on, but they are in the dark long enough to be reminded of the delicacies of diving enterprises, particularly a thousand miles from the nearest rescue. On Midway Atoll, the most famous of the outer islands and the site of a decisive World War II battle, the Cousteau team again encounters the dramatic and destructive impact humans have on these wild islands. They discover a bird carcass filled with man-made debris, evidence of a fatal last meal. Researchers say that 150,000 pounds of this kind of debris makes its way to Midway Island every year. Much of the destruction is in the form of discarded fishing nets that get tangled up in surrounding coral reefs, strangling marine mammals, trapping other creatures, picking up live coral -- essentially destroying everything in their path. The Cousteau team joins volunteers on a dive to find these nets and rid the habitat of them. In carrying out their mission, the volunteer net grabbers cover hundreds of square miles, and on the day they are joined by the team, 542 pounds of net are collected from nearby reefs.

pod of spinner dolphins
A pod of spinner dolphins cruise through the lagoon at Kure Atoll. Photo credit: Tom Ordway
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Twelve hundred miles from the start of their journey, Kure Atoll is home to a high concentration of spinner dolphins. They swim out to meet the Searcher like a welcoming committee. Just like on the other islands, marine debris is an ongoing problem here.

The atoll lies in the path of a major Pacific current, resulting in tons of fishing nets and debris washing up on the reefs and beaches. Yet in many ways, Kure is the marine paradise that the team hoped to find: rich, glistening schools of fish, Galapagos sharks gorging on reef fish, scores of spinner dolphins and monk seals, and coral reefs bursting with vibrant marine life.

"What we found in one of the most remote island chains on the planet is a rare example of the sea's richness and beauty when undisturbed by human intrusions," says Jean-Michel. "A place where the ancient ocean lives on, where great hunters still roam wild reefs, where great ocean travelers settle to raise their young. We must restore much of the earth from our impact, but these faraway jewels of the sea still thrive with life. We need only to protect them from human harm and let them be."

divers underwater
Divers marvel at the crystal clear waters of the NWHI.
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