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360 video: Visiting the ‘island of seabirds,’ an uninhabited remote wildlife refuge in American Samoa

To see how one of the most remote places on earth is being impacted by climate change, NewsHour Weekend traveled last fall to Rose Atoll, an uninhabited wildlife refuge in American Samoa. We had to get a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then chartered a boat for an eight-hour ocean voyage. Using a GoPro Fusion 360 camera, we’ve captured scenes to allow viewers to become immersed in the wildlife, sounds and natural beauty of the atoll.

Watch the 360 video in the player above, and follow along with the script below.

» On a mobile device? Watch the 360 video directly on YouTube here.

Motu o Manu: Island of Seabirds
A 360 video of Rose Atoll

Mike Taibbi: The southernmost point of the United States is not in Florida or Hawaii… or even in the northern hemisphere. It’s here, the smallest in this chain of American Samoa islands.

To get there, we chartered a boat from Pago Pago in American Samoa, 180 miles — about an 8-hour boat ride — to this tiny speck of a place.

Hi, I’m Mike Taibbi, special correspondent for NewsHour Weekend…

This is a 360 video, which means you can look in all directions.

I’m holding the camera behind you. 

Those are producers Laura Fong and Mori Rothman. 

Out there, ahead of us, is Rose Atoll, designated since 2009 as a protected marine national monument.

We got a special permit in the fall to film here with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here’s our host Brian Peck of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Rose Island’s official caretaker. In that role, he’s come to know the island better than anyone — one of the most frequent human visitors to one of the least visited places on the planet.

Rose Atoll, all of 16 acres, is uninhabited and has absolutely no infrastructure.

So we had to bring everything with us that we’d need for a four-day stay, including tents and food and equipment.

Now when you land on the island, one of the first things you’ll see is this sign that says “no trespassing.” That’s Brian Peck’s work.

Brian Peck: It’s intended to warn sailors and whoever else that the atoll, the national wildlife refuge, is closed to public entry.

Mike Taibbi: The island is also known to the Samoans as Motu o Manu or “Island of Seabirds.” 

Brian Peck: Tiny place, tiny reef, but it’s critical for this entire region of the south-central Pacific Ocean. In American Samoa, over 90% of the seabirds nest here on Rose Island.  

Mike Taibbi: What you’re hearing are the cries of hungry sooty tern chicks. 

Too young to fly on their own, they are waiting and wailing for their parents to return with food. Sooty tern parents can differentiate their chick’s specific call from that of the other thousands of other hatchlings. 

Brian Peck: This is a seabird colony. We’re in the middle of it. We’ve seen red footed boobies, the brown noddies, the red-tailed tropicbirds, especially the birds that nest on the ground are thriving here because there’s no predators. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we eradicated rats back in 1993, and there’s no cats or other predators. So the ground nesters are thriving.

Mike Taibbi: A short dinghy ride from Rose is the four-acre Sand Island. While some birds may rest here, the island has no vegetation, so it’s not an appealing nesting site. The Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the constant changes in Sand Island’s perimeter, which is one way to track the impact of sea level rise. 

Back on Rose, there is a cluster of coconut trees, which are native to the island — but here they act like an invasive species by taking up much of the limited freshwater.

Brian Peck: The freshwater here is very limited. We’re only 10 feet above sea level. And so it’s that competition of freshwater. So we’re just controlling the coconuts to a small patch and hopefully to allow the Pisonia to spread. 

Mike Taibbi: Strawberry hermit crabs are one of the few invertebrate species on the island, and along with the green sea turtles who return here by the dozens to mate and lay their eggs every few years, they’re among the few wildlife species here who never take to the air… on Motu o Manu… the  “island of the seabirds.”

And from here, on tiny Rose Atoll, and all of American Samoa, is the last place to see earth’s sunset before the start of the next new day.

Find more stories in our series Samoan Islands: Shifting Tides