Eye-opening Journey to a Pristine Coral Paradise


For Robert Rex, the expedition represented a rare opportunity to visit an unspoiled coral reef.

“I have a new appreciation for the natural world,” said Rex. “A 90-million-year-old reef—to see it alive and healthy is an incredible eye opener. Breathtaking.”

Rex was one of a handful of participants in the “Journey to Millennium Atoll,” an expedition to the Central Pacific Ocean’s Southern Line Islands organized by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Researchers at Scripps have been exploring the Line Islands for nearly a decade in an effort to understand how human impacts from threats such as overfishing, pollution, and warming ocean temperatures have damaged the planet’s coral reefs, which are extremely valuable from both ecological and economic perspectives. By investigating the natural reef ecosystem and its processes at the virtually untouched Millennium Atoll, scientists can further their understandings of the mechanisms behind naturally functioning reef systems and develop ways to help damaged reefs recover, as well as supply scientific knowledge to coral reef management.

“I had never seen (an unspoiled atoll) before,” said Rex, a geologist and Scripps alumnus. “It’s important that these atolls be preserved. It was good to see an area that humans haven’t messed up. Man’s impact is unbelievably severe.”

The eight-day expedition gave participants an immersive, hands-on experience with Scripps scientists and graduate student researchers. Half of each participant’s $25,000 expedition cost is being directed to support coral reef research through the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps.

This expedition gave Scripps supporters a unique opportunity to be involved and engaged in Scripps science. Beyond visiting the Scripps campus in La Jolla, Scripps supporters have opportunities such as the Millennium Atoll expedition to learn about human impacts on the environment first hand, along with ways to help find solutions.

Led by Scripps marine ecologists Stuart Sandin and Jennifer Smith, the trip included fully scheduled days of ocean adventure and exploration, from diving and snorkeling in the day to interactive science discussions in the evening.

“We have the opportunity as scientists to see some of the most remote, unimpacted places that exist on the planet. It’s a shame that it’s so hard for other people to access these places so this trip was an opportunity to be able to bring some interested people out there with us,” said Smith, who admits that she still gets goose bumps when witnessing the beauty and natural wonder of locations such as Millennium Atoll. “To see the enthusiasm and the looks on their faces was priceless… You’re really out there in the wild and to be able to share some of that first hand with these folks, and to see how excited they were by it, just instilled more enthusiasm in us for what we do.”

“Having returned from our research cruise to all five of the Southern Line Islands, I better appreciate how unique and spectacular Millennium Atoll truly is,” said Christian McDonald, Scripps diving safety officer, the current leader of a program that is a recognized leader in diving safety. “It was a real pleasure to discover and explore this special place with this group of people."

Related Image Gallery: Journey to Millennium Atoll

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