Millennium Atoll, the easternmost island of the Pacific nation Kiribati, is a rare pristine example of the coral reef ecosystem. Isolated from human disruption for centuries, the atoll is full of life as it would be without humans.
A team of ten researchers from a variety of American institutions conducted the first scientific survey of the island's central lagoon in April 2009. They found that the lagoon's pristine condition was helped not only by its remote geographical location but also the fact it is unusually enclosed from the surrounding ocean, with a large number of perimeter reefs helping to keep it isolated.
The researchers are confident the atoll can be used as a reference for what pristine coral reef ecosystems should look like. Over a hundred feet deep at its center, the lagoon averages depths of about twenty-five to forty feet. The team found that the dominant coral species had built on large platforms of older, stony coral species that had originally clumped at the bottom of the lagoon.
Rich in algae, the lagoon doesn't have the same species diversity of the surrounding ocean but makes up for it in the types of fish that call it home. The team speculates the lagoon is a crucial nursery area for the blacktip reef shark and the humphead wrasse, both of which are under heavy threat elsewhere but were abundant at Millennium Atoll. The lagoon is also home to a huge population of giant clams.
Also known as Caroline Island, the island was renamed in 1999 in anticipation of the new millennium. This name change was in recognition of the fact that, due to a time zone realignment in 1995 that had pushed the International Date Line to the east of Kiribati, Millennium Island would be the first non-Antarctic land to see the dawn of the millennium.
Despite this moment of global notoriety, the island's history has remained large devoid of human contact. Only a handful of people have inhabited the atoll at various points over the last few hundred years, and the rare visits that do occur are almost always restricted to coconut harvesting or guano mining. This is a big reason why the island has remained as pristine as it has. Unfortunately, climate change represents a huge threat to the continued existence of Millennium Island: only six feet above sea level, the government of Kiribati estimates rising ocean levels could reclaim the atoll in just fifteen years.
In the mean time, the scientists say that it's imperative the ecosystem remains undisturbed to preserve not just its status as a pristine example of a coral atoll but also the animal and plant species that call it home. Of course, I don't buy this for a second. If I know my 1960s British science fiction puppet shows (and, boy, do I ever!), remote islands in the Pacific previously untouched by humanity can mean only one thing: invaders from the deep!
(There's also a slight chance that the atoll could be the base of operations for a ridiculously wealthy family and their secret, world-spanning rescue organization, but most leading experts dismiss this as crazy talk.)