America's newest national monument is far out - in more ways than one.
Claire Johnson Fackler grew up swimming in Hawaii's waters, but she'd never seen anything like this. "I could see something large coming directly toward me from about 60 feet away. The only thing I'm really supposed to be terrified of would be a tiger shark," says the national education liaison for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuaries Program. "So I'm trying to assess what this thing is, and it comes to within a foot of my face. It was just a really curious large ulua [a giant predatory fish]. They look like big dogs, sort of. By the time it got close enough, I was like, 'Grab the camera! Grab the camera!' The fear of the unknown was gone. It was just amazing to see an ocean wilderness that has this type of diversity and abundance."
Fackler is one of a small group of scientists that have had the chance to dive in the waters of the newest U.S. national monument, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. It takes five days to sail the 1,200 miles from Honolulu to the farthest reaches of the islands. And although the nearly 140,000-square-mile area has been, to some degree, protected since the early 1900s, a presidential proclamation signed in June 2006 guarantees that it will be kept safe from unauthorized visitors and, even more importantly, that commercial fishing in the area will be eliminated within five years, says acting superintendent 'Aulani Wilhelm.
For researchers, a visit to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is like diving back in time. "It's radically different from the main Hawaiian islands and other islands where there's a lot of fishing that goes on. You've got a completely different cast of characters in the ecosystem," says John Rooney, coastal and marine geomorphologist for the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, a cooperative between NOAA and the University of Hawaii. As large predators, including sharks and uluas, and smaller types of fish are picked off, the ecosystem changes from coral dominated to algae dominated. Rooney, part of a team that is mapping the ocean floor, says the Caribbean and some areas around Florida are prime examples of this shift. But the remote location of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands has protected the area from being overfished. "You get up here and see just how unspoiled it is," says Rooney. "To realize you're looking at, to a large extent, how reefs were before humans came on the scene - it's just exciting to see that and to know that you're witnessing nature the way Mother Nature intended."