The goals of the Pristine Seas project is to find, survey, and help protect the last wild places in the ocean. It is essential that we let the world know that these places exist, that they are threatened, and that they deserve to be protected. To this end, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, in collaboration with the Government of France, carried out a 16-day expedition to Clipperton Atoll in March 2016 to conduct comprehensive quantitative surveys of the health of its largely unknown marine environment and produce a documentary film to highlight this unique ecosystem. The research included quantitative surveys of shallow flora and fauna using scuba diving, pelagic (open ocean) communities using baited stereo-cameras, and deep-sea habitats using National Geographic’s drop-cams and a 3-person submersible. We also used acoustic and satellite tags to examine movement of apex predators such as sharks and tunas.
Some 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Baja California lies the Revillagigedo Archipelago, which consists of four islands of volcanic origin: Socorro, Clarion, San Benedicto, and Roca Partida. Since 1994, they have been declared a Mexican biosphere reserve, but only six nautical miles around the islands were protected. The rest of the waters of the archipelago were subject to industrial and sport fishing, mostly targeting large ocean predators. The expedition to the Revillagigedo Archipelago supported by Blancpain encouraged a recent decision (2017) made by the Mexican government to create the largest marine protected area in North America. Extending over some 148,000 km2, this new reserve will contribute to the protection of the hundreds of species that inhabit or pass through the archipelago.
Climate projections forecast the total disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic by 2040, with the exception of one place: the "last ice area," north of Greenland and Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. This area will likely harbor the largest concentration of Arctic wildlife that depends on the sea ice edge for survival, including bowhead whales, seals, narwhals, and polar bears. Less sea ice also means the northward expansion of fishing, shipping, mining, and drilling. These emerging threats will affect not only the wildlife but also the Inuit communities that have traditionally relied on these animals for food, dress, shelter, and energy. To raise awareness of these dramatic changes in the high Arctic, Pristine Seas has collaborated with the World Wildlife Fund-Canada and worked closely with Inuit communities to document their stories and traditions.
The Galápagos Islands are a hotspot of biodiversity and endemicity, both on land and at sea. They are one of the most “unique and irreplaceable” areas in the world, including 57 species in the IUCN Red List. Another unique characteristic of these islands is the unconventional coexistence of tropical species, temperate species, and typically Southern Ocean species within a small geographic region. Despite the Galápagos Islands’ unparalleled value to our natural heritage, little scientific information existed on their marine ecosystems beyond the narrow, shallow strip of ocean surrounding the archipelago. And, until recently, less than 1 percent of the islands’ waters was fully protected from fishing.
In September 2015, the Pristine Seas team explored the Selvagens Islands, conducting among the first surveys of the islands’ underwater ecosystems—from shallow to deep—and filming the biodiversity around the islands. Located nearly midway between Madeira and the Canary Islands in the North Atlantic, this small archipelago is Portugal’s southernmost territory, comprised of two main islands and multiple islets. In recognition of their importance as a nesting point for numerous species of birds, the Selvagens Islands were designated as a natural reserve in 1971. However, little is known about the pelagic environment around these islands. As part of Portugal’s Madeira Nature Park, the waters surrounding the islands are protected out to 12 miles and only to the depth of 200 meters.
Situated just north of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles are a remote archipelago of 115 islands. Though the islands are known as a celebrity vacation destination, they hold natural treasures far greater in value. The Outer Seychelles Islands are home to pristine miniature worlds that contain untouched habitats teeming with wildlife.
In its first expedition of 2015, the Pristine Seas team journeyed to the island groups of Aldabra and Cosmoledo within the Seychelles to explore their unknown marine environments. This international team of scientists and filmmakers measured and illuminated the abundance of marine life from the smallest to the largest organisms—from microbes to megafauna.
The southernmost islands of French Polynesia have long been a respite for nature from the reach of man, remote as they are in an already remote region. The people of Rapa have noted that protecting this area from fishing and other extraction will go a long way toward helping to reach the goal—set by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy—of protecting 20 percent of France’s waters around the world.
National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, together with PEW and CRIOBE (Centre de Recherche Insulaire et Observatoire de l’Environnement), have conducted an expedition to Rapa Iti and nearby Marotiri to explore their waters and report back on the numbers of species and individuals present in the shallows, at the seafloor, and out in the open ocean, using divers as well as drop and drift cameras.
In September 2013, Palau’s current President Tommy Remengesau announced his intention to protect 80 percent of Palau’s waters as a National Marine Sanctuary. For the month of September 2014, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala, along with a team of key scientists and filmmakers, explored, surveyed, and documented the diversity and abundance of the marine life that would be protected by the new offshore sanctuary. The team also assessed how well inshore marine protected areas have performed to date.
The southern coast of Mozambique is home to some of the healthiest populations of megafauna such as manta rays, dugongs, and whale sharks. During the month of April 2014, Pristine Seas Expedition Leader Paul Rose led a group of key scientists and filmmakers to explore, survey, and document the area's terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Together with National Geographic Emerging Explorer Andrea Marshall and the Marine Megafauna Foundation, the team conducted a comprehensive, quantitative assessment of some of the healthiest East African reefs.
In 2012, the governments of New Caledonia and Australia announced their commitment to create a large marine park in the Coral Sea extending across the maritime boundary between these two countries. However, a large portion of the Coral Sea in New Caledonia, in particular the remote Chesterfield Banks on the western region, have barely been explored.
In November 2013, National Geographic partnered with the Waitt Institute, the Université de Nouvelle-Calédonie and France's Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) to explore, survey, and film these remote reefs through a Pristine Seas expedition
Franz Josef Land, a remote Russian archipelago, harbors a wild Arctic ecosystem that includes polar bears, walruses, whales, seals, and large nesting colonies of seabirds. But global warming may be affecting this remote ecosystem in ways we still do not fully comprehend.
In July-August 2013, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala led a Pristine Seas expedition to Franz Josef Land in collaboration with Russkaya Arktika National Park, the Russian Geographical Society, and National Geographic. An international group of scientists and filmmakers assessed how pristine the ocean-land ecosystem is and compared its current state with historical scientific baselines and photographs obtained by explorers in the late 1800s.
The Desventuradas Islands (the Unfortunate Islands in Spanish), located 530 miles off the coast of Chile, are one of the most mysterious and unknown places in the Eastern Pacific. San Ambrosio (uninhabited) and San Felix (with only a small garrison of the Chilean Navy) had never been filmed underwater, and there was very little scientific information about the underwater world of these islands. The Pristine Seas project identified the area surrounding the Desventuradas Islands as one of a handful of potentially pristine environments left in South America. In February-March 2013, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala led an expedition to these remote islands in collaboration with partner Oceana Chile, to explore, survey, and film this unknown world, from the surface to thousands of meters below.
Gabon is a wildlife Eden in West Africa, with 13 national parks covering 11 percent of its landmass, including megafauna such as gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, and surfing hippos. It has hundreds of kilometers of pristine beaches and coastal lagoons, with healthy populations of humpback whales and sea turtles. However, very little is known about Gabon's underwater life, and there is no marine equivalent to the land park system. National Geographic's Pristine Seas project partnered with the Waitt Institute for Discovery and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on an expedition to Gabon in October 2012 in order to research this region.
Pitcairn is better known globally as the place where British Bounty mutineers settled in 1790, but our comprehensive expedition in March 2012 revealed the true bounty of these waters. Our surveys—over 450 hours underwater—revealed pristine marine ecosystems with intact coral communities and healthy fish populations dominated by top predators such as sharks. The unaltered deep sea habitats of the Pitcairn Islands harbor unique biodiversity including rare deep sea sharks, and fish species completely new to science. This demonstrates the global biological value of the Pitcairn Islands waters. After seeing what our expedition team had found, the Pitcairn community voted unanimously for the protection of their waters in September 2012.