Experience Palmyra’s Marine Wonders Through 360-degree Virtual Reality Film and Photography
Palmyra Atoll, a place so remote it was once proposed as a nuclear waste site, has been named a “Hope Spot” by Mission Blue, a non-profit coalition dedicated to creating a global network of marine protected areas that give the world’s oceans respite from human impacts and a chance to recover and flourish.
“Palmyra’s spectacular marine environment is a reminder of what our coral reefs should look like,” said Dr. Sylvia Earle, the legendary ocean explorer and marine biologist who founded Mission Blue. “Its remote Pacific location, its history of wildlife recovery and restoration, and the level of protection as a national wildlife refuge and marine national monument it receives make it ideal for scientific study and a beacon of hope for coral reefs everywhere.”
Earle will be a keynote speaker at the opening session of this week’s EarthX Conference in Dallas, Texas, where a new series of 360-degree virtual dives and Virtual Reality video on Palmyra also will be revealed for the first time. Produced by The Ocean Agency and Seaview 360 through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and financial and on-the-ground support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy, the virtual dives are now available for all to see on Google Street View Oceans Portal and the 360-degree video on YouTube.
Palmyra in Virtual Reality
“The power of 360-degree Virtual Reality enables us to share the beauty and richness of Palmyra from any device, anytime, anywhere,” said Michael Tosatto, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator. “It captures the magnificence of this underwater wilderness and the need to protect it.”
“You don’t have to be a scuba-diver or even know how to swim to explore and experience the underwater world of one of the most remote atolls on earth. Through our immersive Virtual Reality imagery people can now realize how important it is to protect this precious jewel of the Pacific” added Christophe Bailhache, co-founder of The Ocean Agency and Seaview 360, who captured this 360-degree imagery.
Located 1,000 miles south of Hawaii in the vast equatorial Pacific, Palmyra is co-owned and managed as an international research station and national wildlife refuge by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is also part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which, at 13 million acres, is one the world’s largest marine protected areas.
Hope Spots like Palmyra Atoll are special places that are critical to the health of the ocean — Earth’s blue heart. Hope Spots are about recognizing, empowering and supporting individuals and communities around the world in their efforts to protect the ocean. Dr. Sylvia Earle introduced the concept in her 2009 TED talk and since then the idea has inspired millions across the planet.
Palmyra was formed by coral growth on the rim of submerged volcano that rises 16,000 feet from the ocean floor. It is fringed by lagoons and sprawling reefs that are home to a profusion of whales, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, manta rays and exotic fish. Its vast submerged reefs, which radiate seaward beyond the atoll, support over 130 species of coral—three times the number found in Hawaii and the Caribbean, and five times that found in the Florida Keys.
The atoll itself, 26 islets covering 680 acres, provides breeding habitat for 10 seabird species, one of the last Pisonia forests in the U.S. Pacific, and sanctuary for the world’s largest land invertebrate, the coconut crab.
Apart from World War II, when it was occupied by the U.S. military, Palmyra has never had a permanent human population. Its previous owner sold the atoll to The Nature Conservancy in 2000 after turning down an offer to make it a nuclear waste site. The Conservancy retained the atoll’s largest islet as a site for an international research station, then transferred the remainder to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which established Palmyra and its surrounding waters as a National Wildlife Refuge in 2001.
A final layer of protection was added when Palmyra was included in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, created by President George W. Bush in 2009 and expanded by President Barack Obama in 2014. The monument is managed cooperatively by the USFWS and NOAA. It benefits Palmyra by extending the area around the atoll that is off-limits to commercial activities from 12 to 50 miles.
Science and Conservation
More recently, Palmyra has benefitted from conservation management and investment. In 2011, the USFWS brought in Island Conservation, a global island restoration group, to remove invasive rats. Two years later, the USFWS removed two shipwrecks from the surrounding waters, including one that was leaching iron into the marine environment. And in 2015, the Conservancy installed solar energy, dramatically reducing the research station’s dependence on fossil fuel and the environmental risk of transporting and storing that fuel.
NOAA Fisheries has surveyed and monitored Palmyra's corals and reef fish for nearly 20 years. The opportunity to conduct research at Palmyra has also attracted scientists from Stanford, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other top institutions. Because Palmyra’s reefs are as close to pristine as those found anywhere else in the world, with minimal human disturbance, the atoll serves as an ideal natural laboratory, providing scientists with a baseline for what a healthy coral reef ecosystem should look like.
“A lot of scientific understanding of how marine ecosystems function is based on research at highly degraded places,” said Alex Wegmann, the Conservancy’s Palmyra Program Director. “Here, researchers can investigate what critical functions have been lost in more degraded reefs and how they might be restored.”