A small school of blue-striped snapper traverse the reef along the northern coast of Clipperton Atoll (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
More than 800 nautical miles from the nearest landmass in the eastern tropics of the Pacific Ocean lies Clipperton, the most remote atoll on the planet. Endeavoring to reach this rarest of destinations by boat from San José del Cabo, Mexico, our vessel finally encountered land after 86 hours at sea. Each passenger jolted to the starboard bow in sheer anticipation, wowed by this untouched paradise as it conjured images of a Robinson Crusoe-esque tale. Sparse coconut palms danced in the wind as we approached the fabled Clipperton Rock, with its golden sands surrounded by turquoise blue waters whose grand breakers thundered down the beach.
There could be little doubt we had escaped civilization—the idyllic silence was broken only by the rhythm of rolling waves and singing booby birds. Home to over 15 unique endemic species, Clipperton is a nesting site for blue-footed, masked and brown boobies. The purpose of our expedition was to document these birds, as well as survey marine debris (both topside and underwater), tag sharks, and with any luck, to identify new endemic species during our dives. To help achieve some of these ends, we would also launch an ROV into the lagoon.
Clipperton Rock is the only geological feature on the island visible from the water (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
First discovered by the French in 1711, the atoll takes its name from John Clipperton, a British pirate who is thought to have passed by the island, possibly having used it as a base for his raids. Several attempts at colonization lasted until 1917 when it was last inhabited by a Mexican mining colony, which ended in violent failure. While claims to sovereignty bounced between France and Mexico, a final arbitration in 1909 ultimately yielded official French possession by 1931.
Plating Porites arnaudi is a common coral species on Clipperton’s reefs (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
This island’s plastic pollution problem is staggering (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
The breakers are so formidable that even the most seasoned captains using the most modern jetties must navigate with due respect. Stories from 1917 indicate many of the last colonists perished in their attempts to depart these same waters in search of help. Here, anchored just 500 feet away, we had a new appreciation for the century-old tales. We also questioned how anyone would have arrived at such a random, unknown coordinate to begin with. From our modern vantage, we also wondered why anyone would want to escape such a pristine paradise...
Porites coral grows in a variety of interesting formations (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
Divers collecting miles of discarded long lines off the reef (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
Sorting and tallying the plastic collected from the beach transect survey (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
As we approached the island, the expedition divers prepared our gear to enter these rarely explored waters. We were greeted by breathtakingly beautiful reefs made up mostly of unique formations of hard corals. Curious eels could be seen virtually everywhere, making their way through the wonderland of striking colors and textures. Clipperton angelfish, schooling yellow jacks, pufferfish, baby sharks, and countless starfish filled out the seascape. Finally, we were distracted from the beauty by the evidence of human impact. Sadly, fishing lines, nets, metal and plastic fragments littered the environment.
Dislodging a ghost fishing net from a series of coral heads (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
Attaching SMBs to the ghost fishing net to float it up to the surface (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
After this initial dive, we eagerly prepared to make a landing. Following a heart-pumping jetty ride through the breakers, we could focus on nothing but the “realities” of modern living. Without stepping foot on this land, or probably even hearing the name of this island, “civilization” at large and the industrial behemoths have made the biggest mark over the past century. Recognizable soda bottles, straws, coffee lids, bottle caps, six-pack rings, plastic bags, shoe soles and millions of tiny microplastics littered the beach. Perhaps this refuse represented the remnants of my favorite childhood toy, or yours. One thing was certain: Every single piece had touched human hands prior to its lonely arrival.
A silvertip shark patrolling the reef (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
Tagging a juvenile silvertip shark (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
Easily the most disturbingly indelible image engrained into our minds was that of a part of the sole of a running shoe and the strap from a backpack we discovered when dissecting a booby’s carcass. The sheer remoteness of this otherwise pristine environment made the problem of plastics hit home hard. This obtrusive link between our modern city lives, in lands often land-locked from any sign of oceans, to the death of remote indigenous wildlife was painfully evocative. Each of us on the expedition felt a virtual dagger in our hearts, and at that moment realized we needed to become active agents of change.
Catching a juvenile silvertip shark (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
Sharks were a primary focus of this mission. We were hoping to see them in large variety and numbers on our dives. Instead, we encountered just a handful. Even here, hundreds of miles from the nearest human domicile, sharks are targeted. It is estimated that they are hunted at a rate of 11,000 per hour—183 every minute, or three every second. That’s two dozen sharks since you started reading this paragraph, and over 300 since you started reading this article.
Berna Tural photographing a frenzied group of leather bass (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
All species exist to keep nature in balance. Those atop the food chain ensure those at the bottom remain in equilibrium. In this way, keystone species like sharks enable the survival of even the smallest most vulnerable species including vegetation. Crabs once counted in the millions on the island. Now they barely appear in the thousands. They are dying by ingesting plastics and by an uncontrolled number of rats introduced to the island by just a single shipwreck around 1998–9. The reduced crab numbers are no longer able to control the vegetation, and the blue-footed boobies struggle to find nesting sites, often leaving their eggs vulnerable to the elements. To see a nest set atop of WWII artillery casings is a common sight.
A beautiful bluefin trevally swimming through the frame (Photograph Permit #HC/1485/CAB)
The takeaways from our wondrous, magical and humbling visit were many. However, many of them could be summed up by the heightened consciousness around our human impact. There were just so many powerful reminders that every single one of us makes an impact with minor daily decisions on even the most remote of islands. It is we humans who have the upper hand. We have options. The extent of our power is in our individual choices.