Tarataake Teannaki, Kiribati's head of tourism, hopes that even more scientists will start coming to Kiribati. "We want to build a lab like they have in Palmyra," he says. And he hopes to use the cachet of the world's biggest marine reserve to develop eco-tourism focused on diving and bird-watching. Jobs are sorely needed in Kiribati, where only 21 percent of the eligible workers are fully employed, most of them in government jobs.
Jacob Teem, who represents Kanton and Kiritimati islands in the Kiribati Parliament, operates a small catch-and-release fishing lodge on Kiritimati and says he plans to start another in Kanton. Emil Schutz, who runs a small eco-resort on a scenic islet near Tarawa, hopes to create a bigger one on Kanton to cater to scientists and recreational divers.
Reserve director Teroroko says the more tourist boats, the better: they could function as the authorities' eyes and ears and help prevent poaching inside the reserve. He hopes to attract a fleet that would take bird-watchers to Birnie, Phoenix and McKean islands, all longtime bird sanctuaries. "We could even anchor some floating platforms and let tourists dive off them," he says.
Might the Phoenix Islands someday be harmed by too much of a good thing? "The Phoenix are too isolated to ever be ruined by tourism, so I'm not worried," says Stone. "On the contrary, I hope that those who get to see the extraordinary underwater life in these islands will spread the notion that it's really important to save our last pristine reefs. And diving off a floating platform with tens of thousands of fish going around has to be the ultimate way of experiencing the open ocean and seeing some of the most remarkable animals on earth."
Christopher Pala lives in Honolulu and is the author of The Oddest Place on Earth: Rediscovering the North Pole.