Amending the Bucket List: A Trip to Rose Atoll

by Mark Kneubuhl –

(August 6, 2012)  There’s a lot of ocean that surrounds Rose Atoll. The closest “major” port is Pago Pago about 140 miles to the west. Auckland harbor is about 1500 miles southwest and Pearl Harbor, about 2500 miles northeast. Rose Atoll is a rather remote outlier in a sparsely populated part of the planet called Oceania.

Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1973 when the American Samoa Legislature approved an agreement between the Governor and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Additionally, President Bush created Rose Atoll Marine National Monument in 2009, which extends 50 nautical miles from Rose Atoll. One has to be within five miles (that’s on a clear day), to spot the atoll’s highest point, no taller than a chimney on a single-story house.

Rose-Atoll-shorelineRose Atoll is at the eastern boundary of a group of Island’s that make up the Territory of American Samoa, the only U.S. soil located in the Southern Hemisphere. On the western end of the group is the island of Tutuila, home to most of American Samoa’s 70,000 residents… and me!

Over the past 30 years, I’ve explored just about every nook and cranny throughout these islands… except Rose Atoll. It’s always been on that “other” bucket list; you know, the one that’s still in your pocket when you die. As a National Wildlife Refuge, Rose Atoll is now protected with entry into its lagoon or fishing in its waters, prohibited to protect the fish and wildlife, and reduce the chances of introducing invasive species. . So, in the recent past I’ve been painfully aware that my chances of exploration in that area were slim to none.

But as fate would have it, things changed for me last month when I was asked to help a local charter company take a group of six scientists and officials to Rose Atoll. While Rose Atoll has a manager on the Fish and Wildlife Services payroll, oversight of the national monument is a rather complex “association” of several federal and territorial government departments. We were taking a party of five Department of Interior personnel, plus the manager, Frank Pendleton.

Rose-Atoll-coral-close-upGoing where? Did you say Rose?” I said yes, of course, and a couple weeks later we were on our way; our guests with their masks, snorkels, cameras and other observation gear, and me with my revised bucket list.

Although we were traveling east, in this part of the world, we call that “going up”: Heading directly into the tradewinds, which blew 10-15 mph, creating wind swells of 6-8 feet… typical for that time of year. But after getting sufficiently beat-up for the first few hours of what would have been a 12 hour trip, the winds calmed and the swells dropped to 3-5, allowing for a more comfortable and speedier trip.

To be continued….

A Little History (From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website)

Rose Atoll is nearly square, with the ocean-side slopes about 1.5 miles in length. It is one of the smallest atolls in the world and includes two low sandy islets, Rose and Sand, located on a coralline algal reef enclosing a lagoon. The lagoon is about 1.2 miles wide and up to 98 feet deep. Rose and Sand Islands are about 14 and 7 acres respectively.

The early Polynesians of Samoa likely visited the atoll periodically over the past millennium or more, and the atoll has a Samoan name “Motu o Manu,” literally meaning “island of seabirds.” Captain Louise de Freycinet christened the isle “Rose” on October 21, 1819, after his wife who was traveling with him at the time.

Fairy TernA Fairy Tern (White Tern) hovering with a curious but watchful eye on the cameraman.  Rose Atoll is the most important seabird colony in the region, since approximately 97 percent of the seabird population of American Samoa resides on Rose. The two islands provide important nesting and roosting habitat for 12 species of federally protected migratory seabirds.

Rose Atoll has been the subject of approximately 300 papers and reports over the last century. These describe the geology, geography, biology, meteorology, and history of the area.

Rose Island has sustained only brief human habitation in recent history. In the 1860s, a short-lived attempt was made by a German firm to establish a fishing station and coconut plantation at Rose Atoll. Sand Island is a shifting sand bank and could not support human habitation.

Read more about the marine and terrestrial wildlife on the FWS website.


After 11 hours we could see the small Island portion of the relatively big atoll. Again, we were only a few miles away and it didn’t take long to get to the lagoon entrance. From a distance, the first thing I noticed was what looked like a swarm of bees, which we all knew to be birds. 

On approach and within earshot, there was no question while the cries of thousands of boobies and terns made their presence known.

Mark Kneubuhl with BobbiesThe author with a couple of unabashed boobies.  Most of the bird life on the islets of Sand and Rose island were more curious than afraid, having few non-avian visitors. Only 1 year after removal of rats, two species of Shearwaters landed on Rose Island, the first record of any Procellariform bird since ornithological observations began. Additionally, five species of federally protected migratory shorebirds and one species of forest bird, the long-tailed cuckoo (a migrant from New Zealand), use the atoll for feeding, resting, and roosting.


On board bonavistaWhile maneuvering to anchor in the lagoon, members of the party relax on the flying bridge of the Bonavista ll. Several buoys were spliced into the anchor line to keep it from damaging the reef below.  Rose Islet is in full view in the background.  (From left) Colleen Charles,Eileen Sobeck, Barry Stieglitz, Capt’n Russ and Deanna Spooner. 

Barry and stingrayBarry and Stingray (Photo: Karen) The fish communities at Rose are also distinct from others in the Samoan Archipelago. Fish density is very high and species diversity is moderately high at Rose Atoll. However, fish biomass is relatively low due to the dominance of small, planktivorous species. The fish assemblages at Rose also differ from the rest of the archipelago by having a much lower density of herbivorous fishes (especially parrotfishes and damselfishes) and a high density of planktivorous and carnivorous fishes.


giant clam

Coral communities at Rose presently include 113 species and are distinctive and quite different from those of the other islands in Samoa. Dominant corals at Rose include Favia, Acropora, Porites, Montipora, Astreopora, Montastrea, and Pocillopora. (Photo of Giant Clam by Karen)






Rose Atoll Marine National Monument Manager, Frank Pendleton lead Barry and Deanna on a tour around Rose Islet.  (photo: Karen)

“Rose Atoll is a truly amazing place where a significant portion of American Samoa’s sea turtles and seabirds breed. It is wonderful to know that Rose Atoll is being preserved to protect all of its fish and wildlife for future generations.”  (F.P)



Lifting driftnet into zodiacBarry, myself and Karen Koltes PhD lifting fishing net into zodiac….” A stark reminder that no place – no matter how remote – is safe from what’s happening elsewhere in the world. A ghost net at Rose Atoll NWR, miles from anywhere inhabited, had managed to ground and entangle an threatened green turtle. Fortunately it was alive and well, which helped to restore my faith that man can also undo what man has done.” (Barry Stieglitz- Refuge Supervisor, Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Refuge Complex) (photo by Colleen Charles)



Blacktip Reef Shark with Remora IIWildlife is abundant in and on Rose Atoll… sharks included.  The most numerous and curios were the Black Tip.  And yes, we did swim with the sharks. (Photo: Barry)

The lagoon is almost entirely enclosed by shallow perimeter reefs, except for a narrow channel on the northwest side. About 15 patch reefs reach the lagoon sea surface from depths of 20 to 50 feet and are concentrated on the southwestern half of the lagoon. The lagoon floor is sandy with a few isolated Acropora table-coral patches on the bottom and scattered around the perimeter of the flat-topped, steep-sided pinnacles that extend up to the surface.

In describing Rose Atoll, one realizes how over-used and diluted the meaning of the word “Spectacular” has become. Also, the word “pristine” is usually applied in a relative way to what we know or have experienced. In today’s world, the word spectacular may be used to describe an amusement park ride and pristine marine environments are most commonly found in our state-run aquariums. Rose Atoll Marine National Monument is truly one of the few remaining pristine environments left on our planet, and one word describes it best… SPECTACULAR!

tern egg Life Finds A Way…

Message from the National Wildlife Refuge Complex

This was my first trip across the Equator, to American Samoa, to the Rose Atoll National Wildlife and Marine National Monument, and all “firsts” were amazing.  American Samoa looks like I thought Hawai’i would look – lush, green, and mountainous – before I came here the first time before I learned Hawai’i has both deserts and some of the highest areas of rainfall in the world.  The Samoan people were wonderful – amazingly warm, welcoming, and polite.  I was amazed, in a very positive way, in which the Samoans waved and smiled at us while we – obviously visitors to their island – roamed Tuituila by car or bus.

As a SCUBA diver and manager of several large marine protected areas – about 54 million acres – I was, of course, most impressed by the marine resources in American Samoa, and especially at Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.  The nearshore habitats of Hawai’i, including its coral reefs, are heavily impacted by human use.  The places with truly abundant, healthy corals are few and far between.  And finding large fish is uncommon outside of the few Marine Life Conservation Districts.  Rose Atoll is well-named, as it is pink, pink, pink! Nesting seabirds and fish were abundant, filling every glance both above and below the water. Amidst all this beauty, though, was a stark reminder that no place – no matter how remote – is safe from what’s happening elsewhere in the world. A ghost net at Rose Atoll NWR, miles from anywhere inhabited, had managed to ground and entangle a threatened green turtle. Fortunately it was alive and well, which helped to restore my faith that man can also undo what man has done. My message to the people of American Samoa would be to treasure what you have, and teach your children to treasure their natural heritage as well. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”: it’s much easier to maintain healthy ecosystems than to try to restore them once they’re damaged.

Barry Stieglitz, August 2012


Note: Some of the captions were created using the Fish and Wildlife Service website as a resource. Once again, here’s the link:



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Posted by at September 7, 2012
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