Palmyra Blue Water Research

Science Center Objects

In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the Seabird Studies Team at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center will track the at-sea movements of eight marine animal species at Palmyra Atoll with the goal of understanding the impact of the marine protected areas on species and ecosystems. The project is supported in part by The Nature Conservancy and the team of collaborating researchers and will inform planning of future marine protected areas.


Three melon-headed whales swim underwater

Melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra) swimming near Palmyra Atoll.

(Credit: Kydd Pollock, The Nature Conservancy. Courtesy: Kydd Pollock (The Nature Conservancy))

Open ocean, also known as “blue water”, is the largest habitat on earth, and historically, also one of the least protected habitats. In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called for protection of 30% of the world’s oceans in order to preserve biodiversity, species and ecosystems. This call was echoed by President Biden in January 2021 when he signed an executive order directing federal officials and the DOI to protect 30% of US lands and ocean waters by 2030. Marine protected areas (MPAs) in blue water regions offer one option to help meet this goal, and quantifying the efficacy of blue water MPAs to protect species, ecosystems, and the ocean is an important early step.

Palmyra Atoll is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge, a Nature Conservancy Preserve, and part of the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. At Palmyra, The Nature Conservancy’s Climate Adaptation + Resilience Laboratory (CA+RL) provides a unique opportunity to evaluate the impact of blue water MPAs on species and ecosystems. Palmyra Atoll contains near-pristine coral reef habitat, and the emergent land is home to thousands of nesting seabirds. Palmyra enables study of marine animals and their movements in a location with few impacts of human activity and protected from commercial fishing.

The animal species that live in and around Palmyra Atoll use their marine environment in very different ways. For example, sooty terns and great frigatebirds are surface foragers that range up to 1,000 km and 400 km away, respectively, from the atoll during the breeding season. Yellowfin tuna and bottlenose dolphins “shoal” fishes, corralling and driving them to the ocean surface, enabling sooty terns, great frigatebirds and other seabirds to forage more effectively. Melon-headed whales dive to depths of 400 m to forage on squid at night, illustrating the importance of the upper water for many species. Although manta rays and grey reef sharks are familiar sights within tropical atolls, they sometimes travel long distances to other atolls and reef systems. Because the animals of Palmyra Atoll move through space so differently, the efficacy of Palmyra’s blue water MPA may vary among species. Understanding animal movements will help managers better comprehend how the MPA may protect these diverse animals.

Tracking Marine Animals

Yellowfin tuna swimming at the sea surface near, splashing as they break the surface

Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) swimming at the sea surface near Palmyra Atoll.

(Credit: Kydd Pollock, The Nature Conservancy. Courtesy: Kydd Pollock (The Nature Conservancy))

The Palmyra Bluewater Research (PBR) project, a collaboration among USGS, the Nature Conservancy, and several other institutions will increase understanding of animal movements and connectivity between coastal and pelagic ecosystems. To do this, USGS scientists will examine habitat use by tropical megafauna with animal telemetry and in-situ (autonomous marine and aerial vehicles) and remotely-sensed oceanographic data.

The scientists will use satellite transmitters and GPS tracking tags to follow seabirds (Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus), Red-footed Booby (Sula sula), and Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor)), yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), and melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra) as they traverse habitats within and outside Palmyra Atoll. These data will be used to identify movements and habitat use over three years as they use Palmyra and the surrounding blue water for breeding, foraging, and resting. Scientists are eager to see if Palmyra-based mantas, sharks, and other species travel throughout other coral reef systems in the central Pacific Ocean.

Ultimately, the data from this project will characterize the marine habitat in which these animals live and examine the efficacy of the marine protected area of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Information gained will help inform planning of future blue water MPAs.

Grey sharks surface as they feed on a dense group of small fish, splashing at the surface

Grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) foraging on small fishes near Palmyra Atoll.

(Credit: Kydd Pollock, The Nature Conservancy. Courtesy: Kydd Pollock (The Nature Conservancy))


  • Animal telemetry data from eight marine species
  • Data on the distributions and abundance of eight marine species

Project collaborators


Photo Gallery

Return to the Seabird Ecology and Marine Planning home page