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Honoring Amelia Earhart’s Legacy in the Phoenix Islands

I’m on my way from Samoa to the Cook Islands. If you look at a map, they’re not far apart — it’s two hours distance by plane — yet it will take me more than 24 hours to get there, as there is no direct route and I have to go through New Zealand (yes, I do carbon offsets for flights). I have taken hundreds of flights around the Pacific Islands in the last 20 years — usually indirect and during the sleepy hours between midnight and dawn. It’s currently 1:45 a.m. and the plane is delayed until 3 a.m. — so here I am, writing.

I shouldn’t whinge I guess. Travel for my work and passion — the Pacific Ocean — is far easier than it was for the woman who is in my thoughts this morning: Amelia Earhart, the groundbreaking aviatrix who is the subject of a new Discovery Channel programme, “Finding Amelia.”

For many women, Amelia embodies the spirit of female explorers. Her story has inspired me and probably millions of other women since I was a girl — mind you, that was a while ago, as I’m turning 50 this year! Her disappearance over the ocean in 1937 has become the subject of many legends and conspiracy theories. However, Amelia’s final resting place is believed to lie within Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) in the heart of the Pacific — a place I have been working to protect for nearly a decade.

Since 2005, I have been part of a team from Kiribati, CI and the New England Aquarium that has been working to conserve the Phoenix Islands for their stunning marine life and the insight they may provide into climate change adaptation. Today, PIPA is UNESCO’s largest and deepest World Heritage site. Nikumaroro Island, the site where Amelia is thought to have crashed, is in PIPA’s 100% fully protected zone.

Amelia is also on my mind because in the Cook Islands I will meet up with a dear colleague, Tessie Lambourne, the secretary of foreign affairs for Kiribati. Earlier this year, Tessie launched The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) 2012 Amelia Expedition with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and had discussions on how to conserve the Phoenix Islands. Hillary Clinton is also headed to the Cook Islands for the 43rd meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum — an important annual meeting that brings together leaders from these island nations. This year, host government the Cook Islands have declared the theme “Large Ocean Island States — the Pacific Challenge.”

Ocean issues will feature prominently in this meeting, particularly in discussions about the Pacific Oceanscape — an initiative by Forum leaders to understand, guard and conserve their areas of ocean. The Pacific Oceanscape concept was first proposed by Kiribati President Anote Tong, who was inspired by his country’s success with PIPA. Tong envisions transboundary collaboration for protected areas across archipelagos, and has coined the phrase “ocean arc.” I am helping Kiribati with the first of these: the proposed Phoenix Ocean Arc between Kiribati and the U.S.

The Phoenix Ocean Arc would be a collaborative initiative between the Kiribati and U.S. governments to conserve both the natural and cultural heritage of these islands across a whole archipelago — a world first in this regard.

Today the northern Phoenix Islands (Howland and Baker) belong to the U.S. and the southern group of eight islands to Kiribati. Both U.S. and Kiribati have enacted globally important measures for their respective Phoenix Islands; Kiribati has PIPA, and the American Phoenix Islands are fully protected out to 50 nautical miles as part of the Pacific Islands Remote Marine National Monument.

The Phoenix Ocean Arc would not only help conserve the rich biodiversity of these islands — globally important seabird populations, vibrant coral reefs, unexplored seamounts and much more — it would also be a fitting tribute to Amelia Earhart’s legacy. Amelia and Fred Noonan were supposed to land on Howland Island in the northern Phoenix Islands; instead, evidence suggests that they crashed in the southern Phoenix group.

Amelia was a remarkable woman who inspired others. It seems apt that women like Tessie Lambourne and Hillary Clinton may play key roles in conserving her final resting place, and I feel privileged to be involved.

Sue Taei is CI’s senior marine director for the Pacific Islands.