Originally called ‘Burning Island’ under the Japanese occupation because of the intense sun and burning glow at sunset, this lush, volcanic island is a 45 minute ferry ride off Taitung, the south east coast of Taiwan. The island was initially a site of exile for political prisoners during the period of martial law in Taiwanese history and remnants of this political history are clearly visible around the island. Even the Green Island Marine Station facility, where we were hosted, was a former training camp for reincorporating prisoners into society. The island, along with its name, has since been transformed into a popular tourism destination for local Taipei urbanites and Chinese tourists. During the high season in summer, as many as 4,000 people can been seen buzzing around the island on scooters on this small, 15 km2 island. This has led to the local fishing community transitioning to a tourism centered economy including marine tourism.
Green Island has become a center for recreational SCUBA diving in Taiwan and the XL Catlin Seaview Survey was able to survey 70% of the reefs in four days with Chufu Diving Center. Viewing some of the majestic, verdant headlands it would be easy to imagine you were in the highlands of Scotland, except the water is 26 C and you can jump in and see roughly 300 species of hard corals and sea snakes. The terrain can be equally impressive underwater with pinnacles and canyons that continue to stretch from the island. Our collaborator Dr. Allen Chen at Academia Sinica has been conducting research here for more than nine years and notes that recent, intense cyclones have repeatedly flattened areas of reef which has significantly changed the species composition and structure of the coral reefs. These reefs are recovering, but the increasing frequency of cyclones may be too much. It is also readily apparent that these reefs have been heavily fished with low abundance of reef fish on all of our dives.
Taiwan’s reputation is more synonymous with eating fish and street food than marine conservation, but hopefully that can change. With such a large number of visitors every year, marine conservation on a small island such as Green Island faces many challenges, but there are people ready to tackle some of these issues with a growing marine research station and a new generation of budding Taiwanese marine biologists. Green Island has been a fantastic start to our survey of Taiwan with its interesting history of coral research, friendly locals, and beautiful scenery above and below water.