Let us take you underwater to visit the tropical coral reefs of American Samoa - the only U.S. territory south of the Equator.
[Tap and drag to look around the reef]
The National Park of American Samoa
Tafeu Cove is part of the National Park of American Samoa. This is one of the most remote National Parks in the United States and is the only one south of the Equator. It is also one of the newest, being officially established in 1988 when a 50 year lease was agreed with Samoan Chiefs.
The islands of American Samoa are 14 degrees south of the Equator, giving them a hot and rainy climate year-round. Tafeu Cove is surrounded by lush tropical rainforests, which are home to numerous plants and animal species.
The underwater view in Tafeu Cove is fairly typical of American Samoa - but we're not going to focus on just typical sites on our underwater expedition, we're off to see some of the most unique sites - places few people have ever seen. These locations are so special they are protected under America's National Marine Sanctuaries Programme.
American Samoa has many species of coral, fish and other marine life, meaning it has a high level of marine biodiversity. Here at Tafeu Cove you can see lots of different types of coral in an assortment of shapes and colours.
The volcanic rocks are typical of American Samoa - due to the isolated nature of the islands they frequently get pounded by big waves.
Here you can see a scuba diver - this is a fantastic way to explore coral reefs because you can join the marine creatures in their natural habitat. By wearing scuba equipment with a tank of air, you can gain the ability to breathe underwater and become almost a marine creature yourself (for a short while at least).
The first area in American Samoa to be declared a National Marine Sanctuary was Fagatele Bay. This naturally protected bay was formed by a collapsed volcanic crater and is surrounded by steep, forested cliffs.
There are extensive coral reefs here, rich in marine life. Protecting these marine environments is important and one way to do this is to set areas aside as marine protected areas - such as the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.
National Marine Sanctuary
Fagatele Bay lies within the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. This sanctuary is one of a network of 14 protected marine areas across the U.S. Sanctuaries are created to protect and preserve natural and cultural resources in areas of special significance.
Staghorn coral is a branching, stony coral, with cylindrical branches. They are among the fastest growing corals on reefs and are excellent at building reefs. The gaps between their branches provide protection for small reef fish and other creatures.
Located within the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, Fogama'a Bay is a hotspot for coral cover.
The National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa is the most remote location of all 14 U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries. It is the only true tropical reef within the sanctuary system, and it supports the greatest diversity of marine life.
The National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa is co-managed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) with the American Samoa Government. They work closely with local communities, all within the context of Samoan cultural traditions and practices.
What formerly began as the smallest National Marine Sanctuary has become one of the largest. In 2012 the sanctuary was extended to include Fogama'a Bay and other locations. It now covers 21,857 square kilometres (13,581 square miles).
Rose Atoll Marine National Monument
The southernmost point of the United States is our next destination. Rose Atoll is a tiny uninhabited island, on the easternmost point of American Samoa. It was established as a Marine National Monument in 2009.
Rose Atoll Marine National Monument encompasses the Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and is part of the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. The ecosystem here is home to a diverse range of marine species, many of which are threatened or endangered, so having this level of protection is important.
Pink Coralline Algae
One of the most striking features of Rose Atoll is the pink colour of the reef. This is caused by the dominance of pink coralline algae, which is the primary reef-building species here. It only grows slowly but helps to cement the reef together, providing extra support and habitat for animals that live on the reef.
And now we will visit one of the biggest corals in the world - "Fale Bommie". This giant coral is located in the aptly named "Valley of the Giants" within the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.
This coral head is one of the largest corals on the planet. It is 41 metres (135 feet) in circumference and 7 metres (23 feet) high. Its name is “Fale Bommie” in honour of Fale Tuilagi who discovered it, but "Big Momma" is the nickname local divers have given this huge Porites coral.
Porites species like this one are massive, reef-building corals that vary greatly in size and shape depending on their environment. In areas with calm water they can grow into humongous helmet-shaped mounds. This type of coral grows very slowly, as little as 1 centimetre a year, which means that "Fale Bommie" is over 500 years old!
Quite possibly the most iconic dive in American Samoa, "Fale Bommie" is one of the biggest corals in the world. This giant coral is located in the aptly named "Valley of the Giants" within the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.
This giant coral head is one animal made up of many individual coral polyps. Only the outer layer of the coral is living tissue. The coral polyps have plant-like algae that live inside them which help them to survive by harnessing energy from the sun.
The Valley of the Giants
"Fale Bommie" is located in The Valley of the Giants, a region of reef along the South West coast of Ta’u island that contains numerous giant boulder corals, among the largest in the world. You can see two more of these ancient giant corals close by.
Image partners: AXA XL, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, Google, Panedia, Fourth Element