Expedition at the foot of a Water King, Kolombangara

Resilient coral reefs in the Northern Lau Group
March 16, 2018
Looking for lizards, frogs, birds and mammals in the Kilaka Forest Conservation Area
March 26, 2018

Cloud hanging over Kolombangara Island ©Waisea Naisilisili/WCS

On the 3rd of February 2018, I travelled with a team of researchers to Kolombangara Island with a plan to revisit reef sites we previously surveyed in 2015 and 2016. Our team included myself, a fish specialist from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Fiji Program, Dr Stacy Jupiter, Director of the WCS’s Melanesia Program, and Alec Hughes and Tingo Leve who work for WCS in the Solomon Islands. The main objective of these surveys was to look at the relationship between coral health and catchment management.

The survey team (back L-R, clockwise): Tingo, Alec, Stacy, Waisea ©Joe McCarter

Kolombangara is an Island location at 25 kilometres northwest of Hunda and 15 kilometres east of Gizo in Western Province of Solomon Islands. The name “Kolombangara” means the “Water King” or “Water Lord” in the local language.

In 2015, we used an underwater video camera to survey these sites. This technology gives scientists a permanent record of the fish and habitat condition of at the time of survey to which we can always refer back to, plus provides some fantastic footage for communicating with communities about what their reefs look like. However, the video data takes a long time to analyse. Believe me, I know. I spent over a year analysing the 48 sites that we surveyed in 2015 from Kolombangara and elsewhere in Western Province.

When we came back to Kolombangara in 2016 to resurvey the coral reefs around the island, we decided to change methods and do underwater visual census surveys. While these do not provide a permanent record of the site conditions that could be verified by an independent observer, the benefit is that once you get out of the water, you essentially already have the data that you need, saving hours and hours of analysis. Stacy looked at coral health while I counted fish species and abundance, and Alec and Tingo surveyed invertebrates like sea cucumbers along 50 meters transect tapes.

It was pouring rain on the day of our arrival in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. As we flew up to Hunda from Honiara, the wind was at 25 knots with overcast skies and driving rain. But the weather didn’t damper our spirit as we are determined to see the Water King that day. In the afternoon, the wind slowed down enough for us to make the voyage across Vonavona Lagoon, so Tingo and Alec prepared the boats, we loaded up our field supplies and gear, and soon we were off to meet the people of Hunda on Kolombangara.

Hunda is one of the coastal villages on the island that rely on the Water King for their well-being: their food and water sources all come from the island. As we reached Hunda we were happily received by the people, many of who we had met 3 years before.

On our first day of the survey, the weather slowly calmed down and remarkably we were able to complete 3 sites. On our second day the weather was perfect and this made it possible for our team to complete 4 sites. At a few of the sites, the reef was so spectacular that I  wished that I had gills so that I could roam a little bit more, as the foot of the Water King is very colourful with different types of fish and coral in crystal clear waters.

On Wednesday we quickly did an early morning dive as Stacy was going to meet Mr. Ferguson Vaghi, the coordinator of the Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association, a local community-based organization dedicated to preserving Kolombangara’s environment and ensuring the well-being of its people. The rest of us crossed the channel to try to conduct sea cucumber surveys on the nearby Parara Island. Our efforts were quickly dashed, however, as the water was silty and murky and there was not much to see underwater.

Mr Ferguson Vaghi ©Waisea Naisilisili/WCS

On the fourth day of our survey we did 4 dives around Parara Island as we want to maximize our efforts while we still had the weather on our side. The sun was out and the weather was perfect. The water was so clear that we could see schools of trevally chasing baitfish on the surface. Snappers and rabbitfish formed groups, almost like they were about to spawn. My eyes rolled back and forth as there were literally schools of fishes everywhere as far as my eyes could see. It was very hard to limit myself to counting only the fish within the 5 m belt around the transect tape. My impression was, however, that there were many more fish than I typically see on the reefs back home in Fiji.

Dr Stacy Jupiter and Waisea Naisilisili getting ready for their dive ©WCS

I was so impressed to see how much the Water King has to offer to the people of Kolombangara. Of course this will also depend on how well the communities look after their Water King.

The beach in front of Hunda Village ©Waisea Naisilisili/WCS

I am grateful to the people of Hunda for their hospitality and for accommodating and feeding us and most of all for allowing us to survey their customary fishing grounds. I am also thankful that Dr Stacy Jupiter included me in the expedition team, giving me the opportunity to see the Water King. Hopefully in the future, I get a chance to visit these places again and see how well the communities are looking after their reefs. “Leana hola” which means thank you very much in the local dialect of Rovianna.

Tingo and Alec at the airport in Hunda farewelling Stacy and Waisea ©WCS

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