Ten days of surveying Fiji’s coral reefs post cyclone Winston has sent this message loud and clear:
Mothers, fathers, teachers, divers: Take your children to see a coral reef – now – before it is too late. Don’t wait until they have have finished school. Don’t delay it in favour of a theme park holiday. Because if storms like Winston keep bombarding us, coral reefs will not exist by the time your children are your age.
Get your face inches from a turtle having his shell cleaned by wrasse. Watch curious reef sharks cruise right by you. Be engulfed by barracuda swirling in current, follow a dragonet until its dorsal flares like a rainbowed lightning bolt. Discover crabs like bejewelled sumo wrestlers, slugs that fly, eels that tango, octopus that mimic and, of course, discover coral. Coral branching into blue water. Coral cascading over steep drop offs, coral spreading a roof over pinnacles, coral clustering in floral arrangements, coral exploding from every crevice like fireworks bursting from a cityscape.
A healthy coral reef is the most exquisitely beautiful, overwhelming and bizarre place in the world. Nowhere else can you get closer to such a diverse array of wild animals and experience so intimately and vividly the interconnectedness of life on this planet. After more than 30 years diving coral reefs throughout the Asia-Pacific, I have never felt more grateful that coral reefs are my passion. But I’ve also never worried more that this love affair will end.
Right now in Fiji, wonderful coral reefs certainly still exist, indeed many thrive. But every year reefs teeter on a cliff that overlooks coral bleaching from hot ocean currents, fishing or pollution pressure, crown of thorns explosions, ocean acidification and, most suddenly destructive of all, increasingly powerful cyclones. Some of our most famous NAI’A dive sites were so structurally altered by this recent storm as to be unrecognisable. Some are still so gorgeously unscathed it defies logic. Winston is a particularly dramatic reminder that nothing, especially on a coral reef, stays the same.
The barrier reef outside Gau bleached so horrifically in 2000, I thought we’d never dive there again. Today it is an expanse of robust and varied hard corals frequented by sea snakes, turtles, snapper schools and nesting triggerfish. A film crew declared Wakaya “dead” in 2001. But from the rubble emerged a stunning soft and hard coral habitat featuring numerous “cleaning stations” that manta rays frequent. Nigali Passage suffered a major blow from anglers targetting groupers, Napoleon wrasse and sharks in 2002. But with the local people more willing to guard that small but signifcant breeding site, fish numbers have steadily risen and it remains one of the most exciting dives on the planet. Vatu-i-Ra’s current-flushed corals resisted mass bleaching over several recent summers and recovered many times faster than expected from damage that did occur.
Namena, Fiji’s inspirational and iconic marine park, has copped harsh blow from Cyclone Winston which swept away some of the most lavish coral reef cover I’ve seen anywhere. But I do remember 20 years ago, following cyclone Hina in 1997, the Namena bommies sported only patchy growth and we mainly celebrated diving among fish and sharks there. Since then it grew into a coral and critter paradise.
So, with these positive experiences diving recovered reefs and all the reassurances from science that storms are a normal part of a coral reef’s life, why the fuss now?
Because I’ve never seen storm damage so extensive in places that have been so spectacularly strong. Because it’s getting harder and harder to find newly thriving coral reef. Because regeneration will be slow and mercilessly dependent on other reef stressors, instigated by humans. Because more storms like Winston are on their way as our globe warms. The harsh reality is that in 30 years of diving in Fiji, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Kiribati, Thailand and Tahiti, I’ve seen more destruction than I have recovery. And unlike many coral reef scientists, I’m in the business of finding beauty and diversity.
Coral reefs are so magnificent and important that I won’t risk my kids missing out on them. Expect the best and prepare for the worst. It’s common sense. It’s now or never to protect – and preserve – coral reefs. The time for baseline studies is long gone. The baseline is shifting faster than we can measure it. It’s time for courageous acts by governments. It’s time for innovative strategies by scientists. It’s time for conservation and fishing to quit bickering and cooperate on the common goal. It’s time for tourists to put nature before shopping.
Winston is more than a wake-up call, it’s a shock to my system. These “natural cycles” for coral reefs may prove to actually be a revolution. Some ecologists, with far more experience than I, say extinction is imminent. I hope they are wrong. But I’m not willing to bet on it. Instead, I’m going diving and you should too.
See a coral reef. Admire it’s grand view and marvel at it’s tiny intricasies. Coral reefs are fading already. And if they do disappear, you will be thankful not to have missed out on an incredible experience that will reshape the way you understand this planet and your place in it. If coral reefs survive, you’ll share visceral joy with the next generation of coral reef adventurers, instead of just passing around a fading photograph of how our tropical seas used to be.