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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.
BY: Sangeeta Mangubhai
After 10 days at sea, travelling over 500km and completing 26 dives, I have solid data on the scale and intensity of damage to the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, from Tropical Cyclone Winston that passed through Fiji on the 20 February 2016. Coupled with cyclone damage, I assessed coral diversity and coral bleaching patterns throughout the seascape, on fringing reefs, bommies, underwater pinnacles and reef channels.
Damage to coral reefs was highest in the north, and lowest in the south, which as expected, followed the pathway Cyclone Winston took through Fiji. It was clear that where the eye of the cyclone passed, corals sustained damage. However, the level of destruction was highly variable and patchy between reefs.
There really was not easy way to predict which reefs would be damaged and which ones would remain unscathed – both windward and leeward reefs equally sustained damage.
Sadly Fiji experienced significant losses of sea fans (gorgonian corals) and soft corals at almost all of the sites. Table and staghorn Acropora (branching) corals were broken off at the stems, often sitting upside down on the substrate or obliterated into small pieces. You still see flashes of colour from sea fans and soft corals, but now you have to look a little harder to find them. Sides of fringing reefs, bommies and pinnacles had large scoured out areas, with clean white surfaces or covered in a fine layer of turf algae. Large volumes of old and new rubble accumulated in between reef structures, shifting around with the currents. The Nasi Yalodina, a shipwreck sitting at 30m in the eastern Bligh waters had been pushed down to deeper depths and was no longer visible to divers.
In addition to sustaining mechanical damage from the cyclone, the reefs had coral bleaching (ranging from 0-20%), caused by thermal stress from the El Nino cycle we are in. Post-cyclone, the temperature has dropped a couple of degrees and now rangeds from 27-28°C, which if continues, will help corals return to normal. Thankfully, the fish, shark and manta life were flourishing. We dived and snorkelled with 10 mantas across the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, and large schools of barracuda, big-eye trevally, fusiliers, surgeonfish, and colourful anthias.
So what next for Fiji’s reefs? Well, the road to recovery will depend on how well corals successfully reproduce and their larvae settle onto reefs. Some species like Pocilloporids (which provide shelter for fish and other cryptic invertebrates like crabs and shrimps), usually spawn multiple times, releasing fully formed larvae into the water column that are ready to settle immediately onto reefs. Other hermaphroditic species like branching Acroporids, will release eggs and sperm into water column and fertilised eggs will develop into larvae, before settling onto reefs. We know so little about the timing of spawning in Fiji, and what factors result in good pulses of recruitment onto reefs.
My concern is that corals that are under bleaching stress, will invest their energy in staying alive, and will forfeit reproduction for up to 12 months. If this happens, the recovery of Fiji’s reefs might be slow or delayed. This is the first time I am aware of, where our reefs have to deal with both climate-induced bleaching stress and the mechanical damage from a cyclone.
It is going to be even more important over the next 12 months and longer for us to look after our coral reefs in Fiji, to give them the best fighting chance of recovery. Instead of seeing them as infinite resources for us to use without limit, we should see them like our gardens and plantations, needing care and maintenance to ensure they are grow and are healthy, and can continue to sustain us.
BY: Sangeeta Mangubhai
Over the last two days we have been diving in the Namena Marine Reserve. There was much debate before we got here whether Nai’a Cruises should venture up to the reserve, as there were reports of large scale damage both to the land, coastal villages and adjacent coral reefs. The marine reserve in particularly, juts out like a finger from the main island of Vanua Levu and the eye of the storm passed over it.
Namena is special because it is the largest no-take marine reserve in Fiji, and Nai’a Cruises has been diving these reefs for decades, promoting its conservation alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Coral Alliance. Thousands of divers from all over the world have visited these iconic reefs. Countless photos are captured of the marine life in the reserve, and numerous inspirational articles appear in dive magazines about Namena’s rich and diverse fish, invertebrate and coral communities.
Namena is part of the Kubulau District where WCS has worked for more than a decade supporting local communities on natural resource management. The communities have a management plan that outlines how they manage their resources from the mountains all the way down to the reefs. The people of Kubulau have inspired other districts in Bua province to develop their own district ‘ridge to reef’ management plans.
What was firstly evident on arriving at the Namena Marine Reserve was that Tropical Cyclone Winston had decimated Namena Island and the small eco-resort there. The island once lush with island forest, supporting a massive population of seabirds, was now barren, devoid of any green foliage. Trees were bent over, twisted and uprooted by the 185 mph winds. Only a handful of masked boobies (an iconic seabird) sat on bare tree branches, exposed and baking in the sun. We visited the island and spoke to some of the resort staff trying to clean up the island and salvage any remaining materials they could. Their families are thankfully all safe, but every building has been destroyed including their dive center and their jetty.
Under the water, the reefs in the marine reserve have done better than Namena Island. The cyclone has left a somewhat patchy trail of destruction. Some reefs we dived on were badly damaged with sea fans, soft corals and delicate branching corals the hardest hit. Some sea fans were ripped out by the roots, while others that were 2-3 meters across have been shredded in half. There were areas where large volumes of old and new rubble accumulated in between the reef structures and are shifting around with the currents (bad!), and other areas where the rubble was cleared away and swept to deeper waters (good!), leaving clear bare substrate ready for new coral recruits to colonise. Some areas the force of the waves had ripped off large massive corals and boulders.
Despite the damage, there was a lot of evidence of the resilience of the Namena Marine Reserve that gave me hope. There were clear areas of reef that seemed largely untouched by the cyclone. Sites popular with tourists like the ‘Two Thumbs Up’ and ‘Kansas’ were for most part intact, and continued to flourish all the way from the base of pinnacles to just below the water surface. It is almost impossible to predict which reefs survived the cyclone, and which ones sustained serious damage. There is no clear pattern so far. We would dive on one reef to find it broken apart by waves, turn a corner and find a reef intact and flourishing. The fish and shark life seemed to be at this stage, largely unaffected. We were lucky to swim with white tip and grey reef sharks, large manta rays and big schools of big-eyed trevally, surgeonfish, and fusiliers. Well-protected marine reserves like Namena have both a great chance of recovery, and will play an important role reseeding adjacent ‘less protected’ or ‘less managed’ reefs. For the community of Kubulau, the the Namena Marine Reserve is not only a biodiversity asset they can share with divers that visit Fiji, but also an insurance policy to ensure they always have healthy fisheries.
BY: Sangeeta Mangubhai
Before Cyclone Winston hit Fiji, we were following closely the El Niño cycle, the drought and reports of coral bleaching from dive operators. The local newspaper, the Fiji Times, ran a number of stories about fish kills and there was a lot of speculation about whether this was caused by the elevated sea surface temperatures we were experiencing across Fiji. Temperatures on inner reef flats along the Coral Coast recorded temperatures as high as 35°C. A similar story emerged from Vanuatu. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lagipoiva-cherelle-jackson/fish-kills-reported-in-fiji_b_9233612.html
I have been spending part of each dive collecting data on the scale and intensity of bleaching across a range of habitats including fringing patch and lagoonal reefs, channels and bommies, using a rapid assessment technique developed by Dr. Tim McClanahan and Dr. Emily Darling from the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Over the last four days, I have documented mild levels of bleaching, with common coral genera like Acropora, Pocillopora, Porites (massive forms), Montipora and Pavona mostly affected. By mild, I mean that corals are either iridescent or slightly pale, rather than fully white (i.e. bleached). The tissue on these corals is still very much alive. A few very large colonies of Porites and Pavona are severely bleached in the shallow lagoon at Gau Island, but again still alive.
For most part the bleaching is patchy and affecting corals living at 5-15m depth. Water temperatures in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape have dropped by about 2°C since the cyclone to 27°C. If these cooler water conditions continue, we can expect that most pale or bleached coral colonies will return to normal over the upcoming weeks.
It is going to be even more important that we look after our reef resources over the next 12 months, to give our reefs the best chance of recovery, so that they can continue to feed and sustain us here in Fiji. How well we care for our reefs will determine how well they recovery from both climate-induced temperature stress and the mechanical damage caused by cyclone Winston.
BY: Sangeeta Mangubhai
We woke up to the tall green mountains on the island of Gau in the southern Lomaiviti group and anchored ourselves in the calm sandy lagoon. In addition to being home to the Gau petrel, the area is famous for Nigali Passage. Diving Nigali requires precision – you need to time the tide correctly otherwise you can easily be swept out to sea. As oceanic water rushed into the channel, Cat Holloway (who I did my first dives with in the Phoenix Islands in 2000) and I jumped in at the mouth of the lagoon and rode the incoming tide into the lagoon.
Steep walls either side of the channel were covered in hard and soft corals. As we descended and moved into the centre of the channel we found ourselves flying through schools of barracuda while grey reef sharks gracefully circled and moved around me curiously. A large grouper sat at the bottom effortlessly and stared up at us. Seconds later we passed through a large school of big eye jacks hovering in the water column. As we pulled ourselves around a corner and out of the current I found myself in the middle of a bright yellow garden of Turbinaria corals – sometimes called cabbage patch corals.
The outside fringing reef had some of the healthiest hard coral communities I have seen in Fiji. Hard corals are important, as they are the reef builders. With over 80 percent cover, hard corals stretched out in all directions covering surfaces. Delicate branching corals and plates seemed to have weathered the cyclone, with very little damage recorded.
We also paid a visit to the community of Somosomo and were relieved to hear that all the villages around the island of Gau had little to no damage from Cyclone Winston. What brought tears to my eyes was to see the Gau community put together food and clothes to take over to the neighouring island of Batiki, which did not fare so well. I was reminded of the strong community bonds we have in Fiji, and how resilient our people are.
Brightly coloured gorgonian corals that survived cyclone Winston