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Early Stage Research for Fijian Marine World Heritage Site

Date: 2005-04-13

WildlifeSAIL NEWS LETTER 12 March, 2005

1. 16 NEW log reports (No. 65 - 82)
2. 21 NEW Photo Galleries from Pacific crossing (No. 044 - 067)
3. Fiji Barrier Reef Diving with WCS in September 2004: Early
Planing and Research Stages for First Fijian Marine World Heritage


1. See for log reports


2. Visit Photo Gallery. Photos include:
Chilean coast, Robinson Crusoe Island, Rapa Nui (Easter Island),
French Polynesia, Tonga, and Fiji


3. Fiji Barrier Reef Diving with WCS in September 2004: Early
Planing and Research Stages for First Fijian Marine World Heritage

David Olson is a field scientist, as well as the Director of the
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Fiji office. Turning to me he
explains, "Fiji's coastal waters are amongst the most diverse and
rich in the world, but also the most threatened. Fiji's coasts are
regularly trespassed by foreign commercial fishing boats. They are
floating processing plants that decimate local fish populations. At
this point the Fijian government does not have the capability to
manage and protect its waters. The solution is to amalgamate
sections of Fiji's reefs and coasts into a world heritage marine park
that will receive international support."

David changes his posture to steady his back against the yacht's
(WILDLIFE's) cockpit bulkhead. Pulling a baseball hat deep onto his
face he adjusts a pair of weathered sunglasses on the bridge of his
nose and adds, "Fiji's reefs are formed by corals, which are
organisms that can grow on top of each other, forming spectacular
underwater knolls, walls and towers. Over a long period of time a
natural reef is created. Namena reef, where we are sailing to today,
will be an integral habitat in a network of zones that will one day
make up Fiji's first marine world heritage site, the
Lomaiviti/Vatu-i-Ra World Heritage Seascape."

WildlifeSAIL is honored to host David and his diverse and talented
research team aboard our yacht. Linda Farley, David's wife, is also
a WCS marine scientist. Alex Patrick is in charge of underwater
operations. I nicknamed him "The Rotuman Engine." Rotumans are
Fijian in nationality, but are of Polynesian descent, different from
the Melanesians that predominate in the Fijian archipelago. Rotumans
are proud strong stout people and Alex's frame carries more muscle
than an Amtrac train. I get the giggles when Alex politely, but
shamefully, garnishes Kate's vegetarian meals with an 800 gram can of
corned beef that magically appears from inside his dive bag. With
puppy dog eyes he begs for her forgiveness and complements her green
bean roasted almond salad. Loraini Sivo is a fish spawning expert
studying Fijian fish aggregation and mating behavior. It is the
first time she joins her colleagues for an off-shore passage and we
can't help but tease her in the traditional off-colored sailor charm,
"Lo, what happens on the boat stays on the boat..." She smiles
amiably and socks Ben in the shoulder with a strong left jab. Ben
Drodrolagi is a Fijian Fisheries officer and our political heavy
weight. Ben does not only bring his vast knowledge of unique Fijian
fish to the team, but is also well respected by Fijian chiefs. His
presence gives our research credibility with the local people.
Everyone of David's team members plays an essential part in gathering
the necessary data for the baseline surveys of select Fijian reefs on
which the World Heritage Site proposal will rest.

Suddenly WILDLIFE's genoa sheet tugs on the starboard winch drum and
emits a creaking sound that all sailors associate with big forces of
tension. I feel her 70-foot mast jerk in a puff of wind. The
leeward shroud slackens slightly. Time to reef down. Daniel
Michahelles, yacht WILDLIFE's first mate, trims the furling line
while I ease the jib sheet. A larger gust pushes into the reefed
sails and the windward hull lifts a few inches. We hold on to our
hats as the boat speed B&G (speed gauge) pounces from 5 to 9 knots.
The reefed sails push the boat forward effortlessly and without
noticeable strain. The yacht feels well balanced and holds her
course with only a touch of windward helm. A small rooster tail
spits out from under the transom and the sound of gurgling water from
under the boat becomes louder.

The wind shift marks the boundary to the open Koro Sea. We leave the
sheltered Savusavu Bay, on Vanua Levu Island and sail past the
Jean-Michelle Cousteau Resort. The yacht begins to climb the
building swell. Our nine researchers and crew sway with the sea's
motion, duck the salty spray whisping through our forward trampoline,
and settle in for a three hour journey. It's a perfect September
Fiji morning and the weather forecast is fair, with predominant trade
wind conditions.

David continues, undeterred by the commotion, "Regular research
access to these remote reefs is so essential. In order to manage
them well, we need to understand them, and that requires baseline
surveys on which we can build. Fiji's coral reefs gave us a big
surprise when we found sections of successful recovery from bleaching
caused by the devastating year 2000 El Nino. WCS is studying the
causes for Fiji's unusual reef resilience all the way to the genetic

David turns toward the sea, scans the waves, and reminds his research
team to look for whales. The international moratorium on whaling in
1986 has allowed Humpback, Sperm, and Minke whales to return to
Fijian waters after being hunted to near local extinction by
international commercial whaling ships. Today WCS is trying to study,
understand and conserve Fiji's marvelous water world and create a
reserve that will allow the few important remaining whales to bread
and nurse successfully.

On our trip together David will focus his research on a barrier coral
reef that extends far offshore and surrounds the island of Namena.
Coral reefs act as underwater oases of food within the vastness of
the Pacific Ocean. Global coral bleaching (bleaching occurs when the
coral dies and leaves behind its ghostly white skeleton) is leading
to massive global fish starvation. Large oceanic fish, such as
marlin, sword fish, shark, dorado and tuna are predators that eat
smaller fish, which intern eat even smaller reef organisms. As reefs
die, this age old food chain breaks down, reducing the food available
to top of the food chain predators, of which we humans are part. In
the past 15 years 70 percent of the world's coral reefs have
bleached, a sign that the coral tissue has died. Many of these have
not shown signs of recovery.

On the yacht's electronic C-map chart I lay a course that takes us
further away from land. The yacht has found her groove on a broad
reach and is covering a good nautical mile every 6 minutes. The wind
steadies at a perfect 18 knots. I engage the autopilot, lovingly
named The Boss for its masterly command over the vessel.

Kate joins me at the helm and asks David and Linda what got them
interested in Fijian reefs. Linda smears thick sun block on David's
cheeks and answers for both, "Fijian coral reefs, like most others,
have experienced significant bleaching. We have found, however,
that some of Fiji's coral reefs are rebounding faster than other
international reefs. Fiji is subject to strong fast flowing oceanic
currents that funnel through narrow corridors between the Islands and
reef zones. We believe that this causes Fijian reefs to have high
productivity and good state of health. The fresh ocean currents
flush out trapped warm El Nino water, as well as water-borne toxins
accumulated due to higher water temperatures. Corals may look like
plants, but they are actually animals. The small coral polyps that
make up massive corral reefs are sensitive creatures and can only
survive at specific water temperatures. They are also affected by
water-borne pollution and physical disturbances, such as marine
construction, or sediment deposits due to coastal runoff. When we
dive we are careful not to touch corals, because even the faintest
touch can tear their skin."

I learn from David that Fijian reefs not only have some of the
world's highest coral and fish diversity but that WCS studies also
show some Fijian reefs to be among the most productive and intact,
based on the number of larger fish. WCS continues to discover new
fish species during routine surveys - seven new species where found
on a two week survey in 2003.

Half a mile ahead we spot 6-foot breaking waves on the Namena barrier
reef. Sheltered from the ocean surf, beyond the submerged coral,
rises the pristine Namena Island, approximately 300 feet tall, a mile
in length, and a quarter mile wide. Thick bush and stout trees
reflect in its surrounding crystal waters. Our B&G depth gauge
springs to life. I nervously watch it's yellow numbers decrease
rapidly with every second. I aim for a break in the reef. On my
chart it is supposed to be 18 feet deep. The situation feels a bit
spooky. It's my first time here and some local charts have not been
updated for more than 150 years, drawn in times when seafarers
plotted their position with sextants, dead reckoning, and line of
sight. My nerves get the better of me and Cally, my project dive
master, helps me put another reef in the main to slow the boat. Kate
and Daniel jump on WILDLIFE's twin bow sections, spying for brown
patches in the water that mark shallower spots. Kate cups her hands
and shouts back at me "There is a patch at 11 o'clock and 3 boat
lengths ahead!" She points for me and I mark the spot in my mind. I
notice the current getting stronger as we approach the reef's outer
edges. Depth has now mercifully steadied at 15 feet. Both of these
are good signs for us - a sigh of relief. The reef is shaped like a
flat doughnut and drains most of its water out of deeper passages
during ebb tide, sometimes at up to 20 knots. But here it's not so
bad, 4 knots against us, and with relief and loud cheers from all 9
of us we find our way through the reef, white caps lapping at jagged
coral heads barely 3 boat lengths away. "Glorious!" I think to
myself, "Like the old days, with nothing but sail and a good breeze,
we have found paradise." Well, and maybe little help from a long
list of other benefits, like our GPS (Global Positioning System),
which has conveniently slipped my mind in this perfect sailing moment.

Namena Island has the form of a large sleeping beast in the center of
the lagoon. We sail towards its eastern tip, where a small resort is
perched on a steep 200-foot high bluff. Resembling the beast's lazy
eyes, its bungalows gaze tranquilly north, across miles of coral reef
and turquoise-blue water, towards Fiji's distant northern islands. A
native fisherman to port throws his net in a wide arc from the bow of
his wooden skiff. Under Fijian law 89 percent of the country's land
and coast must be owned by Fijian natives and cannot be sold. Fiji
is one of the few Pacific island countries that has risen from the
age of European imperialism as an independent state and with its
native communities intact. The tribe that fishes on Namena reef has
done so for hundreds of years.

In the distance I hear an outboard engine stutter to life and soon a
dingy zooms toward us. Over VHF we consult with Namena Island Resort
staff and they suggest we anchor on a sandy patch at the west side of
the island, which, as it turns out, is host to a large booby rookery.
The birds' excitement is unmistakable as we drop our anchor 300 feet
away from a golden sandy beach. The rattle of our anchor chain is
met with cooing and cawing.

Having had a few near misses (as well as bull's-eyes) with dragging
anchors, I dawn my goggles to take a closer look at the 35-kilo CQR
we put down. And... I'm not happy. The ground is hard and the
anchor is lying on it's side. With our boat's windage, the unengaged
anchor is not an option for us. Attached to a fender Daniel floats
out a 25-kilo Admiral's anchor along with 12 more feet of chain. We
release it all from the floating fender and watch it plummet 24 feet
down to the bottom. The faint outlines of the anchor are still
visible from the surface. I take three deep slow breaths, hear
Daniel saying "I'll be right here," and I follow the anchor. I love
free diving! Underwater, I hear the eerie clicking of sand shifting
and parrot fish rasping coral with their hard beaks. The bottom is
mostly sand, flecked with 12-foot diameter 10-foot tall coral knowls.
A dreamlike landscape of fantastic colors, shapes, and sizes. Just
beyond reach a greenish octopus stares at me, its fist-size head
pumping at the temples. I somehow frighten it because it suddenly
thrusts its legs and torpedoes off. Kneeling next to the anchor, I
shove it along the bottom until its claw wedges into a crevice.
Careful not to damage any living coral tissue I heave the chain away
from any heads nearby and fasten the stainless clip at the end onto
my CQR. Ok, that's enough, my lungs are down to their reserves and I
can feel them searching for any remaining molecules of oxygen trapped
in my chest. The physical exertion leaves me slightly dizzy. A
little trick that I use to relax myself from panic if I stay
underwater too long, is to consciously make a swallowing motion. It
helps reduce my innate instinct to open my mouth and gasp for air. I
also close my eyes while resurfacing. The buoyancy of my body pulls
me back to the surface, aided by a few flipper strokes. As my mouth
and chin breach the surface I pretend to be a deep sea whale
returning to breathe sweet fresh air. The return is always a
wonderful part of skin diving, as remarkable as the descent.

The boat is secure and the scientists have set up their underwater
video cameras, white slates, wax pens, measuring tapes and SCUBA gear
to conduct their first survey. Cally ensures everyone makes a clean
entry with all their gear attached, and Daniel films. Kate is
already preparing dinner in the galley (ship's kitchen). Sailors,
divers and Rotumans (as Alex jokes) are notoriously the most hungry
people in the world and Kate looks like she is training for an Iron
Chef competition. During all this excitement it begins to rain. We
watch for lightning as the first diver steps off of the transom.

The research is on. For 3 days the WCS team targets selected sights
around Namena's 16 nautical mile (29 km) long barrier reef. Some
locations are on the protected interior reef and others have direct
exposure to the sea. The divers install permanent 50-meter
(150-foot) transects and record the details of each ground type,
temperature, animal and plant within 1 meter (3 feet) of each side of
the transect line. Lo takes note of the larger fish groups that move
through the area. The scientists will return regularly to this area
in the future, especially if the important world heritage sight funds
can be secured, to monitor changes to the ecology around at the
transects. This base line survey method allows the scientists to
compare future habitat changes to the state of the ecology today at
exactly the same locations.

Our last night at Namena reef David gives a presentation to the
native Fijians and the American resort owners who are currently
leasing the island. He is received with curiosity and pledges of
support. Linda graciously demonstrates how to receive kava, a Fijian
root that in powdered form is mixed into water; clap three times for
acceptance, down the brown murky liquid as fast as possible, clap
again for thankfulness and enjoy the relaxing effect of the root. The
kava ceremony is an essential part of Fijian hospitality. Served in
communal coconut bowls kava is consumed heavily. A westerner may not
always pallet the drink so easily as Kate experienced, when she
promptly fell asleep next to me, curled up on a hand woven pandanus

At this point in WCS's conservation plan for Fiji, generating local
understanding and support for fishery and eco habitat threats is
equally important to the scientific marine research in the field.
During the question and answer session the resort owner, Joanne
Moody, vents her frustration about international long liners
illegally sneaking up to the Namena reef coast under the cover of
night. Her VHF radio calls on the emergency channel 16 go
unanswered. These commercial fishing boats are too large to confront
with her little dive boats. All she can do is watch their navigation
lights pass on by and hope that her radio warnings have not gone

The Fijian Navy does not have the patrol resources to enforce
national law within their coastal waters. Earlier in 2004
Greenpeace's Rainbow Warier donated their time to the Fijian
Fisheries and helped arrest 3 international commercial fishing
vessels that were illegally fishing in near-shore waters. Greenpeace
brought much needed publicity to the problems the Fijian Fisheries
face. The Fijian marine world is, after all, among the last
remaining healthy marine habitats in the world. Commercial fisheries
are all to aware of Fiji's bounties and are driven to their
lawlessness because most of the world's oceans have already been over
fished and depleted.

"David, what's next?" I ask on our sail back to the mainland. David
Olson is a tall man with a strong athletic past. His eyes beam,
radiating a kind confidence. "You know what, JF, I love my job
because of the tremendous untapped opportunities to assure the
survival of natural resources, as well as their wonder, for
generations to come. That's what will get me up tomorrow morning,
knocking on people's doors, presenting our data, raising money, and
getting essential Fijian and international organizations on the same
page. It seems like a never ending road some days, but on others we
have major breakthroughs. I feel very strongly that WCS's marine
conservation plan here in Fiji will be successful and that my three
year old daughter will dive these reefs when she is older and
discover the same majesty in them that they have today. So, exactly
what's next? Well, starting tomorrow I'm going to keep a look out
for a second hand catamaran like WILDLIFE." David smiles broadly.
"That would be a great permanent addition to our program. We've
really appreciated her platform and your time here with us."

Certainly Kate, Daniel, Cally and I would love to stick around, but
cyclone (the Pacific hurricane) season is around the corner and we've
got to move on. Thank you David Olson, Linda Farley, Lo, Alex, and
Ben for the many laughs and the good work together.

With respect,
John-Frederick Thye

For more information on WCS's Fiji program please feel free to contact:
David Olson
WCS South Pacific, Suva Fiji


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