Victor Bonito's visit to Naitauba

Naitauba’s reef is a complex living system nearly 12 miles in circumference, extending many hundreds of feet into the ocean depths, and millions of years old. And yet, as a living system, it is under threat right now, largely as a result of human activities, and most significantly, over a span of the past few decades.

The vast scale and complexity of the reef make monitoring and understanding it a humbling task, especially as the changes seem to unfold more and more rapidly with each passing year. And yet it is a fundamental part of our care for this beautiful and unique Island.

So we are immensely grateful to have had the opportunity in July 2016 to host innovative marine ecologist and biologist Victor Bonito for a one-week visit to Naitauba to see the reef, assess its condition, identify the factors affecting its health, and give us directions forward.

Victor comes from a rich background of study and learning on the richest and most beautiful coral reefs around the world. After first discovering Fiji and its reefs as a Peace Corps worker, he returned after his graduate work to make Fiji his home base. For the past fifteen years he has worked as a reef consultant on Viti Levu’s Coral Coast.

Over that span of years, Victor has pioneered efforts to develop community-based reef conservation programs on the Coral Coast and has successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in reversing patterns of over-exploitation and decline of coral reef communities. He has been a leader in developing techniques for cultivating corals in nurseries as a means for “hands-on” learning about coral biology and as a means for finding out what makes some corals able to withstand environmental challenges that are fatal to others.

Through Victor’s willingness, expertise, and insights, what came out of this visit was not a consoling report about the pristine state of the reef but a sobering assessment and wakeup call to the fragility of our reef, and the effects of climate change and our local human impact on it.

In that context, we also received some simple and tangible directions for moving forward on Naitauba’s reef—directions that we are beginning to explore as we move ahead into 2017.

Over the coming months, as we continue to explore Naitauba’s reef, we will be following up on the directions that Victor gave us during his visit. And we will be using this website to keep you updated on the changes that we see on the reef, and what we are doing together to help it.

Key practical recommendations from Victor, distilled from conversations during his visit:

  • Understand that forces of climate change that threaten the reef cannot be controlled merely at a local level, but do everything possible to take responsibility for effects that are caused or exacerbated by human activities on and around the Island.
  • Maintain the “No Fishing” areas on the reef, as these areas ensure that the fish populations, especially herbivores, are sufficient to control algae that can compete with coral on the reef.
  • Use sea temperature data loggers at strategic locations around the reef to detect extreme temperature events (that can cause coral bleaching), and track patterns of water temperature that affect the health of corals.
  • Help bolster depleted populations of giant clams and sea cucumbers (beche de mer) by finding and aggregating individuals of similar species in safe locations around the reef to improve their chances for successful reproduction.
  • Find and remove crown of thorns starfish on the reef to track and control this potentially damaging coral predator.
  • To control algal growth on shallow reef areas, reduce excess nutrients entering the reef from storm runoff and waste treatment facilities. Make use of new technologies such as stable isotope analysis to identify the principle source(s), and design improvements to correct these issues.

Check back soon for our next update!

Victor’s depth of knowledge of coral species and their biology allowed him to read the signs of their health and history—and get a better understanding of the reef altogether.

Victor made extensive use of still and video photography, using still images to record close-ups of corals and a Go-Pro camera to capture images of the fish life and scan large areas

At the conclusion of his visit, Victor spoke to Island residents and retreatants about coral reef biology and about his observations on the reef.



Naitauba Reef Update - The State of the Reef After Cyclone Winston

Cyclone Winston hit Naitauba almost four months ago - in its aftermath a lot of our time and energy was dedicated to repair the damage it caused to roads, utilities and marine transportation and to provide safe shelter for all the residents on the Island after so many buildings had been damaged by the cyclone.

It is only gradually that we are getting a picture of the impact of the cyclone on the reef. Our most recent outing was offshore from Lion’s Lap, a more remote part of the Island. One major observation that we made so far is that the impact of the hurricane on the reef varies significantly in different sections of the reef.

On many parts of the reef, and in particular, the shallower parts, its force was like its effect on Naitauba's forests, shattering in its power. Some of the shallow patch reefs showed major damaged —large areas of branching coral were reduced to rubble. Coral is brittle, and the strong currents, surges, and wave action of the hurricane broke coral formations. The damage impacted corals ranging from the delicate branching corals on up to large coral heads that were broken off, knocked over, or lifted up by the force of the storm. Many coral heads several feet across are now seen upside down on the lagoon floor or lying on other corals, like upturned tables.

Branching coral reduced to rubble

Massive coral formation over 6 feet in diameter lying on its side

Winston's powerful wave action and surges hit this coral like an underwater earthquake, reducing much of it to rubble. Many of the broken pieces remain alive--we will have to see whether they can survive in this condition.

Fragments of coral broken off by Winston that remained alive so far in a new location

Live coral sprouting new polyps and growing in the midst of a patch of coral rubble left by TC Winston. The new growing tips are brightly-colored due to pigments contained in the new coral tissue. We will be maintaining our efforts for the reef as we watch these signs of re-growth and resilience.

One very large coral head more than seven feet in diameter had been rolled on its side.  Also many coral formations were broken from their bases and lying upside down on the bottom. We saw a massive coral formation over 6 feet in diameter lying on its side, like a giant mushroom. It was very sobering.

But when we went out into the lagoon on the eastern side of the island, the corals in those deeper waters weren't so badly hammered. Perhaps since the east side is accustomed to frequent storms, the impact was less dramatic and visible there. However we did find a coconut palm, complete with its root ball, standing on the bottom in 20-foot deep water next to some coral formations about 100 meters offshore from Adi Da’s original "My House" at Lion's Lap.

Coconut palm, complete with its root ball, standing on the bottom in 20-foot deep water

Another observation is that the fish populations are obviously impacted by the damage to the coral, but we are still seeing good numbers of large fish in the places we’ve gone. The photos below include a school of snub-nosed pompanos. When they swam up closer to check us out, their smooth and effortlessly graceful movement together was a deeply-moving sign of the persistence of life on the reef, even under these new and rapidly-changing condition.

School of snub-nosed pompanos

Relief Support Efforts For Naitauba Affected by Cyclone Winston

The strongest cyclone in recorded history hit Fiji yesterday. The Island of Naitauba has been utterly devastated, crucial structures have been destroyed, but thankfully everyone on the island is safe, there have been no injuries. Communication with Naitauba is limited to satellite phone as power and internet are down. If you would like to help please consider making a donation through the website below. It will help us to assist our friends on Naitauba with their most urgent needs. We will keep updating details about the destruction caused by Winston as we receive more information directly from the island.


March 2015 - El Nino arrives on Naitauba

Over the past five years, we have witnessed and documented a period of almost unbroken re-growth and recovery on Naitauba’s reef. Coral and fish populations have been growing for well over a decade following the severe coral bleaching incidents that damaged much of the reef in 2000 and 2002.

It has seemed that global warming has been somehow miraculously “on hold”, letting us glimpse the richness and extraordinary regenerative capabilities of this living reef system. Still, we have known all along that this fortunate period of benign weather and sea conditions would likely not last forever.

A major change is underway now. Key cycles in Pacific Ocean currents and weather are moving into a new phase. “El Nino” conditions have now been confirmed across the Pacific, and are expected to extend into the Northern Hemisphere summer.

We saw early warning signs back in January, 2014, with a long string of hot sunny days and flat calm seas that heated the surface waters of the lagoon to the point that we began to see coral bleaching in many parts of the inner reef.  

January 2015 - Update on the reef study process

First, we want to begin this update by offering our sincere thanks to everyone who has helped this remarkable process to manifest and grow. The strength of your response has given us the confidence and inspiration to keep moving forward, and your expressions of support and encouragement keep the absolute importance of the entire process always before us.

Since the visit from the University of the South Pacific’s reef team in September, we have been working to integrate what we learned and look ahead toward our next steps. During their visit, Cherie, Lai, and Ben not only carried out their surveys on the reef, they also helped to open up a dialogue about making sure that all Island residents and staff are fully educated and comply with sustainable fishing practices on the reef. This is an essential dimension of our care for the reef now and into the future.