For the Love of Coral

The islands within the Vava’u group of Tonga are largely protected from the ocean swell, as the archipelago is framed on the north by the large island of Vava’u, with barrier islands and reefs forming an oblong group, punctuated by tiny outer islands and reefs along the southern edge. A maze of islands and reefs lies within, offering flat water sailing, numerous anchorages, dive and snorkel spots, sea caves, and a few kiteboarding spots as well. This is prime cruising grounds, with the small town of Nieafu easily accessed for re-provisioning when needed. The Vava’u group is famous for its clear waters, rich with soft and hard corals, anemones, sponges, sea fans, echinoderms (sea stars, cucumbers, urchins) and brilliantly colored tropical fish, but few areas live up to this reputation these days. The remaining live reefs are only partially healthy, yet, thankfully, still rife with color and filled with species diversity.

Coral Gardens is by far the most vibrant coral reef in the archipelago, one that is challenging to access, as a southwesterly ocean swell rolls between the outer islands and bathes the reef with cool ocean waters before breaking upon its shallows. The anchorage is on the back side of the reef, in calm protected waters; the difficulty is getting through the surf to the gardens beyond. Mark and I attempted entry during mid-tide on the southern edge, but we couldn’t find a break in the surf long enough to struggle through. Venturing to the north edge of the reef, we waited for the tide to rise a bit more. With water levels rising we swam towards the break, tummies barely skimming coral gravel, fighting the current rushing past us, and with great difficulty we reached the edge of the break. After watching the pattern of the waves we decided to take our chances and punch through a smaller set. Each wave pushed us backwards, then we sprinted forward in the lulls, repeating this process over and over until finally emerging on the other side. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, having used all my strength to sprint against the current, all the while terrified that a larger wave would pound me into coral. Pushed way beyond my comfort zone, I swam into deeper water than needed to ensure I didn’t get swept into the breaking swell. Mark, being a surfer dude, swam in the shallower waters on the edge of the break, where the vibrant coral was only several feet below; he called repeatedly to come enjoy the beauty. It took me about ten minutes to re-group, find another store of courage, and head to the shallows. There the world of coral opened beneath me, with the symbiotic algae painting the coral polyps in greens, blues, oranges, reds, pinks and purples. We marveled in the beauty, soaking up the colors and shapes, and after a long snorkel session, body surfed on a set of gentle waves over the reef and into the protected waters where the dinghy awaited us.

The next day the entire family ventured out. This time we walked on the coral gravel and sand near the center of the reef, made for a channel, watched the waves and took the plunge. It was a little less terrifying, but still challenging to call the sets correctly and make it through. I recovered in only a few minutes, and then ventured to the shallows to see the reef in a new light, informed by our guide to coral reefs. The iterative process of observation the day before, followed by viewing photographs, and then returning to the reef enabled me to see more detail- not only the broad categorizations of coral types, but the minute differences in what once looked the same to me. Where I first saw hard, white, branching coral, I now looked for the shape and structure of the branches – is there one primary branch with subsidiary stems emerging, or is each branch covered with symmetrical stems, or is asymmetry the defining characteristic? I looked for the patterns formed in the brain shaped corals, marveling at those which are maze-like and admiring the labyrinth-like symmetry of others. I sought out the variety in the mushroom shaped corals, searching for the round and oblong versions, looking for those that appeared upside down, and locating small varieties, with smooth round tops like the white mushrooms of the vegetable market. I marveled at the black fans with gold fringes, Christmas tree worms in brilliant colors emerging from rounded coral heads, plate coral with layers upon layers of growth, nobby and lumpy corals branching like adolescent elk antlers, and orange sponges standing tall, evocative in both color and texture of 1970s corduroy pants. The diversity of species in Tonga exceeds anything we’ve seen so far, and at this site the ratio of live, thriving coral, to bleached is 80 to 20, rather than the more common 20 to 80 in numerous other spots in Vava’u and French Polynesia.

The following day I was eager to visit the Coral Gardens again. Devon joined Mark and me, and we set out to recreate the successful entry of the day before. We walked across the coral gravel and found the path through the center of the reef. Watching the waves, we picked our window to sprint through the surf and beyond the break. Mark and Devon and I were swimming hard, but I lagged behind when a stronger wave ripped my mask from my face. In the 30 seconds it took me to reposition my mask, Mark and Devon punched through to safety while I received the first bash from a bigger wave. It knocked me down to the coral and tugged at my mask again. Gasping and grasping, I came up for air only to get tossed by another wave, much bigger and stronger. This one rolled me around and pinned me against dead coral, digging into my knees, back and then ripping into my arm as it tossed me once again. The next wave broke the strap of my fin and tore the snorkel from my mask. Mark valiantly returned to try to assist me in getting out past the break, only feet away, but by this time I knew I needed to retreat. I encouraged him to return to Devon while I slowly swam back to the dinghy, riding the boost from each wave, and hauling myself up to safety.

I took off Anson’s sun shirt (mine was lost overboard weeks before) and saw only shreds of fabric where the back had once been. Thanks to that sacrificial covering, my wounds were not deep, and all healed quickly once washed with fresh water and hydrogen peroxide.

Since that experience, we’ve snorkeled small passes beyond the favorite kiteboarding spot, experiencing the wealth of sea life that reminds us of Fakarava pass in the miniature. Around A’a island we have our favorite spots, including small sea caves dotted with coral and sea fans, a spot where a turtle and a Napolean Wrasse seem to linger, and a bleached out area with long white sea horses camouflaged in a desolate expanse of coral death.

The reasons for coral death are many. Cyclones certainly wreak havoc, destroying fragile coral polyps which take years to regrow. But human impacts threaten the viability of the reefs for generations to come. For decades the reefs have suffered from locally-based market oriented strategies of ‘development’: overharvesting of species which clean the reefs, notably to harvest shells for the tourist market and to supply Chinese markets with the medicinal sea cucumber; overfishing and upsetting the balance of species; construction of roads and large buildings which unleash torrents of silt into the ocean; damage from anchors; and toxicity leaching into the sea from garbage dumps, chemically treated sewage, and fertilizers and pesticides from new modes of agricultural production. These local actions have mostly benefitted elites – local elites, ex-pats who put down roots, as well as the tourists who are arguably among the elite of the world, ourselves included. (Given Tonga’s land laws, foreigners cannot buy land, thus there are no multinational tourist corporations building obscene tourist complexes in Vava’u; instead small resorts, many owned and run by foreigners, dot the archipelago.) But families immersed in subsistence life ways also engage in these market oriented strategies of “development” to earn income for school fees, clothing and other market-based needs produced through changing life ways and expectations. Certainly these locally based impacts have caused harm, but the most significant threat, namely climate change and the resulting sea temperature rise and increasing acidity, stems from actions centered thousands of miles away. The petroleum economy that fuels the dream life of widgets and gadgets, high speed transport by car and air, the spiraling development of needs and the complex networks to ensure the availability of almost any product anytime and anywhere, is having its impact here and now in Oceania. Simply put, the coral is dying, and it is unclear whether coral can evolve quickly enough, or coral nurseries can propagate and supply species hardy enough, so that coral will survive even a decade or two from now. Most species of coral cannot live in water warmer than 30 degrees Celsius, and even a week or two of these temperatures causes coral to fluoresce and then bleach, leaving behind skeletons that quickly become covered in brown algea. Too often on this voyage we have seen the bleached remains of once vibrant coral gardens, their skeletons still providing habitat for beautiful tropical fish and hiding spots for groupers and moray eels, but the vibrancy leeched from a stunning ecosystem.

We’ve also met people who are working to find solutions: Fiafia Rex from Oma Tafua in Niue is working to promote coral nurseries of varieties more resilient in the face of warmer and more acidic ocean waters. The Vava’u Environmental Protection Association (VEPA) is similarly working to promote coral health and to maintain local fisheries. Their projects with community-based management of fisheries resources, and their mapping of deep sea mounts with the aim of protecting them from underwater mining operations, is based on the understanding of the intensive interdependence of the deep sea and near shore fisheries, the coral ecosystem, and sustainable communities. Their work is inspiring, but can only be successful if paired with transformations on regional and global levels.

For the love of coral, we need a paradigm shift, from top down and bottom up, from the local to the global. Kim
Vava’u Group, Tonga

2 thoughts on “For the Love of Coral

  1. I felt like I was there with you as you were thrown about by the forces of wind ,waves and tide. Thank goodness you were not hurt too badly. I vividly remember my own panic when similar things happened to me, but without the tearing off of mask and fins and scrapes all over. At the time it was terrifying. It overpowered your message of needing to globally think of ways to save the coral, as I felt like I had to protect my baby- my arms about you in a huge hug. Mother.


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