Nonhuman animals rule the northeastern side of mile-long Namena Island. Frigate birds ride thermals high above the hill, circling up and around and around until they join hundreds of other specks of gray against the blue sky. Below them, roosting in the trees, blue and red-footed boobies are tucked away in the foliage, their coral-red and pastel-blue feet revealing perches and nests. New arrivals swoop in towards partners guarding their large, fluffy white chicks, landing with a wing and a prayer on branches that bob and sway from clumsy grasps for footholds and abrupt deceleration. Long white-tailed paradise terns glide gracefully across the anchorage, disappearing into the forest with gentle landings concealing their homes. Boobies fly across our bow and stern, often in groups of seven or eight, with a menacing frigate bird swooping down upon them. Angry squawks and aerial dives keep the boobies safe, but their chicks are a favorite food of the frigates. Amazingly, despite the thousands of frigate birds, the boobies seem to match their numbers.
This is what resilience looks like, for Cyclone Winston uprooted trees, defoliated every branch still standing, and wreaked unfathomable havoc on this island a mere two and a half years ago. A tropical morning glory benefitted from this disruption, its snaking vines covering the beach and twining up the trunks of the dead and dying. But breadfruit trees, palms, and papaya with drooping golden orbs are thriving once again.
While the birds claim the trees and sky, crabs own the land. We beached Hektor for an evening bird photography visit, and found the sand seething with hermit crabs in spiral shells, skittery land crabs with only their camouflage of white, grey and brown specks protecting them, and sea crabs lurking at the edges, their hard shells shining aqua blue and black. Each of our steps set off a flurry of movement, as these critters raced away from what they could only perceive as giant predators. Our only goal, however, was to avoid them. It was a pacifist’s version of cat and mouse, with the crab-mice scurrying to safety or freezing in place, hoping to blend into the environs and escape capture. We knew we were top predator, and yet the sheer number of these creatures made us feel like the vulnerable ones, morbidly imagining them combining their forces to overpower us and hold us hostage on the beach.
This was not a place for humans to frolic, so we ceded the land to the beasts and explored the waters instead. In the shallow waters around the island the coral was mostly dead, but tropical fish abounded and white tipped reef sharks patrolled their territory. These shallower waters heat more easily, perhaps reaching that coral-killing temperature of 80 degrees with regularity. Our next venture took us out to the barrier reef and “South Save-a-tack Pass,” reported to be a wonderland of coral pinnacles and reef fish. And here we found one of our all-time favorite snorkeling spots. Soft corals and plates of anemones covered the walls, descending 20 feet on the inside of the lagoon and 80 feet on the outside, delicate coral fans in reds, golds and blacks waved in the currents, and the fish were everywhere. Schools of parrot fish circled round each other in the inlets between pinnacles, giant spotted groupers tucked under reef edges, emperor angel fish swam round Moorish idols and regal angels, schools of pink and orange anthias hovered over coral plates, clown fish darted in and out of anemones, butterfly fish sailed back and forth in the current, brilliantly colored wrasses nibbled coral, and the occasional, giant hump-head wrasse swam into the open waters and then dashed back into its cave. It was hard to know where to look, life dazzled so fiercely here, and we swam and dove, tears filling our eyes at the magnificence of it all. For two days we snorkeled the pass, returning to favorite spots and drift diving with the current.
Namena Island is truly a sanctuary for the non-human beasts. The birds are secure in their habitat, with the resort owners ceding half of the island for their use; and the fish can multiply and grow thanks to the Chiefs in this area declaring the reef a marine protected area. The sheer numbers of birds and fish at Namena give hope – perhaps one day small preserves will link with larger ones across Oceania, populating the oceans and skies with the magnificence and beauty we witnessed here.