By Sangeeta Mangubhai
[This is the third in a series of blogs by WCS-Fiji Director Sangeeta Mangubhai assessing the damage to coral reefs caused by Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 storm that hit Fiji on February 20]
It is Day 3 in our investigation of Cyclone Winston’s impact on the corals of Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. We are fortunate to be working in partnership with Nai’a Cruises, a live-aboard ship that has been diving in Fiji since 1993 and whose generous support has made the survey possible.
In addition to Winston-related destruction, we are paying special attention to the bleaching in the area corals, which will serve as a baseline for future expeditions.
As Director of the Fiji Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), I have been pleased on my previous dives so far to see that the storm damage has been limited. The hard corals appear to remain mostly intact. There were broken branching and plating corals and larger coral heads that had fallen over in the storm surge. And while many of the colorful soft corals and sea fans that Fiji is well-known for appear to have been lost in the heavy wave action, they will likely return.
On this day, 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 the Nigali Passage.
Diving Nigali requires precision – you need to time the tide correctly or you may easily be swept out to sea. As oceanic water rushed into the channel, Cat Holloway (with whom I did my first dives 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 center 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 neighboring 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.
Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai is Director of the Fiji Program for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Follow Sangeeta on Twitter at: @smangubhai.
Other blogs in Sangeeta Mangubhai’s series exploring the damage to Fiji’s coral reefs following Cyclone Winston: