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Expedition Begins to Sacred Reef of Fiji

By Dr. Stacy Jupiter

Lau – Land of Islands Lost

This is the first of several blogs documenting an 8-day, marine expedition to Fiji.

Tomorrow we board our research vessel to embark on our journey to the remote reaches of Fiji’s oceans. We are headed to Lau Province, where communities hold their reefs sacred and mythical islands really can vanish like in the television series Lost. Through this expedition, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pacific Blue Foundation, Wetlands International-Oceania, and the Waitt Institute are partnering to uncover the stories of the reefs and people of Totoya Island in the Yasayasamoala group.

(c) Wildlife Conservation Society

Lau Province is made up of over a hundred islands and atolls scattered across a 188 square mile expanse of deep water bridging Fiji and Tonga. The Yasayasamoala group encompasses Totoya, Moala, Vanuavatu and Matuku islands, plus the atoll Navatu, which are all the summits of extinct oceanic volcanoes that rise from depths of over 6500 feet. There may have previously been more. Oral histories collected by University of the South Pacific linguist Paul Geraghty describe a mythical island, Burotukula, which geologists believe may have slipped off the flanks of Matuku over 1000 years ago.

Totoya is a triangular shaped island excavated by a drowned caldera. Although only 125 miles from Fiji’s capital in Suva, the geographic distance belies its remoteness. The nearest airstrip is on Moala Island, although the once-weekly flights will not land on its grassy surface if conditions are wet. From Moala, Totoya residents must make a 25 mile ocean crossing at their peril, with large swell and high currents regular features of the deep passages between these islands.

(c) Keith Ellenbogen

There are four villages on Totoya occupying 129 households. Most residents are farmers or fishers, with few other opportunities to earn a living. Fish catch surveys conducted across southern Lau by researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom suggest that by the mid-1990s, even a modest level of local fishing had strong impacts on coral reef fish communities. Since that time, fishing pressure has increased as the urban markets of Suva lured many to sell their precious stocks.

(c) Keith Ellenbogen

Traditionally, Fijians and other Pacific Islanders used customary governance systems to manage their marine resources. When people noticed declines in their resources, the chiefs would impose a ban (call tabu in Fijian) on fishing. On Totoya, the chiefs declared a portion of their sacred reef tabu for several decades. However, prompted by increasing commercial value of fish stocks, the previous high chief of Totoya lifted the ban to boost the economy of his island. The current high chief of Totoya, Roko Sau (Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba), is joining us on the expedition to encourage his people to revive their traditions. He will lead the chiefs of the four villages to once again declare their sacred reef tabu for World Ocean’s Day on June 8 to ensure that there are fish for future generations.

We invite you to follow along our adventures as we aim to locate new species, revitalize cultural practice, and explore the unknown. We are very excited at the prospect of what the coming week will bring.

(c) Keith Ellenbogen


  1. Walter Aitu
    April 16, 2012, 11:08 pm

    I taught elementary school there in Udu, Totoya back in 2000. Good times, beautiful people!

  2. Carrie Martin
    April 9, 2012, 9:08 pm

    Bula Friends,

    I was wondering if I could get permission to use one or 2 pictures to include in our Honour Fiji project information. This is a youth project with the Econesian Society at the University of South Pacific, where both Fijian and international youth will commit to service for the ecology around many of the outer islands aboard a tall-ship the Alvei. We are seeking support for the project and presently I am in the United States and need a few good ocean photos. Could someone get back to me and let me know. Vinaka, Carrie

  3. Finau Aulele Masirewa Nanovo
    June 29, 2011, 1:51 am

    A great find and keep it well.

  4. Unaisi Waqanivere
    June 27, 2011, 1:39 am

    Thanx you Stacy and WCS Team and other partner organisation for this amazing adventure and the great work you have done in our beautiful islands in Lau..any chance of reaching Ono-i-Lau????lol…

  5. Sereana Talemaibau
    Suva, Fiji
    June 22, 2011, 6:48 pm

    A big hearty vinaka vakalevu to the this team…and to the Roko Sau for sharing our beautiful Daveta Tabu with the rest of the world. As a very proud Tovu-Totoyan..just the feeling while visiting the island is overwhelming..but to actually see the reef and all its life….Sa Malo

  6. Filomena Serenia
    June 17, 2011, 1:37 am

    Thank you Stacy and the WCS team,Pacific Blue Foundation, Wetlands International-Oceania, and the Waitt Institute , and the villagers of Totoya for their great work!!!!

  7. Josaia Cama
    Suva, Fiji
    June 7, 2011, 5:38 pm

    To be on National Geographic channel is awesome. Go Totoya go.

  8. Josaia Cama
    Suva, Fiji
    June 7, 2011, 5:36 pm

    A very special thanks to the Turaga Roko Sau for putting our Island on the world map as a slice of heaven on earth.

  9. Sainiana Rika-Hicks
    Suva, Fiji
    June 7, 2011, 2:22 am

    Truly a paradise….. I wish the Roko Sau all the best in leading His people towards conserving their resources…

  10. bushka
    June 4, 2011, 5:45 am

    Stacy blogging is very inviting to follow with her around Fiji’s islands treasures , tribal customs and under-water hidden beauty .
    The pictures by Keith are astounding and outstanding

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  12. Steven Bailey
    Boston, Massachusetts
    June 2, 2011, 2:59 pm

    Just knowing that this good work is being done there is quite uplifting. A pleasant departure from the sometimes overwhelming negative news.

  13. Erik Gudowski
    New York City
    June 2, 2011, 10:02 am

    The color in the last photo by Keith Ellenbogen, with the orange fish and blue water is amazing-!!

  14. Nancy Belsky
    United States
    June 1, 2011, 7:09 am

    Beautiful photos. A slice of heaven on earth.