By: Watisoni Lalavanua

Watisoni and Seru on board the Uto Ni Yalo.

I was still trying to acquire a tertiary qualification when my dive buddy, friend and brother, Seru Saumakidonu from Bua Province was already enjoying a life that only some could dream of, earning a living while doing something he loves. Tetu, as he is known by those who are close to him, loves sailing. In many of our encounters, he would fondly share with me his experiences voyaging on the traditional Fijian canoe or vaka “Uto Ni Yalo. It was Tetu’s inspiring ocean stories that encouraged me to volunteer for a sail on the Uto Ni Yalo and to use the opportunity to create awareness on the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, a biodiverse region in Fiji stretching 28,894 km2 across the channel that links the two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

The seven day voyage to Koro, Makogai, and Ovalau islands and Kubulau District was made possible by a partnership effort between the Fiji government, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Uto Ni Yalo Trust. Our focus as crew of the vaka was to engage with communities to get feedback and support for the gazetting and zoning of two large Marine Managed Areas within Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Whilst visiting these communities, we discussed how achieving this commitment would help protect a host of wildlife species that use this ecologically unique and bountiful seascape. These species include ocean giants like humpback whales that migrate from Antarctica to the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape to breed, as well as colourful vibrant corals, sharks, rays, more than 200 fish species and seabirds.

The establishment of the two marine managed areas will also assist Fiji meet a second commitment it made at the United Nations Ocean conference, to protect areas important for whales and dolphins.

What made this voyage even more special was the commitment made by the Uto Ni Yalo crew to raise awareness on issues relating to climate change. This was also timely as Fiji prepares to host the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany, 6−17, November, 2017. The voyage was a great opportunity for the volunteers to engage with communities and celebrate with their commitment and achievements towards sustainable fisheries management through the establishment of networks of locally-managed marine areas with tabus within inshore waters of the seascape.

The Vatu-i-Ra seascape voyage began on 3 September, 2017 with the Uto set sailing from Leleuvia Island early that morning towards Nabasovi village, on the eastern side of Koro Island in the Lomaiviti group. During the sail to Koro, I was amazed at how fast the vaka could sail without an engine, relying on the wind.

Sailing in the daylight hours gave us all firsthand experience sailing through the Vatu-i-Ra passage. We also had the opportunity to trawl while sailing to Koro and managed to catch a large tuna and mahi-mahi which we feasted on for Father’s day on the deck. Apart from fishing, we learned how to tie knots, steer the vaka using the stern and tacking of the sails. At night, we would take turns to keep a watch to ensure safe navigation through the network of reefs.

At each village we started by presenting our sevusevu (a traditional presentation of kava) to village elders before we joined the village for a talanoa (talk). I had the opportunity to share more on the work WCS has been carrying within the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape on marine managed areas, and the importance of maintaining the connectivity between inshore reef and offshore areas, and managing our ocean more holistically for the benefit of all Fijians.

Presentations were also made to the villagers by the Uto Ni Yalo Trust and the Youth Champ 4 Mental Health. Villagers were also encouraged to take part in a clean-up campaign along their foreshore. We also provided the opportunity for children and villagers to board the Uto Ni Yalo, and learn more about voyaging.

Tetu and I got the chance to visit our home island of Vanua Levu where we both grew up, and where we both were taught traditional fishing and sailing knowledge by our fathers. From this, we both developed a deep love of the sea and our commitment towards conservation. While in our home district of Kubulau, we had the chance to visit the Kubulau District School to talk about fisheries management. The crew also donated clothes, shoes and books to them as the district were also badly impacted by Cyclone Winston.

It was not easy saying goodbye to the Uto Ni Yalo crew that have now become like family to me. I hope my own adventure will inspire our youth to be part of the Uto Ni Yalo and to become champions for conservation and fisheries management.