By Katy Miller (Vatuvara Foundation)

On 8 May, 2017, a team of made up of fish and coral experts set off to the untouched waters and lush limestone islands of the Northern Lau Group. Vatuvara Private Islands, along with Vatuvara Foundation have partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society to conduct marine baseline surveys to assess the health of diverse coral reefs, 12 months after Category 5 Cyclone Winston passed through Fiji caused widescale damage.

This will be the first scientific survey to be carried out by the Vatuvara Foundation in these waters. The team will be undertaking surveys from 8 ‒ 16 May on coral reefs around Kaibu, Kanacea, Vatuvara, Yacata and Adavaci Islands, in Lau and Cakaudrove Provinces.

We flew 50 minutes to the far east of the Fiji Islands from the mainland of Viti Levu. If I could paint a picture of the paradise islands of the Lau Group, the canvas would be sprayed with every shade of blue, turquoise and jade azure waters glimmering in the sunlight with shallow lagoon mirage-like limestone karsts, and sandbanks floating in the distance.

The dive team will be collecting baseline data on the abundance and diversity of corals and fish species, as well as key invertebrates such as sea cucumbers which are an important source of livelihood for local communities.

A separate team comprising representatives from the Ministry of Fisheries, Cakaudrove Provincial Office, WCS and the Vatuvara Foundation, visited the community of Yacata last month to provide general awareness on natural resource management, conduct participatory mapping of community land and sea resources, and to learn more about their traditional knowledge. This understanding of traditional practices has helped strengthen the Vatuvara Foundation’s vision on how critical it is to protect and revive the ocean through marine protection and the empowerment of local communities as stewards of their natural resources.

Our first dive was off the leeward side of Yacata Island, which is known fishing grounds for the village and calm from the swift currents that flood through the lagoon. There is limited ecological data available for these islands and its surrounding waters, so it was exciting for us all to explore new reefs. We were delighted to find reefs were healthy, thriving and vibrant with growth, with little impact from Cyclone Winston.

Armed with an incredible team of Fijian scientists, inquisitive minds and an eagerness for knowledge we embark on our diving expedition to safeguard these waters and safe havens for marine life for future generations.