By Watisoni Lalavanua

Since my first blog, I have done six dives in Vatu-i-Ra to document the intensity and scale of damage from Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston. Initially we dived in the proposed Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park, which has had a tabu (a traditional seasonal closure) around the reefs north of the Vatu-i-Ra Island for more than 2 years. While there was some damage from the cyclone, it was a spectacular first experience for me. There was a variety and abundance of fish present from small blue damselfish to massive sweetlips, and corals as colourful as garden of flowers blooming during summer. It was great to see how productive the tabu has been in protecting the marine life.

However, the areas open to fishing have not been as resilient and I have since dived severely damaged coral reefs. In these places, branching corals were broken and scattered over the sand forming large rubble fields, and I felt like I was looking at a load of gravel that had been offloaded down the slope of the reef. Porites corals had been turned up-side down and had tumbled down the slopes, and there was mounds of broken up parts of the reef, extending 7 to 20m below the surface.

Few varieties of fish were seen, and most were small sizes. Since their home (the corals) were damaged, most were sitting exposed or had to find an alternative home in between broken coral, or in remaining crevices. I kept thinking, many affected communities on land were fortunate to be provided with tent for shelters in the aftermath of Winston, but fish have to compete to find a home with the little habitat and space left, or sit exposed to predators. According to Waisea Naisilisili, our WCS fish guru, there have been dramatic changes in the size and abundance of fish compared to his last survey in 2014.

Even within these open areas, the impact of the cyclone was patchy and some reefs were spared. These surviving reefs will be key to the rehabilitation and recovery of adjacent impacted reefs. Seeing schools of unicornfish (Ta), snappers and emperors (Dokonivudi) and colourful fish such as anthias, butterflyfish, damselfish and angelfish, gave me hope. We were lucky to see a grey reef shark and the 1.3m bull shark on one of our dives, which are important to healthy reefs.

Tropical cyclone Winston has gone and has also left its mark; what we do next is critical. Our reefs that provide food and livelihoods for local communities are in their own “state of emergency”, and they do need time and space to recover. From the little I have seen so far, it is clear that areas such as the proposed Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park are going to play a critical role in that recovery. This is going to need everyone’s support, to ensure these great places are around for the next Vatu-i-Ra generation to enjoy and benefit from. So #Support the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.