With the generous support of Wananavu Resort and with the blessing of local communities and the Provincial Office, we have completed two days of surveys of inshore areas in Nakorotubu District in Ra Province, covering areas both inside and outside community tabu areas.

I try my hardest to be an optimist, but the picture in the water is bleak. The inshore reefs which are a valuable source of food and livelihoods for local communities have been severely damaged by cyclone Winston. Even if you have never visited the sites before, it is clear that wave action from the cyclone has broken up any branching corals reducing them to rubble, and has ripped off large boulders of coral (some 1-2 m across), turned them on their side or upside down. Many of the large corals are called Porites and they can grow as slow as 0.5-1cm per year. This means that a single catastrophic cyclone has large uprooted boulders that might be as old as 200 years.

For the team, this has been heartbreaking to see. Yashika and I tried to turn back over as many of the corals as we could on our return swim to the boat, in the hope of giving some a fighting chance to live. Many have abrasions on them, and others are choking in the sediments that have washed from land out to sea. Some of the sediments are not new, and has accumulated over many years, getting resuspended with current and wave action.

Waisea, who loves his coral reef fish was equally upset to see so few fish both within and outside tabu areas. He said “apart from a few schools of fusiliers and parrotfish, the reefs were empty. Unlike in previous surveys, I did not record popular eating fish like Ta (Naso unicornis).”

On a more positive note, it was good to see a few sea cucumbers feeding and sifting through sediments as these animals are going to be needed more than ever in the upcoming years. Sea cucumbers play a critical under-valued role in marine systems, keeping sediment clean and aerated.

What is clear is that the nearshore coral reefs in Ra are damaged and have been changed drastically by a single Category 5 cyclone. Like a person who has become sick, our reefs will need the time and space to recover. We need to be realistic and embrace the reality of what has happened, and the worst thing we can do is return to ‘business as usual’ and not take stock of the damages and losses to our natural resources. We need to make a plan that leads to recovery, and not further degradation for both the reefs and the people whose lives are so dependent on them.