Journey to a Sacred Reef

June 6, 2011

Follow along on the adventures of WCS marine conservationist Stacy Jupiter, Fiji Country Program Director, as she explores the sacred reefs of Totoya Island in the company of the island's high chief and various conservation partners. The expedition aims to revitalize cultural practices that have safeguarded this stunning Fijian seascape over many decades.

This is the final blog documenting an 8-day marine expedition to Fiji.

Totoya Sacred Reef Declared Marine Protected Area for World Oceans Day

June 8, 2011 by Stacy Jupiter

Stacy Jupiter
Stacy Jupiter on Totoya Reef ©Keith Ellenbogen

“We’re making history today,” Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, the high chief (Roko Sau) of the Yasayasamoala Group, leaned over and said to me as we sped out to Totoya’s Sacred Reef.

Today, in honor of World Ocean’s Day, Roko Sau has declared Totoya’s first formal marine protected area (MPA). The MPA will be a no-fishing zone for the entire district, encompassing approximately four square kilometers of Totoya’s reef, including Daveta Tabu, the “sacred passage.”

“We’ve brought the communities together to restore our traditions and embrace the spirit of World Ocean’s Day,” Roko Sau continued. “We want to protect this reef for our youth and their future generations.”

Read more from National Geographic >>

I Love the Night Dive, I Got to Boogie

June 5, 2011 by Stacy Jupiter

Branching Coral Tips
Acroproa coral fingers ©Keith Ellenbogen

"Why are you wearing that funky yellow mask?" one of the crew of our research vessel asked.

“I’m going on a disco dive,” I replied.

He was rightfully perplexed.  Little did he know that within minutes I would descend on a glowing underwater world with the trippy semblance of a dance club illuminated by black lights.

That is, in fact, exactly what we were doing. Pioneering work by Dr. Charles Mazel and others on coral fluorescence led to the use of blue lights and photographic filters both to produce stunning images and also to learn more about coral reef processes.  On our team, Drs. David Kline, Tali Treibitz and Greg Mitchell, of Pacific Blue Foundation and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, are developing unique camera systems to document these glowing reefscapes.

Read more from National Geographic >>

Fish are Friends and Food

June 4, 2011 by Stacy Jupiter

Endemic blenny
An endemic blenny sleeping in a clam. Its night coloration is duller than day color.
©Keith Ellenbogen

Bruce, the bull shark from the movie Finding Nemo leads a Sharks Anonymous meeting with the mantra, “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.”

However, in Fiji, fish are both friends and food.

Fish are friends because of the many important ecosystem functions they perform on the reef.

For example, herbivorous fish, such as many parrotfish, surgeonfish, damselfish and rabbitfish, eat algae and therefore free space for new corals to grow. This process allows reefs to quickly recover from damage following disturbance. Meanwhile, predatory fish, such as sharks, grouper, snapper and emperor, are critical for keeping populations of their prey in check, which ensures a balanced ecosystem. Fish are even vital for the process of sand formation. Species like the enormous bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) are equipped with teeth like crushing machines to take bites out of the reef. The calcium carbonate grains of crunched coral skeletons that come out of their other ends forms much of the white sand along outer island beaches.

Read more from National Geographic >>

Daveda Tabu - Totoya's Sacred Reef

June 3, 2011 by Stacy Jupiter

Totoya Sacred Reef
Totoya Island sacred reef, Fiji © Keith Ellenbogen

Daveda Tabu means the "sacred passage." It is the gateway to Totoya's lagoon, the only entry point through the southern section of the barrier reef. When entering by boat through the passage, it is imperative to obey strict customary protocol. No hats, sunglasses or jewelry may be worn, and everyone must sit down to ensure safe passage.

All of us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Pacific Blue Foundation, Wetlands International-Oceania and the Waitt Institute were bursting with curiosity over what the sacred reef still holds. Although the previous high chief of Totoya opened the area to fishing in the mid-1990s, the conditions are fairly rough through the passage, which may offer some natural protection to the fish life.

With five foot swells sending white water barreling over the reef flat, we opted wisely to dive on the leeward side of the barrier on our first morning.

Read more from National Geographic >>

Meke for Makareta and Roko Sau

June 1, 2011 by Stacy Jupiter

Roko Sau, high chief of the Yasayasamoala Island group, and wife Makareta
©Keith Ellenbogen

I stood on the deck of the research vessel with Makareta Cinavilakeba, the stunning young wife of the high chief of the Yasayasamoala Group. She could hardly contain her excitement. Even though she grew up on the main island of Viti Levu, Fijians have real pride in their ancestry and she will always be from Tovu, the chiefly village of Totoya.

As we steamed ahead past Yawalevu Bay, surrounded by the green forested hills carpeting Totoya Island, Makareta began telling me about the traditions of her people.

“There will first be a ceremony on the boat to honor our arrival,” she said. “The men will present my husband, Roko Sau, with a coconut. If the coconut is green, that means that the land is fertile. If the coconut is brown, then the soils have not been producing.”

Read more from National Geographic >>

Lau – Land of Islands Lost

May 31, 2011 by Stacy Jupiter

Stacy Jupiter
Stacy Jupiter ©Keith Ellenbogen

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.

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.

Read more from National Geographic >>

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