VIG­I­LANTES AT CH­ESTER­FIELD REEF

Cruising World - - Underway - —Corinne Dolci

My hus­band, Do­minic, and I were wet­suited up, in our dinghy and poised for a dive when we saw a ves­sel en­ter the pass of Ch­ester­field Reef that had been incog­nito on our au­to­matic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem. We cir­cled af­ter it, an­chored, and dis­cov­ered the rea­son be­hind the ship’s se­crecy: men wear­ing waders har­vest­ing from nets in the wa­ter, either husk­ing shell­fish or fin­ning sharks within the pa­ram­e­ters of New Cale­do­nia’s pro­tected wa­ters.

It’s no sur­prise that Ch­ester­field Reef at­tracts such un­wel­come vis­i­tors. One of only a hand­ful of atolls sprin­kled in the Co­ral Sea be­tween New Cale­do­nia and Aus­tralia, the thriv­ing reef is a haven for mi­grat­ing marine life as well as breed­ing tur­tles and birds. As of 2010, Ch­ester­field and its neigh­bor Bel­lona housed up­ward of 43,000 pairs of mat­ing boo­bies, frigate birds and nod­dies.

Shaped like a bent fish­hook, the reef is easy to en­ter and nav­i­gate. There are 11 mo­tus sur­round­ing the la­goon that form a bight along the south­ern end, cre­at­ing an an­chor­age pro­tected from southerly trades and a la­goon that ri­vals any post­card from par­adise.

By 1230 on a sunny Satur­day in Novem­ber, our an­chor was dropped, the cham­pagne popped, and we were mo­ments away from swim­ming in the glassy turquoise wa­ter sur­round­ing the boat. Three other cruis­ing yachts were with us: two cata­ma­rans out of Aus­tralia and Breeze,a 64-foot Moody, out of Swe­den.

We quickly re­al­ized those calm, clear wa­ters were not as be­nign as they looked — Breeze re­ported see­ing a 10-foot tiger shark cir­cling their stern. The reef sys­tem pro­vides year-round shel­ter to an adult male tiger shark and at least three ju­ve­niles. A 2014 study recorded adult fe­males pass­ing through the area as part of a three-year mi­gra­tory pat­tern around the Co­ral Sea via Aus­tralia and south­ern New Cale­do­nia.

We ten­ta­tively, cau­tiously, on high shark alert at all times, did some un­der­wa­ter ex­plor­ing of the co­ral near the an­chor­age. The wa­ter was di­a­mond-clear, and the rock for­ma­tions were swollen with co­ral, hum­ming with fish of all sizes. Crim­son and ever­green sea fans waved in the cur­rent.

Re­turn­ing to He­lios, our Is­land Packet 380, we cap­tured im­ages of the ves­sel we spot­ted en­ter­ing the pass har­vest­ing wildlife from within the reef. There were two il­le­gal fish­ing boats while we were in Ch­ester­field — a large “moth­er­ship” that lin­gered out­side the reef and a smaller satel­lite “junker” that worked in­side the la­goon.

Ch­ester­field Reef and the sur­round­ing wa­ters are part of New Cale­do­nia’s ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone, mean­ing for­eign com­mer­cial ves­sels with­out per­mis­sion are for­bid­den from fish­ing in the re­gion. Sim­i­larly, New Cale­do­nia has re­cently des­ig­nated the wa­ters within the EEZ as a nat­u­ral park, lim­it­ing do­mes­tic fish­ing and hop­ing to even­tu­ally ex­tend pro­tec­tion as far as Aus­tralia’s aquatic pre­serve to the west.

Nev­er­the­less, it isn’t un­com­mon to find il­le­gal fish­ing boats from the north work­ing in the area. Within the Co­ral Sea in re­cent years, ves­sels from Viet­nam, China, Tai­wan and Pa­pua New Guinea have been caught har­vest­ing large amounts of sea cu­cum­bers, tuna, sharks, and smaller quan­ti­ties of turtle meat and reef fish. In the past five years, the Sec­re­tar­iat of the Pa­cific Com­mu­nity has recorded as many as 320 il­le­gal, un­re­ported and un­reg­u­lated fish­ing ves­sels within the greater South Pa­cific Ocean in a one-month pe­riod.

Out­raged as we were by the il­le­gal fish­ing go­ing on around us, there was lit­tle we could do. Breeze at­tempted ra­dio con­tact with both ves­sels. We took pho­tos, send­ing them to New Cale­do­nia’s navy, which replied to us at once. As much as we wanted to do more, the of­fi­cer dis­cour­aged any di­rect con­fronta­tion be­cause the po­ten­tial for vi­o­lence could es­ca­late.

Ex­plor­ing the atoll, how­ever, it was hard to not be re­minded of life’s ca­pac­ity to en­dure. Amid hu­man refuse and dwin­dling atoll real es­tate, masked boo­bies sat on eggs and raised their young on the sand, red-footed boo­bies built nests in the bush­like trees, and black nod­dies roosted on low-ly­ing shrubs, rais­ing their off­spring in the shade be­low.

On our third day at the reef, the winds backed to the northerly quar­ter, which kicked up chop in the la­goon. We were in for a bumpy night no mat­ter our lo­ca­tion, so we moved to the western side of the reef to ex­plore a se­cond an­chor­age and be nearer to the south­west­erly pass for our exit the fol­low­ing day.

We dived the reef sys­tem be­tween He­lios and shore and found more vi­brant co­ral and schools of em­peror fish. We were awestruck when a 4-foot turtle emerged out of the blue, swam di­rectly at us and cir­cled three times. How won­drous to be ap­proached with in­no­cent cu­rios­ity when we, hu­mans, are so much more de­serv­ing of fear.

Thou­sands of nest­ing seabirds ashore and a thriv­ing un­der­wa­ter world make Ch­ester­field Reef a fa­vorite stop for wildlife watch­ers cross­ing the Pa­cific. He­lios (right), an Is­land Packet 380, shared the la­goon with only three other boats.

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