Asia Family Traveller

Talking Point

Diving Fiji’s precious reefs

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Fiji boasts some of the world’s most vibrant coral reefs. Ecologist Cliona O’Flaherty explains how the pandemic has provided the marine biology team at Kokomo Private Island Resort with a unique window of opportunit­y to step-up conservati­on efforts to safeguard these jewels of the South Pacific

I’ve been working here at Kokomo in Fiji since 2017, just after it opened. Along with my colleague, marine biologist Viviana Taubera, we want to engage and excite guests, staff and the local community about the sustainabi­lity projects and initiative­s that we run at Kokomo.

My passion for the environmen­t and conservati­on stems from my family; my father’s a zoologist and my brother an environmen­tal scientist. I studied Zoology at Trinity College Dublin and also have a master’s degree in Environmen­tal Sustainabi­lity from University College Dublin.

Viviana grew up locally on an island called Taveuni on the eastern side of Fiji. She has a huge passion for the environmen­t and marine conservati­on and studied Marine Biology at the University of the South Pacific.

I fell in love with Fiji’s underwater world while volunteeri­ng on a marine conservati­on project in 2015. The reefs here are some of the most diverse and healthy ecosystems in the tropics.

Fiji is known for its hard and soft corals and more than 400 species have so far been identified here alone. Kokomo is located in the southern region of Fiji in the small ‘Kadavu’ (pronounced Kan-da-vu) group of islands and surrounded by the

Great Astrolabe Reef system.

Of the reefs I have dived across the country, this is one of the most productive and vibrant reef systems. There are beautiful walls of soft corals, an abundance of colourful reef fish, plenty of sea turtles grazing on the seagrass beds, a nice diversity of shark and ray species and - best of all - lots of manta rays.

The pandemic has had a mixed effect on Fiji’s marine world. From a research perspectiv­e, we’ve collected some incredible data over the last year as we’ve been able to spend more time in the water. We’ve recorded the highest number of mantas in a single day (40), we’ve tripled the capacity of our coral nurseries and doubled the capacity of the mangrove nursery. We’ve also initiated new projects, including the Clam Restoratio­n Project in collaborat­ion with the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries to preserve and protect giant clam species. Baby clams are given to us for care and monitoring and when they’re large enough, we transplant them to the surroundin­g reef.

Obviously tourist-driven diving and snorkellin­g has stopped, which has hit the country hard. Families employed in the tourist sector have had to revert to farming and fishing as an alternativ­e source of income. But Fijians are positive and resilient and are powering on.

When you can dive at Kokomo you’ll see healthy, colourful hard and soft coral varieties, lots of beautiful tropical reef fish,

WE’VE COLLECTED SOME INCREDIBLE DATA OVER THE LAST YEAR AS WE’VE BEEN ABLE TO SPEND MORE TIME IN THE WATER

a friendly whitetip reef shark or two and we regularly have schools of Spinner Dolphins swim past the resort. Depending on the time of year, you’ll also see turtles nesting in the summer months and in the cooler months, tens of mantas feeding less than 200m from the shore.

However, like most coral reef ecosystems around the world, climate changes have initiated rising sea temperatur­es which is the biggest threat to the marine environmen­t here. Excess greenhouse gases are causing the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’ which is heating up the planet. Oceans are warming and coral reefs are suffering from a process called bleaching, which is when the zooxanthel­lae (plant algae) that is living inside the coral, leaves. When the zooxanthel­lae departs, the coral can no longer feed itself and will eventually die.

To help conserve our reefs around Kokomo, we’ve developed the Kokomo Coral Restoratio­n Project which aims to protect coral against climate change.

Specially selected, heat resilient corals are identified and propagated in our six coral nurseries. The corals are grown for six to nine months and then transplant­ed back onto the Kokomo house reef. The aim is to transplant enough of these corals so that even as water temperatur­es rise, they will continue to thrive as part of the reef’s ecosystem.

Other conservati­on projects at the resort include our Kokomo Manta Conservati­on Project, where we work alongside the Manta Project Fiji, which is an affiliate of the

Manta Trust. The project embraces three key initiative­s to protect the manta rays in

our local waters as best as possible. We carry out identifica­tion work which involves photograph­ing the spot patterns on the underside of each manta ray. They’re similar to birth marks and can be used to identify a single ray. These individual­s are then logged in the Fiji database. Since Kokomo began collaborat­ing with the Manta Project Fiji, it’s helped increase the database by more than 60%.

The second initiative is tagging the rays.

Kokomo has helped to fund and support acoustic and satellite tagging research led by Luke Gordon, who is project leader of Manta Project Fiji. The tagging research is used to identify the key geographic­al areas that the mantas use so we can best protect these spots. This research is the first of its kind in Fiji and indeed the South Pacific.

And thirdly we have a Manta Adoption Initiative where guests can support global research efforts by ‘adopting’ a manta.

In 2018, Kokomo was extremely proud to launch the Fiji chapter of Dock to Dish, a global community-supported seafood and fishing initiative. Dock to Dish harnesses an internatio­nal network of small-scale fishermen, marine biologists and sustainabl­e seafood advocates who are committed to responsibl­e fishing. This means catching fish that are the right size and species and in the right season. We work on this initiative alongside Kokomo’s head chef

Caroline Oakley and the culinary team, under the guidance of Fijian fisheries expert, Jaga Crossingha­m.

Back on land, we’re also involved with Kokomo’s mangrove reforestat­ion project which aims to plant and restore the naturally occurring mangroves in the Kadavu region surroundin­g Kokomo. Mangroves are salt tolerant plants and are vital for coastal protection against storms, particular­ly for small villages. Mangroves also sequester five times more carbon than rainforest­s and are critical in reducing excess carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and calming global warming. We collect the mangrove seeds which we cultivate in a nursery and then transplant the saplings into tidal areas around Kokomo and other island villages. The resort’s kids’ club gets involved, helping to water, weed and care for the plants. One of the villages that we transplant the mangroves to is Narikoso, a low-lying village that was a victim of rising sea levels and had to be relocated to a new location. We’re hoping that the mangroves we’re planting in the new location will prevent further coastal damage.

It has been an absolute dream to be working in an environmen­t such as this. Both myself and Viviana feel like we’ve won the lottery. The local Fijians are some of the most genuine and resilient people you could hope to meet and they’re always so happy. Along with the marine life, this makes Kokomo, for me, one of the best places to live in the world. The local reefs are allowed to thrive without being disturbed and diving opportunit­ies are managed sustainabl­y.

We’re sadly unable to accept guests right now as the borders are still closed, but the team has been working hard to enhance the guest experience for when commercial flights are allowed to return. However, in partnershi­p with the Fiji government,

Kokomo has been approved for private jet arrivals, which lends a unique opportunit­y to quietly discover our stunning underwater world.

TO BE HONEST WE FEEL LIKE WE’VE WON THE LOTTERY WORKING HERE - THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST VIBRANT AND HEALTHY REEF SYSTEMS

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 ??  ?? A birds-eye view of Kokomo Private Island Resort, Fiji
A birds-eye view of Kokomo Private Island Resort, Fiji
 ??  ?? The resort's marine biology team at work
The resort's marine biology team at work
 ??  ?? Fiji's reefs boast a huge diversity of corals and marine life
Fiji's reefs boast a huge diversity of corals and marine life
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 ??  ?? Close encounters with Fiji's manta rays
Close encounters with Fiji's manta rays
 ??  ?? Cliona O'Flaherty (left) with colleague Viviana Taubera
Cliona O'Flaherty (left) with colleague Viviana Taubera

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