Mission Report from Fiji Expedition

Our Fiji mission ran for 14 days from Monday, May 14 to Saturday, May 27. Our two primary objectives were to 1) survey coral reef conditions at multiple depths leveraging SCUBA divers and m/y Ad-Vantage’s 1,000 meter, 3-person submersible Moby, in collaboration with scientists from the University of the South Pacific (USP) based in Suva, Fiji, and Nova Southeastern University (Nova) based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA; and 2) to engage with the public to describe our work and the importance of establishing baseline conditions for coral reef health to the local communities whom are culturally and economically dependent on the sustainability of the reefs and the fisheries they support.

Diving Locations

In terms of location, our primary objective was to explore and document the Great Astrolabe Reef, which is one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, and is listed in the Register of Sites of National Significance to Fiji in Fiji’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. The reef encompasses Kadavu Island and the smaller islands that extend to the north ending with Dravuni. The reef is a breeding ground for many large billfish, sharks, tuna, giant trevally, mahi-mahi, and snapper. Our initial objective was to survey the reef on both the windward and leeward sides of the island chain at multiple depths and thereby expand on previous surveys conducted in shallow waters by the World Wildlife Foundation and the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation.

Weather conditions were certainly less than favorable leading up to and at the outset of the mission. On May 13, the day before our mission began, Tropical Cyclone Ella was located around 500 km to the north of Suva. The storm had sustained winds of 120 km/hr. Though the storm ultimately passed well to the north of our target area, the resulting winds and swell causedus to delay departure for Kadavu until Wednesday night, May 17. 

Largely at your recommendations, we were able to choose alternate locations in sufficiently protected waters near the island of Malolo, which ultimately yielded significant data that will allow our team and future investigators to contrast coral reef conditions between comparatively developed and undeveloped localities. We were also able to capitalize on that time to engage with local leaders beginning with a sevusevu in the village of Solevu on Malolo and ending with a tour of the m/y Ad-Vantage and a presentation on our mission for the Turaga Ni Koro and several other village representatives.

Once at Kadavu, weather conditions remainedproblematic and prevented us from operating on Tuesday May 23rd. Despite the persistently windy days, we were however able to conduct submersible and SCUBA operations on 7 days. We were able to conduct SCUBA dives on the windward side of the island chain on two days, once at northeastern end of the island chain near Dravuni and once at southwestern end of the island chain outside of Davigele Bay. We also conducted two submersible dives at the Davigele Bay site.

Data Collection

In terms of data, we set out to collect video transects of coral habitats and near-bottom fish populations at different depths and at different locations, and photo-documentation of representative locations and coral colonies at each site visited, as well as temperature, salinity, pH, and dissolved oxygen profiles across the water column over which our work took place. We focused on collecting these types of data because each one provides an independent and potentially quantitative record of coral reef conditions that will help establish baselines against which change over time can be measured. Collectively, the data will, to my knowledge, provide the broadest and most detailed record of coral reef conditions yet achieved in Fiji.

Our results surpassed our expectations in terms of the number of dives that returned all or the majority of these data streams. We visited 10 sites around Malolo and Kadavu. We were able to successfully leverage technical divers in conjunction with Moby on a nearly daily basis to explore and document conditions over a broad vertical range at each site. Our technical dive team performed daily 3+ hour dives during which they collected 55 50- meter long video transects across coral habitats, as well as 54 50-meter long stereo video near-bottom fish transects at water depths of 30, 20, and 10 meters while simultaneously documenting 36 representative stations precisely enough to enable future researchers to return to the same locations and evaluate change through time. Water chemistry parameters temperature, salinity, pH, and dissolved oxygen were collected across the water column by the divers on every dive through the use of a submersible multi-parameter data sonde.

In addition to the technical dives, we safely facilitated 16 dives for Dr. Ciro Rico of USP and Dr. Brian Walker of Nova accompanied by a professional photographer to conduct detailed documentation of specific coral colonies at depths between 12 and 30 meters.

In concert with the SCUBA dives, Moby conducted 12 dives at the same or nearly the same locations, 10 of which focused on scientifically documenting conditions at water depths between 50 and 362 meters. The primary mission was to collect vertical video transects of benthic conditions across the steepest portions of the slopes. Moby also carried a data sonde on every dive that collected temperature and salinity across the water column. In addition to the primary objective, which was carried out by the pilots, we carried Dr. Charles Messing of Nova on 8 dives during which he documented deep benthic lifeforms and that may prove to be unique to the established understanding of Fiji and perhaps even to the present-day science all together. During those dives, 29 physical samples were collected that were subsequently preserved and delivered to USP to be added to their South Pacific archives. We also carried Dr. Walker and Dr. Rico as well as two of Dr. Rico’s colleagues from USP, Ronal Lal and Dr. Amadine Marie on submersible dives that enabled them to gain a unique and deeper perspective on underwater Fijian habitats. All of the video transects and station documentation that we collected will be freely available to the public via our YouTube channel (http://tiny.cc/2a0oly) and our database (www.projectbaseline.org/database).

Public Outreach

In terms of public outreach, we were able to engage with local communities on both Malolo and Kadavu. We met with the Turaga Ni Koro of the village of Solevu on Malolo and the villages of Tavuki and Dravuni in Kadavu, as well as several of the villagers from each including the Chief and 17 school children from Darvuni.

 All were invited aboard m/y Ad-Vantage and provided with tours of the ship and the sub, as well as an overview of our mission and its relevance to sustaining their historical and continued cultural relationship with the sea. We also met with and described our mission to municipality leaders in Vunisea and representatives of Fiji’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Our engagement with the public will continue on for some time through our social media outlets.

In summary, we accomplished every aspect of GUE’s Project Baseline mission during our expedition in May 2017 onboard the m/y Ad-Vantage due to, of course the generous donation of time aboard the vessel and access to her resources, but also to the sincere cooperation and good will between our teams. Given the very short lead time for this expedition and the fact that this was our first opportunity to work together, we believe our mission exceeded all reasonable expectations.

 
Project Baseline has been at the forefront of increasing awareness of Florida reef decline as well as monitoring the health index for nearly 70 marine and freshwater environments world-wide since 2009. Watch as Project Baseline takes CNN underwater for special media coverage on Florida reefs - http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2016/06/26/florida-dying-reefs-sanchez-nd.cnn