Fiji boasts some of the world’s most vibrant coral reefs. Zoologist 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.
Kokomo Fiji's crack dive team, Cliona O'Flaherty (left) and Viviana Taubera.
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.
Swimming with mantas is always a special experience.
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, 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.
A sunny outlook from the resort of Kokomo in Fiji.
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%.
Guests arrive at the resort by seaplane.
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.
Kokomo's team (l to r) Cliona, Viviana and Manta Trust Fiji's project leader Luke, have been able to increase their research work during the pandemic.
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.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Asia Family Traveller. Never miss an issue, subscribe online now.