30 March – 2 April 2013

When we first received our shot list from Patricia Mallam of WWF South Pacific on what to document in the Great Sea Reef, one line jumped out like it was in ALL CAPS and in BOLD LETTERS. MUD CRABS! 

Split level image of a mud crabs (Scylla serrata) in the water by the mangrove roots.

Split level image of a mud crab (Scylla serrata) in the water by the mangrove roots.

I simply adore eating mud crabs. To go to a village or villages harvesting mud crabs from their mangroves, I might as well be in heaven. On Mali Island, thick mangrove forests cover substantial parts of the island’s coastlines. This got me really excited seeing pure mud crab habitat in the thick mangrove forests! I was not shy in telling our hosts in each village that I could eat mud crabs every day! And guess what, I ate mud crabs EVERYDAY!

Mangroves of Ligaulevu along the coast of Mali Island.

Mangroves of Ligaulevu along the coast of Mali Island.

Oh, but I digress. I must talk about the importance of mangroves as an ecosystem. Mangroves are often perceived as muddy and stinky marine environments full of mosquitos. Superficially, it is all that but its treasure lies beyond the face value (which actually is quite beautiful). Mangrove environments protect coastal areas from erosion, storm surges especially during cyclones, and tsunamis.

Mangroves are home to thousands of marine life.

Mangroves are home to thousands of marine creatures.

For providing villagers sustenance, mangrove areas are fish nurseries and sanctuaries where many fish species raise their young. Countless living organisms inhabit mangroves from microscopic life forms, to fish and invertebrates to sea birds and bats. Oh, and did I mention mud crabs?!

In Nakawaqa Village, we saw a handful of boys climbing in and out of the mangroves quite excited. It was not yet full low tide so our boat managed to get very close to them.

Fijian boys from Mali Island walk into mangrove roots to look for crabs.

Fijian boys from Mali Island walk into mangrove roots to look for crabs.

Soft shelled mudcrab which have recently molted their old exoskeleton and are still entirely soft, found by Fijian boys from Mali Island from their nearby mangrove forest.

Soft shelled mudcrab which have recently molted their old exoskeleton and are still entirely soft, found by Fijian boys from Mali Island from their nearby mangrove forest.

They showed us a newly caught mud crab that recently molted off its old shell. The boy was holding it with his open palms and I exclaimed “Isn’t he afraid of getting pinched by the claws?!” They laughed and said the claws were too soft and the animal too weak to do anything. They all agreed this crab was for me to eat so I can try even the shell which is also edible at this soft state. I was flabbergasted. Our host prepared the soft shelled crab in coconut milk for dinner and I was urged to eat even the claws! My oh my, was I insanely happy. And this was just the beginning…

When we got to Ligaulevu, the real deal was to unfold. Sally Baily Conservation Director from WWF South Pacific in Suva was on her Easter break and she went home to Mali Island to be with her husband Leone Vokai and his family. Sally quickly told us what life in the village was like and what we could do and photograph while in Mali. We were in very good hands and the days ahead filled up with activities. Leone’s sister Dee right away found out my love of crabs and that we wanted to photograph the best mud crab harvester from their village. Sooner than a flash, we met dear Mita. Mita is the best crabber in the village and the moon and tides were perfect for Mita to catch our crabs.

Mita from Mali Island expertly handles a freshly caught live and aggressive  mudcrab from the mangroves.

Mita from Mali Island expertly handles a freshly caught live and aggressive mudcrab from the mangroves.

The next day, Mita caught us more crabs!

Everyday we were in her village, Mita caught us more crabs!

Guess what we had for lunch everyday for 3 days? Dee & her mum made us crab in coconut milk the Fijians call lolo. Dee first boiled the crab for 12 minutes and they painstakingly took out all the meat from the shell! Dee grated 2 coconuts to extract milk from it. From their outdoor kitchen with wood-fired cooking, Dee steamed the crab meat with garlic, onions, coconut milk and a little salt. They made us our crab meals we will never ever forget. The effort they went through to prepare this dish again and again left us feeling so special and cared for, as we knew what it meant to spend time getting meat off a crab!

Dee from Ligaulevu Village grates coconut for our special crab meal.

Dee from Ligaulevu Village grates coconut meat for our special crab meal.

Fresh mud crabs prepared Fijian style with coconut milk locally called lolo.

Taking out the meat from the shell, fresh mud crabs prepared Fijian style with coconut milk locally called lolo.

Sumptuous mud crabs steamed with coconut milk.

Sumptuous mud crabs steamed with coconut milk.

So how could I not love the mangrove environment when it brings heavenly food like crabs in lolo sauce to the dining table?