The Great Sea Reef of Fiji from the AIR

The Great Sea Reef of Fiji from the AIR

16 December 2013 – Great Sea Reef

Before our Great Sea Reef expedition started, we were asked by Patricia Mallam of WWF South Pacific what we wanted to photograph. #1 on our list was the most complicated, and I thought, better blurt it out now and hope for the best. I told Patricia we wanted to do aerials. In fact, I told her we must do aerials to be able to see what the Southern Hemisphere’s third longest barrier reef looks like. That was in March 2013. Fast forward to December 2013 – aerial funding secured, we were back in Fiji.

Patricia, Stella and Yogi with the Robinson 44.

Having just arrived in Nadi early morning Dec 16 after a red-eye flight from Australia, we had to do our aerials that very day as the week’s weather forecast was not looking good. Patricia and our young Kiwi pilot were ready for us and off we went on our six hour helicopter blitz through the Great Sea Reef in a Robinson 44 – without the back doors of course, for best photography. Slightly jet-lagged with hardly any sleep, we thought: “OK, let’s do it!”

Stella’s bad hair day. With back doors taken off, it sure was windy up high in the air. Oh, and my flapping collar sure hurt my face! 6 hours of this was a bit of a torture!

For six hours my hair was painfully all over the place. For the first time ever, I envied Yogi’s bald head…

Oh but what a sight! The Fijian Islands of the South Pacific did not disappoint. It was, in fact, totally spectacular from beginning to end. We took nothing for granted. We knew it was a special privilege to do this aerial – to be one of the few people to see the GSR from the air.

Here’s a glimpse of the Southern Hemisphere’s third longest barrier reef from the air.

Nacula Island. The Great Sea Reef from the Yasawa Group of Islands.

And what are the chances we’d see coral spawning slick from the air???!

Scattered small reefs with very possible coral spawn on the water’s surface.

Every year, coral spawning in Fiji occurs during the full moon night in November or December. The date of this aerial, Dec 16, was the day before full moon and we’re making an educated guess the corals spawned 2 nights before the December full moon. We only saw the slick where there were corals nearby. The coral spawn slick was metres wide and kilometres upon kilometres long along the Yasawa Group of Islands.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef coral spawning occurs 4-5 days after the full moon. Here below is a picture of the night we dived the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns at 9pm on the 4th of November 2012. I’d love to have seen coral spawning underwater in Fiji’s Great Sea Reef but seeing the slick from the air was pretty awesome enough! An unexpected treat!

Staghorn coral (Acropora sp.) spawning in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef during the annual ‘mass’ coral spawning event, 4 to 5 days after the full moon in November in the Great Barrier Reef where many colonies and species of coral polyps simultaneously release egg and sperm bundles for external fertilisation.

Before we started our flight, with a map at the ready, Patricia identified the ideal flight path to determine which areas of the Great Sea Reef we must pass and photograph. Among the list of “must see” is this elongated, slightly sunken reef that is rumoured to exist past the northern tip of the Yasawa. This phantom reef has never been seen before or even detected by the amazing satellite images of Google Earth. Like a treasure hunt, or more looking for a needle in a hay stack, our pilot persevered and found it!

Patricia Mallam checking the map to look for the general direction of the Yasawa hidden reef.

And it was a jewel to behold.

Sunken reef near the northern tip of the Yasawa Islands is the passage way to the channel where whales pass through to migrate south.

The Great Sea Reef!

A wombat-like looking reef!

After the newfound reef, we headed for Yadua Island. It was so beautiful from the air! To think exactly on this same day the year before, a category 5 Cyclone Evan devastated Yadua Village. It is hard to imagine this catastrophe when the sun is shining, the calm waters are turquoise blue and the island is looking magnificent!

Aerial of Yadua Village and the new Cyclone Evan Rehabilitation Housing Project.

What a discovery! An ancient fish trap at the opposite side of the present village of Yadua Island.

Yadua Island with Yadua Taba island the crested iguana sanctuary beside it.

We had to refuel in Savusavu and flew across some stunning mountain ranges of Vanua Levu. But here and there, the scars of progress jarred the senses like this mining or logging road to some bauxite hill or another.

Aerial of the mountainous range of the Northern Division with a dirt road cutting through it.

At some point our pilot went head on in the clouds towards this steep mountain wall that made me exclaim “mountains ahoy!”

Mountain range of the Northern Division, Vanua Levu.

After refuelling, we headed straight up north to Kavewa Island. Seeing a familiar island brought back memories of our time experiencing Village Life in Kavewa Island.  Then the white sandy beaches of Katawaqa Island also reminds of our turtle adventures with Emosi Time.

Aerial of small Katawaqa Island which is a turtle sanctuary and Kavewa Island Village.

One of our favourite images is this one of Kia Island surrounded by the Great Sea Reef with the bursting clouds! Here’s a flashback blog entry on Kia – The Remote Island Paradise of the GSR.

Aerial of the Great Sea Reef surrounding beautiful Kia Island. Northern Division

Then passing Nukubati Island, a wall of rain cruising the coastal mountains greeted us! We remember our time in the lovely Nukubati Island Resort and diving the Great Sea Reef!

Nukubati Island Resort

We needed to refuel again in Savusavu to make it back to Nadi. The finale that awaited us was just magnificent! Here’s how the rest of our flight back to base went.

Aerial of a waterfall in the mountains of Vanua Levu, Northern Division.

Aerial of boobies swarming a bait ball with yellow fin tuna hunting underwater in Savusavu Bay.

Bait ball with at least a dozen yellowfin tuna hunting.

By about 5pm, I was exhausted. I fell asleep with the wind still blowing on my face, hair and everywhere. Our pilot said it’s a first for him to have a client fall asleep on a flight – especially with open doors!

I’m not sure if it’s obvious but here’s a stunning picture of the open sea with the sun low in the horizon reflecting water ripples. A fishing boat is zipping below like a tiny spec of dirt.

Aerial of a fishing boat in the middle of the sea catching fish with a pole and line.

Zooming in shows 5 pole and line fishermen and their fish! Amazing how modern digital cameras pick up everything!

Finally near Nadi as I feel our hotel’s bed beckon me to sleep, a last pretty picture of the mangroves of the Ba Province, Western Division Viti Levu.

Aerial of thick mangroves along the coast of Ba, Western Division.

About the Author:

Stella was born in Manila, Philippines in 1965. She studied anthropology but ended up in advertising, producing radio and TV commercials for 7 years. After quitting advertising, she ventured into the freelance world in Manila producing video documentaries for a publishing house, government agencies, non govenmental organisations, and the academe. She moved on to producing books and had a stint at working with foreign production companies visiting Manila. Stella, now based in Cairns, produces photo stories with her husband Jürgen Freund.