VANUATU SHIPWRECK

Tom Goreau, June 16 2016

I’ve been diving from small boats in waves for some 60 years, but I had never ever seen anyone instantly flood a boat like today on a remote reef in Vanuatu, South Pacific. An “interesting” day in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!” (unpredictable, dangerous, to be avoided at all costs). I’ve come close to death too often diving coral reefs all over the world, but this one cleared the mind. I’m constantly asked if I’m on Facebook/Twitter/Blog? No thanks, until now! Hence: Blog 1: Surviving a shipwreck, the first of an episodic blog of events from the front line of saving coral reefs.

In the morning, after getting another Biorock Coral Reef Ark under power at Gid
eon’s Landing, Havannah Harbour, northwest Efate, Vanuatu (video and community-based Vanuatu Coral Reef Restoration Workshop Preliminary Report will be posted here soon), we went across the island to Eratap on the southeast side. I had been asked to look at local reefs by villagers and the owners of a resort, worried about sudden recent coral death. The local boatman who takes tourists snorkeling began seeing corals turn pale in April, was extremely alarmed, and reported to local hotel owners that the corals were dead and the reefs were finished. Coral bleaching (generally confused with dead coral) is a sign of severe high temperature stress; bleached corals are still alive, but one step short of dying. If high temperature decreases quickly, they will mostly survive, but if stays hot or gets hotter, most will die, up to 99% in severe events.

I had predicted bleaching in Vanuatu in April from the HotSpot satellite temperature data, but was unable to get any information until I dived myself two days ago and saw that Vanuatu was recovering from a strong mass-bleaching event in the last three months, with mortality ranging from low to moderately high at various sites. But all my reef dive sites, including lagoon and open ocean reefs, were on the lee side of the island, so I was eager to see the windward reefs.

Time was short, with several sites to check, only enough for snorkeling quickly from a boat, so we jumped into a small boat and headed first for the most remote outermost reef crest before comparing them to nearshore reefs and assessing their restoration potentials. The regular boatman, who knew the reef inside out for 30 years, was off, and it was quickly clear that the substitute had no idea where anything was. To get to open sea we had to go through a shallow mangrove lagoon, then around an island out a shallow pass, and he clearly had no idea where the passes were opposed to coral, rock, sand, or mud banks. Wave surge was foaming over the reef crest, but they were no big deal, I’ve been diving from small boats in rougher waves and wind all of my life, so we didn’t hesitate to head across the crest to look at the exposed fore reef. Then the boatman did something so incredibly stupid I’d never seen it before in all my life: instead of cresting the waves with the bow he turned the boat broadside to the waves right on top of the reef crest and instantly swamped the boat!

In a second the boat was full of water, we were lucky not to flip over, but the engine stalled, leaving us broadside to the waves. There were no oars and nothing at all in the boat to bail with except my mask. I began bailing furiously, but water was coming in 20 times faster. The boatman jumped off the boat, swam to collect his floating flip-flops, and then started swimming for the nearest island. We had a few perilous inches of free board, but managed to get the engine started, and turned the boat around without tipping it over, though it was very close with every wave. Waves were coming in faster than we could bail, so we ran the boat aground on the first small rocky island before it could sink. The boat was full of water and broadside to waves on the rocks, so we had to jump on the rocks and try to manhandle the boat away from the rocks so it was not smashed. Standing barefoot on the rocks in pounding waves we managed to push it off and work it around to patch of sand where we could beach it on a small island, a sand bar in the lee of a rock. Had the rocks been inhabited by sea urchins it would have been impossible. By sheer luck nobody was hurt or killed. I later learned one of our crew couldn’t swim!

We were completely out of sight of anyone, a mangrove island lay between our sand bank and the shore, but fortunately after a while a small fishermen’s boat appeared far away, came when they saw us waving and yelling, and rescued us. The fishermen took us back, and then carried a bucket back to our shipwrecked crew to bail it out and tow it back. We had to rush immediately to look at two more sites where villagers were worried about reef decline and want to grow more corals. And then I gave a lecture on the past, present, and future of Vanuatu coral reefs at the Vanuatu Environment Science Society.