Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
When Hawaii native Roberta Davis first came to Taveuni in 1986 she never could have dreamed she’d be on the leading edge of reef restoration.
For her, discovering Taveuni was all about scuba.
An experienced diver, she had never seen anything as pristine as Fiji’s reef life — except in books.
She liked Taveuni so much, she (and her husband John Llanes, also a Hawaii native) opened a small resort called Makaira. Roberta runs the day-to-day operations (and takes visitors snorkeling) while John takes guests deep-sea fishing aboard his 35′ boat.
As in any small business, Makaira had its challenges, but nothing compared to Cyclone Tomas, a Category 4 storm that ravaged the Fiji archipelago on March 9, 2010.
“Our three bungalows were damaged, and the normally calm cove in front of our property was hammered by 15- to 20-foot waves. It crushed our corals,” she said. She was devastated by the destruction of the reef, which had been a “huge tourist attraction.”
While they were busy fixing up the property, a friend from California, Scott Putnam, arrived and told Roberta that she could “fix the reef” by planting coral. “Just pick up a fragment or broken coral,” Scott instructed her, “and fit it snugly in a nook and it will grow.”
Nobody in Fiji was doing coral gardening at the time, and she gave it a try.
Her friend was right. She discovered that 90% of the coral fragments she replanted grew back.
In three years “her” reef revived. Then, in 2016, Fiji was devastated by Winston, an even stronger cyclone which again reduced her reef to rubble.
Roberta understood that she’d made a mistake by replanting in the same spot where the destruction from Winston had originally occurred. She began to study how the reef was coming back and analyzed the wave action in order to replant more strategically. Through trial and error she determined where best to put her efforts.
The trick was, she said, to find a sustainable low maintenance way of growing corals that helped mother nature do her magic where there were different stages of growth. Being at different ages and sizes of growth meant the whole reef was not decimated during a cyclone. Much to her relief and joy, the concept passed the test with flying colors during the recent storm generated surf that lasted for days.
She also realized she would need a coral “bank account” that could withstand storm surge. She created a coral reserve by stringing coral on ropes attached to buoys farther offshore.
Her account began to grow, and her experiments in replanting the reef blossomed once again. She was confident if another cyclone wreaked havoc, she’d have new stock to replant.
Her guests, whom she describes as “environmentally minded,” were encouraged to plant coral.
“People like to feel they can make a difference, and they responded enthusiastically,” she said. “Sometimes groups of guests come to our property with the sole intention of coral gardening.”
Not only are overseas visitors active in coral planting, locals also get involved. When David Dugucanavanua, General Manager of Fiji Swimming, a national organziation devoted to swimming sport in Fiji, heard about the project he vowed to bring a group of swimmers from Suva to Makaira as a team building exercise.
Roberta is heartened that other properties, including the Outrigger Fiji Resort (managed by Honolulu- based Outrigger Hotels and Resorts), also engage their guests in coral planting.
In the meantime she consulted with the Fijian government about turning her reef into a marine conservation zone. She’s still waiting for the government to approve her marine reserve, and she’s confident that it will happen.
“The Fiji government understands that people get their livelihood from healthy reefs and that visitors travel from around the world to see them,” she said. “I’ve had tourists tell me that our inshore reef is the most beautiful that they’ve ever experienced.”
Roberta sighed, “We hope to keep it that way.”
Note: Photograph at the top of the page depicts a reef restoration practitioner with a fist full of coral in his hands.