The archipelago of Vanuatu offers a plethora of wonders just waiting to be discovered, from amazing volcanic displays, tumbling waterfalls and pristine jungles, to a wondrous marine mecca beneath its sparkling waters. Add to this the innate friendliness of its people, the kastom and culture and it is little wonder that Vanuatu ranks up there with the top tourism destinations. This is especially the case for those lucky enough to be able to explore the islands by yacht and experience the Vanuatu spirit outside of the main centres.
Fast becoming recognised internationally as a prime cruising destination with safe anchorages, easy day sails and so much to discover, Vanuatu is quickly realising the value of these seafaring visitors, who bring income and support to the remote outer islands, not so readily accessible by the usual tourist.
The cruising season, May through to October, sees many yachts spending time in Vanuatu. Many ‘yachties’ relish the chance to be able to help, whether fixing solar systems or outboard motors, bringing school resources or sharing cooking skills. Yachties enjoy exploring the fascinating marine world that Vanuatu offers, either by snorkel or scuba. The diversity of marine life here is startling, but sadly over-fishing, runoff from land development and removal of certain species is having a detrimental effect. Still, Vanuatu reefs are some of the best dive sites in the world. This is where our story starts.
Beneath the clear waters of Vanuatu lurks a beautiful yet destructive creature, sucking the life from the corals that form the reefs that fish need to thrive. With its natural predators removed, namely the large wrasse and the triton shell, the Crown of Thorns (COT) starfish has free rein to devour the reefs. An often beneficial creature in small numbers, to be found on healthy reefs ensuring that a diversity of corals thrive and no one species takes over, the Crown of Thorns starfish becomes a deadly destroyer of reefs when numbers increase to epidemic proportions. Able to devour six square metres of coral in one year, it is easy to imagine the resulting damage when they are present in their thousands, literally stacked on top of each other. An amazing creature, this starfish can walk at speeds of up to 35cm per minute, meaning an entire reef can be desecrated within hours.
This is not a problem only in Vanuatu. The starfish frequent warmer waters throughout the world and the spawn is carried by the ocean currents. In recent years, Vanuatu is witnessing the damage that a plague can cause, and if left unchecked, will result in less fish, no reef and the loss of the stunning hard corals of Vanuatu.
Research is being carried out throughtout the world on environmentally-friendly methods of controlling these starfish, with Vanuatu Fisheries being no exception. Meantime, various responsible dive operators, resorts and eco savvy villages are doing their best to control invasions in their area. It is not ideal, but it is managable with ongoing vigilance. It is in the more remote areas, dependent on current flows, where the invasion continues unnoticed and unchecked, leaving only dead white scars to remind us where beautiful hard corals used to flourish. This is where the eco sailing COT Warriors come in.
Given the large scale of the 83 islands of Vanuatu and with so little funding, it is impossible to monitor every reef, from unknown depths to mere inches of water. But by getting the word out there to travelling yachts, many of whom spend considerable time in the water, it has been possible to start noting where major invasions are happening. Yachts report where they have seen Crown of Thorns and this information is collected by Fisheries who then prepare for a more scientific analysis of the area, educating the local villagers on how to remove the starfish or organising a community cull, which can often result in the removal of thousands of starfish from an area.
Four years ago we got involved in a COT removal exercise in Havannah Harbour where the numbers were getting to epidemic proportions and only the continual removal of starfish, several times a week, tracking their progress in the area by local dive operators, local villagers and volunteer divers managed to make a dent in the numbers and prevent the devastation of the stunning dive sites to be found there. It is important to reduce numbers as much as possible before the spawning season (usually November to January) as one large female can produce 53 million eggs per annum – and that’s a lot of potential destruction. Fortunately mortality rate is high. But this is strongly affected by terrestrial runoff and the extra nutrients in the water leading to denser phytoplankton populations resulting in more successful COT larval survival. Not good.
The Vanuatu Radio Net, established to promote yachting within Vanuatu, reminds every yacht each morning of the importance of reporting infestations. Only recently SV Reflection reported finding a major outbreak at Tangoa Island on SW Santo, where the villagers have been waging a war on these starfish for the past few months, thousands of COTs had already been removed and lined the high tide mark. Four of us dived and removed another 800 COTs in a very small area in less than an hour. Fisheries quickly responded to the report and organised a village cull a week later, taking out another 1600 COTs with the help of the Oceanswatch team on another yacht. Another report of an infestation at a Marine Conservation area on Malekula resulted in over 3000 starfish being despatched by the team on yacht Llyr, which has been travelling around Vanuatu helping local communities in various projects.
Removing COTs is a dangerous business; the sharp spines release painful saponins, causing stinging pain, nausea and tissue swelling, as well as persistent bleeding from the effects of the saponins. It is important to avoid getting spiked, which can be challenging in currents or with other divers around. Removal is best done with a long metal spike bent at one end, then you can hook the starfish into clear water where it will generally ball up around your spike. Then, it is a matter of taking it well out of the water, above high tide mark. These guys are tough, they are built to survive – trying to cut them into pieces is not an option, they can grow from such pieces so instead of one you will have four or more starfish. Should you be unfortunate enough to get spiked by a COT the best remedy is to quickly apply hot water, as hot as you can bear, and then bleach onto the wound. Make sure none of the spike remains in the wound.
The majority of yachts enjoy being part of an eco project and helping where possible. Whether it be removing the starfish or reporting the infestation, the value in what they are achieving is huge. Sometimes it is as simple as relaying information to local villagers who may not yet be aware of the dangers of these species. This problem is not an easy one to resolve, it will not go away and it is not new as the COTs have been here for years. But now with no predators, they can explode to epidemic proportions in the blink of an eye. We all need to be vigilant, continually and for the long haul, or else our reefs, fish and tourism opportunities will suffer.
The waters of Vanuatu offer stunning diving with clear waters, a mix of brilliant soft and hard corals, and fascinating marine life, from whales and dugongs to a myriad of colourful reef fish and amazing small critters. As we sail around, it is great to see some resorts and villages already taking on the task of protecting their reefs and future food sources. Vanuatu Fisheries are working on filling in the gaps but it is a huge task. Yachts are doing what they can do to help and perhaps if we can stop buying Triton shells to take home as useless souvenirs and protect the few large wrasse left, maybe with everyone working towards the same goal, we can save the beautiful underwater world of Vanuatu.
If you have any information on COT infestations or want more information please contact Fisheries Officer Jayven on 5333340 or 23119.
Story by Anne Simons. Photography by Anne Simmons and Pascal Dumas.