6.30am, 20th February, 2016. My Resort Manager was frantically banging at my door. Category 5 Cyclone Winston had suddenly changed track a few hours ago. We were due to miss the brunt of him but now we were in trouble as he was heading straight for us. As the dive center manager at the time, many thoughts were racing through my fuzzy morning head. Coffee? Ugh no time. Were the boats moved and secure? Check. Dive center locked and shuttered up? Check. O2 bottles strapped down and secured? Check. All precautions that were supposed to be taken yesterday complete? Check. Guests all locked down and provisions provided? Check. Prayed to the Good luck God? Check. Coffee? Damn it! Ok, so it was now time to do the next obvious thing and have some fun, i.e. run around with a GoPro in the beginning of what turned out to be the worse cyclone in the history of the Southern Hemisphere, wind speeds up to 350 km.
It was fun trying to jump and fly against the wind and dodge coconuts as they flew through the sky like cannon balls. It was fun watching the trees blow over and getting our skin sand blasted by the raging sand storms that were coming off the beach. One of us even tried to play a game of crochet for giggles. Our resort managers advised against it of course. We thought nothing of it running around in shorts and a t-shirt. After all, we were wearing hard hats. Safety first right? It was only when an 8-foot tree branch randomly fell out of the sky and landed on my head that the fun ended and we quickly realised the error of our ways. How rude, it wasn’t even a branch from our resort. My colleagues managed to pick me up off the ground as I felt the blood trickle down my brow and we accepted it as a sign from the God’s and ran for shelter. I will never make fun of hard hats ever again, or run around in a cyclone for that matter. Lesson learned.
Our eventual hide out was the back kitchen store room. Where we spent the next 6 hours rehearsing what we would say when we met out maker. Had we been good people? When was the last time I told my family I love them?
As the foundations of the building rumbled below our feet and the odd tree flew past, my thoughts slowly drifted to the local villages and I prayed they were doing ok. My thoughts then inevitably turned toward the house reef a mere 100 meters away from where I stood. In particular, some special friends of mine located about 12 meters in depth. A courting pair of Clownfish (Anemone fish) residing in an anemone about half a meter in diameter. The anemone itself was growing a large piece of table like coral approximately 3 meters in diameter. (The exact type of coral escapes me) I had a special relationship with this tiny pair of lovers. Over the last two week’s I had spent a lot of time with these two, they were used to my presence. I wondered if they were Ok. I wondered if the ridiculous swell and waves would penetrate that deep to affect them, those little friends of mine so fragile and pure.
Unfortunately, unlike many elsewhere in Fiji we joyfully lived to see another day. The resort I was working for was fantastic. Everyone was safe and well looked after and the resort was repaired in record time. Hat’s off to the Management and all the staff. If they are reading, Bula!
After about 3 days I finally managed to go for a dive on the house reef. (2 days of repair and giving aid to the local villages first of course) I donned my kit as fast as I could, keen to get in the water and reunited with my friends and inspect the aftermath.
I tried to be optimistic as I descended. I could see the piles of shattered coral on the sea bed at a few meters. This was to be expected, the waves would easily have disturbed the coral at shallow depth. Storm damage is a common site to a well-travelled diver. I was interested in what lie beyond 8,9,10 meters. It wasn’t good. It was like a Greek wedding had just taken place and I had missed the party, broken plates scattered over the floor. I felt sadness creeping into my heart. C’mon Chad, stay optimistic I told myself. I reached the location where my friends lived, confusion ensued. Am I lost? My terrestrial navigation skills are pathetic, I could get lost in a round tent. In the ocean, however, I am Garmin.
I denied the truth for a few minutes. Then I felt my heart crack right down the middle. I felt a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and experienced an emotion I have never experienced underwater before… Despair. Not only had the fish gone but the entire rock and coral base they resided on had completely vanished. Not even any fractured pieces of it lying around, Zilch. I was so depressed I couldn’t even bear to take photos. After all, what’s the point? There was nothing to take photos of.
A few dead fish but plenty still present. Looking confused, as if they were about to get in their car and go home after a day out shopping but realising the car had been stolen. How long would the fish stay if the coral had gone I wonder? Sigh, I descended to 17 meters and continued my reconnaissance mission. As I looked through the bleary blue depths I spotted what seemed a familiar shape. I tilted my head to one side. No surely not, could it be? As I got closer my heart skipped a beat. My eyes widened with joy, yes it was the coral base that the anemone resided on. It was at a 45-degree angle looking like what can only be described as being dropped on the floor from a great height. The cyclone had broken it off at its stem and carried it approximately 15 meters away from where it was originally growing. Surprisingly still in one piece apart from the unfortunate base severing. To further my delight the anemone was still attached, gently waving back and forth in rhythmical motion with the slight storm swell that lingered.
Ok Chad, deep breath… I waited with baited anticipation. Hopeful that at any moment a streak of orange would flash out of the anemone filling my heart with joy as the two married Clownfish would greet me with open fins, wide eyes and warm hearts. ‘Chad our old friend, come in for tea’ they would cry at me, I waited… nothing.
I wondered what happened to them, did they get eaten? Smashed into the coral by the force of the waves? Washed out to sea? Or simply retreat to an unknown Clownfish strong hold where they spent the rest of their days sipping cava and chatting with friends. I didn’t realise that the answer would reveal itself with such emotional impact. I accepted the creeping inevitable truth and turned to leave. Wait, what was that? I am sure that was orange… could it be…
This is where people will accuse me of using artistic license. I’m not, I swear it. I have learned that hope is the most powerful sentiment and hope in the tiniest form appeared before my very eyes. A juvenile Clownfish approximately less than one inch in length tentatively creeped out from the protection of the anemone and stared at me directly in the eyes. Terrified of this giant bubbling and gurgling abomination before him as he stood his ground none the less. I have never spoken of this before, but I will now. I don’t know if it was the emotional build-up of various factors such as my impending 40th birthday a week later, the harrowing experience of the cyclone, the emotional effects of the aid trips to the villages, or the vigilance and warmth of the Fijian people that are a true testament to the human spirit (people offering to cook for me even though they were sitting in rubble and their houses had been completely destroyed) or just this beautiful and harmless tiny creature in front of my eyes. But I cried. Not internal hypothetical tears but actual tears pouring out inside my mask. A 14 stone tattooed bald man crying in the face of a one-inch long juvenile orphan Clownfish, 17meters under the sea. The baby Clownfish sensed my despair and handed me a waterproof tissue (OK I made that last bit up)
Something within me changed that day and changed me forever. Only life is important, sometimes exceeded by hope.
The world famous Rainbow reef with its internationally renowned soft corals was only a few kilometers away. If Rainbow reef was gone it was curtains for the dive industry in that area. No doubt about it. We anxiously made our way over. With joy, we soon discovered only superficial damage had occurred, a few broken staghorn corals here and there. Everything was OK. PHEW! A dazzling myriad of fish adorned abundant hard and soft corals displaying their magnificent colors. A shark patrolled the reef wall and was enjoying the current that pushed us along. It was business as usual. Although Cyclone Winston was a Category 5 destructive force to be reckoned with, in my area we only lost a couple of local shore based reefs. The storm surges and waves would of course cause the most friction and damage with shallow coral reefs that faced the storm front, but all the diving reefs further out provided less resistance against the elements and therefore escaped unscathed. The marine ecosystem in Fiji is one of the most diverse and pristine on Earth. Despite Mother Nature’s best efforts, it delights me to state that it remains so. The Cyclone took a very narrow path through Fiji so most of the ocean was unaffected. Unfortunately, the story was different for many land folk. There is one thing that has remained true. That is the overwhelming and genuine friendliness, hospitality and resilience of the Fijian people. They are an example to us all.
Despite my pathetic tale of whoa, Fiji is alive and kicking. The resilience of the reefs is amazing. Even in the few months after the Cyclone, the fish were back cleaning and rebuilding. News shoots of coral springing up everywhere. So do yourself a favor, get on a plane and get to Fiji. Whether it’s thrilling Megafauna encounters with Bull and Tiger sharks or dazzling colored soft corals that you seek, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
If you are diving in the Taveuni area and you happen to come across a 3 meter in diameter piece of table like coral on its side and home to one serious looking orphan Clownfish with an attitude, please pass on my regards.
To see more from Chad Sinden follow him at Whitetip Productions.