Cyclone Winston Reef Damage

Date Published: Feb 28th, 2016 - Comments
Author: Cat Holloway

The second strongest cyclone at landfall ever, TC Winston, has passed directly over Fiji. Some parts of the country are in complete crisis, the rest of us are in rescue and recovery mode. These are the days when we discover who our friends really are. Thankfully, Fiji is famous for being friendly.

If you’ve seen the pictures of destroyed villages and defoliated forests, we know exactly what you’re thinking, because we’re thinking the same thing:  What happened under the water? Are the dive sites devastated? Is NAI’A still the coral reef diving trip of a lifetime?

We want to answer these questions, but there is so much we don’t know yet about the state of our sites. We do know:

  • Winston was powerful enough to completely alter some reefs beyond recognition, not only aesthetically, but structurally.
  • Some of our most treasured dive sites are so devastated that we will likely not return there until new growth and life has recovered.
  • Other areas appear barely affected, even miraculously unscathed. Yes, NAI’A diving remains one of the great wonders of the coral reef world.

NAI’A is ship-shape and our crew as keen and committed as ever to finding outrageous little creatures, sharing encounters with big critters and framing scenic images of swarming fishes over vivid coral.

We’ve only had four diving days since Winston. There has been some heartbreak and some relief. Of the specific areas we’ve surveyed, parts of Wakaya and Vatu-i-Ra looked good while parts of Namena and Mount Mutiny looked bad.

Amanda, Joshua and the rest of the NAI’A crew have shed many tears trying to fathom the strength of currents, waves and turbulence able to strip reef-tops bare, split bommies apart and scour the sea bed of tons of sand and rubble. None of us have ever seen storm damage so extensive and so deep. All of us are acutely aware of the potential for more destructive storms to be born of our warming atmosphere.

However, the ancient truth is that storm damage is part of the life of a coral reef. We divers, tourists and photographers may not like it, but it is part of the evolutionary process and can have both short and long-term benefits to coral reef ecosystems. Water temperature instantly drops as a cyclone passes over, reducing the potential of hot summer currents to cause widespread coral bleaching. Reefs dominated by fast growing corals, such as acroporas, can regrow after storm damage into far more diverse and robust communities, as the empty spaces are recolonized by a wide variety of species from nearby healthy reef areas.

Extreme though this Winston impact is, coral reefs are inherently dynamic environments. And, as always, when reefs change, we change the way we dive them.

So, what’s next on NAI’A?

First, we need to look hard and fast at our sites - all of them - to assess precisely their state. This will mean using as many extra eyes and swimming legs as we can gather, as well as possibly moving the ship more. We don’t expect our guests to do this survey work on their hard-earned holidays. Our crew will double their efforts underwater. But we would of course welcome your involvement if it interests you. We hope to add the expertise of GBRMPA scientists and Catlin Seaview Survey divers whenever space aboard allows in the coming month. In April, Monterey Bay Aquarium founder, Dr. Steve Webster, will video NAI’A reefs for the 31st time, giving us a unique record of changes. Then in January 2017, he’ll return to seek out signs of recovery.

As always, our cruise directors will do all they can to put you on healthy gorgeous sections of reef and ensure your dive trip is not impacted by these surveys. But if we do roll back into the water and discover a rubble field where a lavish bommie used to be, we’ll either look for flasher wrasses and nudibranchs or move the skiff and seek out another reef.

For 22 years, NAI’A has adjusted her itinerary in response to stressful events including algae blooms, crown-of-thorn outbreaks, coral bleaching, sudden salinity changes, fishing exploitation and cyclones. We have always sought out the most vital, diverse and memorable dive sites and we will continue to do so. For more than 10 years, NAI’A has been so blessed with many stable, rich and breathtakingly beautiful dives; we have rarely needed or had the time to explore for new, undiscovered sites.

We can draw comparisons with and lessons from the dive operators and scientists on the northern Great Barrier Reef where two Category 5 cyclones wreaked unprecedented havoc in 2011 (Yasi) and 2014 (Ita). After Yasi, rapid site surveys by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) biologists found:

“Although spanning a wide area, the damage caused by TC Yasi was patchy, ranging from extremely severe to very minor. At the worst affected sites the impact of waves and wave-borne debris removed almost all traces of sessile (attached) marine life down to at least 15 m depth.

“However some reefs were also observed to have areas that suffered relatively minor damage…. Often, relatively undamaged patches of reef could be found within 50-100 m of severely damaged patches.”

Likewise, when the Caitlin Seaview Survey and University of Queensland team assessed coral reef damage after Ita and compared their images to pre-storm video, the changes they documented were both horrifying and enlightening.

“You have such channelled force in some areas which completely smashed those sites, but 50 metres away, there’s a site with really quite fragile fan corals which haven’t been affected at all,” said project director, Richard Vevers.

A pristine site just 50-100m away from a flattened site! Sound unbelievable? Not to us. For 5 years we dived near the lighthouse at Vatu-i-Ra, a moderately interesting site protected when conditions at E6 and Mt Mutiny were uncomfortable. It was only by accident that we stumbled across an uncharted patch reef just 200m away which quickly became one of our most famous dives, Mellow Yellow. Likewise Charlies Garden was discovered when a ripping current tossed some guests askew. Thumbs and Tetons were long ignored while we fumbled around South Save-A-Tack. These, and dozens of similar examples, make us constantly wonder what else we are missing. We just rarely have the time to look beyond our top spots.

So, in the wake of Winston, finding new sites will be a higher priority aboard NAI’A. Again, we don’t expect guests to spend their vacation exploring to update the NAI’A itinerary. We know well that for every GoMo or UndeNAI’Able, there are 10 or 20 NoGoes and Undesirables. But if you are willing to cast your eye and camera into the unknown and be surprised, we’ll have a blast looking and inventing new dive site names.

Finally, we may return to some altered dives sites but with a different set of hopes and expectations. An overhang may no longer be draped in vibrant chironephthya coral, but it may still shelter seahorses or shrimp. Butterflyfish nipping at pocillopora polyps might be harder to find, but schools of herbivorous surgeonfish may swarm close while feeding on fresh algae growth. Splendid garden eels may not dance now between the Arch and Yellow Brick road, but we might find them at the mouth of Nigali Passage.

One thing we do know: we want as much as you do to be awed by Fiji’s reefs. These places are our life’s passion and our bread and butter. Finding – and protecting – the planet’s most breathtaking and important coral reefs is what NAI’A has always been about. Winston has not changed that. 


“Joann & I had a remarkable experience here in Tonga! Our diving trips mostly entail liveaboard boats and this one was the best yet – great crew & great food! You are fortunate to have the ownership in place to allow you to do it right! We won’t easily forget our “Whale Week” on NAI’A – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime gig!!”

Terry & Joann

~ Terry & Joann