Exploring the Shallows of Savusavu: CORALS
Warm water coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of Earth’s surface, but Fiji boasts some of the best access to this diverse and important ecosystem. From Savusavu, on Vanua Levu, there is easy access to fascinating marine life right offshore if you know where to look, and it doesn’t necessarily require SCUBA equipment to explore and appreciate.
All the photos in this article have been taken around the Savusavu area on basic compact digital cameras at depths shallower than 5m (15ft), and many have been taken whilst snorkeling. A benefit of taking photos close to the surface is that the light penetration brings out the stunning colors that disappear at depth. Technology has improved to the point where underwater cameras can be very affordable, housings are available for most models of compact and SLR cameras, and even some phones are capable of impressive shots. Of course, having expensive equipment and training helps, but you do not need to spend a fortune to get some stunning images underwater.
Being comfortable in the water will go a long way towards seeing more and getting quality photos, as it’s important to take your time and be patient. Marine life can easily be disturbed by splashing, but gentle fin kicks will allow you to move slowly enough to spot the more unique creatures on the reef. We rarely use our arms to swim, and instead keep them by our sides. While many fish species and some invertebrates can be wary of humans, staying in one place for a few minutes will allow them to acclimate to your presence. Most importantly, we minimize contact with the reef and avoid touching corals, as they are sensitive creatures prone to diseases and breakage.
Coral reef ecosystems of incredible biodiversity
Coral reefs are highly complex ecosystems. While they take up less than 0.25% of the ocean, they are home to over a quarter of all marine fish species. Reef-inhabiting species diversity has been estimated at anywhere from 600,000 to over 9 million species worldwide! Most of this diversity is contained in the shallow waters, as sunlight provides nutrients for many species via photosynthesis. Many corals have symbiotic algae in their tissues, called Zooxanthellae, that allow them to harness energy from the sun. These micro-algae also contribute to the coral’s coloration; one species of coral may be found in a variety of colors. Corals are related to jellyfish and anemones and they too contain stinging cells for protection; many corals are also predatory feeders and use small tentacles to stun prey, which can even include small fish.
Coral is a perfect subject for beginner underwater photographers as it is sedentary and colorful. Hard corals are made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny polyps that form stony skeletons made of calcium carbonate. These animals are reef-builders, meaning they provide complex structures that become shelter for other marine organisms. Known as the ‘architects of the reef’, coral colonies are found in a variety of shapes: large, boulder-like corals, vast table corals, and delicate branching corals compete for space in the light-abundant shallows. We cannot forget the soft corals, as Fiji is known as the soft coral capital of the world. Unlike hard corals, they do not form stony skeletons and usually have a tree-like appearance. While they are not considered reef-builders, these corals also provide shelter to unique marine life including tiny crustaceans and juvenile fish.
Around Savusavu there are some easily accessible sites with stunning corals that have been growing for centuries, and in some cases, millennia. One such location is Natewa Bay, the largest and deepest natural bay in the South Pacific. The mountainous land surrounding Natewa Bay has protected the corals from cyclone damage, and typically calm conditions allow for comfortable snorkeling and diving. With guidance you can visit spots that have staggering fish diversity and healthy hard corals, where gorgonian sea fans and spectacular soft corals can be found in abundance in shallow waters. Offering impressive landscapes and seascapes, Natewa Bay is a photographer’s dream. Just over a half hour from Savusavu by car, it is accessible but feels incredibly remote with hardly any boat traffic and picturesque villages lining the bay. Locations like this are increasingly rare, with coral reefs disappearing at an alarming rate worldwide due to various threats such as overfishing, rising sea surface temperatures and coral bleaching, increased disease due to introduced pollutants and chemicals such as those found in sunscreens, and ocean acidification.
Photography has been an important tool in coral reef conservation. Many reef survey techniques rely on photography and videography, and photos provide a permanent record that can be compared to show change over time. Sharing photos of marine life raises awareness of the incredible diversity found in the ocean and makes the underwater world more accessible to those who cannot travel to see it first-hand. With patience and reef awareness, you can produce images that capture the beauty of the underwater world to share with friends and family back home.
Learn more about corals and their role as the ecosystem architects of coral reefs by joining our South Pacific Coral Reef Ecology eLearning Course.
About the authors: Matthew Norman & Sara Carlson own and operate Ocean Ventures Fiji (www.oceanventuresfiji.com), a PADI Dive Resort that also focuses on conservation education and snorkeling trips in Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, approximately 40 minutes outside of Savusavu. They can be found on Instagram: @matthewnormanphotography & @divingsara.