Exploration

End of the earth

In the remote archipelago of New Caledonia, lies an almost forgotten island between sky and water… Lifou.

Words & photographs by Nicolas Hervé

In the remote archipelago of New Caledonia, lies an almost forgotten island between sky and water… Lifou.

My eyes don’t know where to look first: a blue sky forms a magical ceiling above the towering cliffs that are covered with luxuriant greenery formed by columnar pine trees pointing towards the sky. The blue and natural green colours with prevailing nuances of turquoise must be responsible for this unique landscape. My island is called Lifou. I love this place. I realise my opinion might be biased, but I just can’t help it. As a traveller myself, Lifou is an exceptionally authentic destination from every angle. Within this article, I’ll take you diving in crystal-clear, fish-filled waters so that you can get an idea of Lifou’s raw beauty and authenticity. You’ll soon notice that peacefulness prevails over here.

When you dive beneath the surface, you are greeted by healthy coral reefs and an abundance of diverse marine life – from miniscule critters to large sharks. Lifou, historically also spelt Lefu or Lifu is a small island that is part of the New Caledonia archipelago and the Loyalty Islands. With 1,150km2 of landmass, Lifou is comparable to Martinique when it comes to size. As New Caledonia is a French territory located right in the South Pacific between Australia, New Zealand and Vanuatu, French is the official language on the island. But there is also another language spoken here. It’s called Drehu, an Austronesian language, spoken by around 12,000 people in the region.

Below the surface, Lifou is teeming with life and special formations. Not only does the area sport a vast network of sea caverns, but is also characterised by many different species of colourful gorgonians that stand tall on big underwater pinnacles. At dive sites like Hnassé, Green Buoy or Game of Thrones, the coral heads are of spectacular size and every bit of space is occupied by a coral or some other magnificent creature.

One of my favourite dive sites is Tomoko’s Sea Cave which is spangled with colourful gorgonians, whip corals, and multicoloured anthias. Around the cave, you meet abundant pelagic life and reef fish, including butterflyfish, triggerfish, loaches, scorpion fish, trevallies, napoleon fish… the list goes on. Stunning and colorful flora meets an unbelievable choice of blues here, while strange colours change their hues in the inconsistent light of the cave.

Cape Martin’s waters, on the other hand, are famous for enormous gorgonians that decorate the reefs, vaults and vertiginous edges of the reefs. Many species of sharks such as grey reef, leopard or whitetip reef sharks can be observed here. If you’re lucky, you might even see a tiger or silky shark from time to time. And while you look for leafy scorpion fish and rhinopias on the below the surface, be sure to look up as an abundance of gannets and frigate birds circle high above your head.

Healthy reefs, caverns and rocky formations dominate Lifou’s underwater scene, while diving is possible all year around with water temperatures of 27°C during summer and 23°C in the colder season which is during August and September. The visibility underwater is almost always excellent, even though it is a little bit clearer during our winter. Take a dive from July to September and you might hear humpback whales calling from afar. During summer, oceanic manta rays often come and pay a visit. I even saw a sailfish last year and spotted dolphins often cruise Lifou’s emerald waters. Crossing their path and observing them is always a unique pleasure.

One of my favourite pastimes, however, is night diving with nautiluses. At night, you can witness an entirely different fauna underwater, one that unveils its magic in the moon light. When all the elements are on your side, you’ve got a great chance to see these pelagic marine molluscs. They use the cover of night to leave their deep hideouts. Some of the nautiluses prefer cold winter water and the light of the full moon to come out, while others are drawn to the darkness of a new moon night. The gorgonians are, undoubtedly, the most spectacular stars of the show along with the nautili ballet. Another highlight you can witness during the night are sleeping parrotfish. They secrete mucus from their glands to sleep in a transparent cocoon that protects them from parasites such as bloodsucking isopods at night. The process of creating the cocoon takes around an hour. But be careful not to shine your light directly at them or use a blue light instead of a red one which uncovers countless details that they conceal in the daytime. It’s an incredible show that always reminds me of a Christmas tree, filled with coloured lights and blue highlights.

From the immaculate white sands of the Luengöni beach to the Jokin’s steep coral cliffs, the variety of natural sites on Lifou makes exploring easy. Discover numerous immersed caves lost beneath thick emerald and sometimes hostile greenery, or head inland to visit the vanilla farms in Jozip, Mu, Mucaweng or Traput too. Wherever you go, the local Kanaks, heirs of ancient tradition, will welcome you like their own and cook an amazing traditional bougna meal for you, made in an oven that is dug into the ground and covered with burning rocks. Bougna traditionally consists of cooked tubers, poultry and coconut milk that is wrapped in banana leaves.

Lifou is the largest island of the Loyalty Islands. At its widest point, it measures 63km across. With approximately 10,000 inhabitants, Lifou is also the most populated island of the archipelago. Like most of the scattered islands that constitute New Caledonia, Lifou is formed by elevated coral blocs, and is covered by dense greenery. Thus, despite apparent horizontality, Lifou quickly unveils the variety of its landscapes to the lucky visitors.