Isle of pines

Ripping past tiny islands covered with towering Araucaria trees, we were moments away from diving a remote part of one of the world’s largest double barrier reefs. Unsure what to expect given the language barrier, we knew whatever was about to happen was certainly going to be wild. The ocean was churning.

Words by Andi Cross
Photographs by Marla Tomorug
Additional photographs by Adam Moore and Pierre-Emmanuel Faivre

Our vessel was unusually quiet, as each of us were assessing the situation, from trying to remember the French we’d been practicing, to considering how significant the current was going to be at depth. We were heading to a site called ‘Vallee des Gorgones’ in Île des Pins, translated quite easily to ‘Valley of the Gorgons’ in Isle of Pines in New Caledonia.

The Isle of Pines group is a collection of around 15 small islands and inlets surrounded by reefs, extending from the shallows to deep depths. The French territory of New Caledonia is an island nation off the east coast of Australia, deemed the largest lagoon on the planet. Known for its biodiversity and unique plant life to scientists and researchers, it was now regarded as a significant drift dive destination to us scuba divers.

Our longtime friends at the Resilient Reefs Initiative (RRI), a global partnership through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, put us on to this place. The initiative supports World Heritage Reefs, and the communities that depend on them, to adapt to climate change and a combination of local threats. The aim for the Edges of Earth team was to survey key sites of the island group, see the reef systems firsthand, and to learn from the Kanak people, who have safeguarded this land and sea for generations. Of course, if we could stop ourselves from flying past the coral and marine species we were there to document in the first place.

A large effort for RRI is connecting local stakeholders with new methods and tools which can be adapted to the local context, and will help coral reef managers and communities to protect their reefs and coastal ecosystems. Participatory monitoring, i.e. manual documenting and surveying of reefs by everyday citizens, helps explain the state of New Caledonia’s systems, including locating and counting coral-eating ‘Crown of Thorns’ starfish, which can have devastating effects in some circumstances.

This is coupled with more technologically heavy efforts, such as seascape genomics to understand coral adaptive potential, and to map where we might find the most heat resistant corals in the future. These projects are now funded by RRI and led by the researchers, Dr. Veronique Berteau-Lecellier and Dr. Pascal Dumas.

A negative descent had us moving quickly to ensure the group didn’t get separated upon entry. As we dropped onto our first site, we were greeted by two pygmy seahorses on gigantic gorgonian corals, as if they had been waiting for our arrival.

Having the remarkable ability to blend in with their surroundings, these tiny creatures typically live on sea fans that provide the perfect hiding spots. They are widely distributed across the Indo-Pacific region, including countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and northern Australia. They are among the smallest species of seahorses in the world, ranging from 0.5 to 2.4 centimetres (0.2 to 0.9 inches) in length and are known to live in areas rich with coral biodiversity.

Our time with the pygmies was brief, as the current swept us off to tackle swim throughs, tunnels and a drop off. This site in particular had thriving coral varieties, tropical fish such as parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, damselfish, surgeonfish and triggerfish, along with blacktip and whitetip reef sharks making brief appearances. The benefit of moving so fast meant that we could survey a lot over a short period of time.

We moved from dive site to dive site, from the deeper destinations and into the shallows, covering a lot of ground with our speedy drifts. Many places in the world where there are reefs, there’s also a clear depiction of the realities of our changing planet. And here was no different.

RRI’s extensive, global work has partnered with local communities to understand the shocks and stresses that have compromised the ability of both reefs and coastal communities to thrive. Climate change is the biggest threat facing coral reefs today, which causes coral bleaching, ocean acidification, extreme weather events, erosion, sea level rise and biodiversity loss. Human threats and pressures also weaken these systems through unsustainable tourism, overfishing, water pollution, and coastal population and development. However, on the sites that we were diving, we consistently saw life emerging in unique ways even when there was damage.

Our favorite site was ‘Jardin d’Eden’, where we saw docile leopard sharks presenting their gorgeous patterns. In the wild, this species can live up to 30 years, which is relatively longer compared to other sharks. This allows them to play a critical role as a mid-level predator in their ecosystems for longer periods of time. Like many sharks, they help to maintain balance by feeding on small organisms such as fish and crustaceans, controlling population growth.

What we love most about the leopards of the sea is that they have a fascinating reproductive method known as ovoviviparity. Embryos develop inside eggs within the female shark’s body until they hatch into live pups. The female then gives birth to the fully formed baby sharks, typically after a gestation period of around 10 to 12 months. Wild!

While leopards are not considered endangered and are rather abundant around the Pacific Islands, they do face conservation challenges, mainly due to habitat degradation, pollution and accidental bycatch in fishing gear. But, programs like RRI help to arm countries with the strategies and resources needed to keep their reefs and marine species in good health.

In New Caledonia specifically, RRI is helping to bridge gaps between reef managers that work on the ground, scientists, government and the communities dependent on these reefs. By putting a larger reef management strategy in place to unite all parties, the team collectively prioritises action in New Caledonia, and sets goals and success measures together versus in isolation.

For a country that is highly divided and faces social and political stressors, the fact that RRI can act as a curator and facilitator is a huge step in the right direction to ensure this UNESCO World Heritage site is around for generations to come.

After tackling strong currents and deep levels of exhaustion from each of our dive days, we left New Caledonia excited for its future. There are resilient people on the global and local level working hard every single day to keep this one-of-a-kind location strong and stable. We had the chance to meet with many of them over the course of this expedition, from those who took us out on the water to those managing reef-specific projects.

Bringing people together around a shared vision for the planet’s reefs – from different backgrounds, with varying disciplines, and at times, with conflicting perspectives – is what’s needed to keep them thriving. If we can work together as teams, and not in separate silos, our chances of succeeding in conserving, protecting and restoring reefs is that much higher. No one party alone can achieve this.

These reefs stand as an emblem of unity and interconnectedness. The essence of conservation lies not only in scientific endeavors, but in the power of human collaboration. The first step in managing planetary health is getting human alignment, commitment and action. And that’s exactly what RRI is doing, with its efforts in New Caledonia only just beginning.

There’s so much more work to be done, but it’s trending in the right direction. This is an exciting win for a country that’s struggled historically to find alignment. The journey through New Caledonia has taught our expedition team that the fate of the reefs is not solely determined by the work of any single individual or group, but by the collective efforts of a united front.


Photographs by Marla Tomorug
Additional photographs by Adam Moore and Pierre-Emmanuel Faivre

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