Expedition to the Sacred Reef of Fiji #3

By Dr. Stacy Jupiter

Daveda Tabu – Totoya’s Sacred Reef

This is the third of several blogs documenting an 8-day, marine expedition to Fiji.

Daveda Tabu means the “sacred passage.”  It is the gateway to Totoya’s lagoon, the only entry point through the southern section of the barrier reef.  When entering by boat through the passage, it is imperative to obey strict customary protocol.  No hats, sunglasses or jewelry may be worn, and everyone must sit down to ensure safe passage.

The outer Sacred Reef approaching Totoya Island (c) Keith Ellenbogen

All of us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Pacific Blue Foundation, Wetlands International-Oceania and the Waitt Institute were bursting with curiosity over what the sacred reef still holds.  Although the previous high chief of Totoya opened the area to fishing in the mid-1990s, the conditions are fairly rough through the passage, which may offer some natural protection to the fish life.

With five foot swells sending white water barreling over the reef flat, we opted wisely to dive on the leeward side of the barrier on our first morning.

Waisea, one of our WCS staff, dropped in first and announced, “It’s crystal clear!”

Juvenile scorpionfish (Sebastopictes sp.) in hard coral (Acorpora sp.)

(c) Keith Ellenbogen

Our WCS team is conducting surveys of fish biomass and coral reef health both inside and immediately adjacent to the sacred reef to see if we can detect any residual impact of long-term protection.  We are also trying to assess baseline conditions so we can gauge fish population recovery after the high chief re-establishes the fishing ban for World Ocean’s Day.

Juvenile clown wrasse (Coris gaimard) (c) Keith Ellenbogen

The current status of the reef is promising.  It is true that certain areas were dominated by roving schools of bristle-tooth surgeonfish (Ctenochaetus striatus), which we at WCS have affectionately named the “rat of the sea” due to its incredible abundance in Fiji, particularly at highly fished locations.  However, at other sites we were treated to enormous dogtooth tuna, turtles, great barracuda, the endangered humphead wrasse, and above all sharks.  I counted nine white tip reef sharks on our first morning alone, each one inquisitively investigating the nature of us strange bubble blowing creatures rigidly following the yellow lines of our transect tapes across their territories.

Giant trevally dwarfing WCS diver Waisea Naisilisili (c) Stacy Jupiter

Suddenly, a giant trevally (“GT”) came out of the deep blue and torpedoed straight for Waisea’s head. After scaring the living daylights out of him, it dodged right, then left and crossed the transect tape in front of my camera. At up to 175 pounds, “GT” are the king of this reef. But the sacred reef has also offered a myriad of smaller surprises, from high numbers of endemic fish to cryptic nudibranchs and eels.

Moray eel (Gymnothorax meleagris) (c) Keith Ellenbogen

The future of Daveda Tabu will be decided today.  We will accompany Roko Sau, the high chief of the Yasayasamoala group, to the district council meeting this afternoon where he will discuss with the local village chiefs about reinstating the fishing ban.  Will they decide to protect only the original sacred area surrounding the passage?  Will the chiefs be encouraged to enlarge the area to more broadly preserve ecological function?  Will there be any objections from fishers who have conflicting opinions over how reef resources should best be used?

Stay tuned with our blog to learn the answers and find out more of the secret’s of Fiji’s sacred reef.


Pink anemonemefish (Amphiprion perderion) in anemone (c) Keith Ellenbogen


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.