Changing Planet

Vatuvara Island: A Haven for Threatened Species

Clear lagoon and limestone summit of Vatuvara Island. Photo: ©Katy Miller.

By Katy Miller

[Note: this is the fifth in a series of blogs documenting a new scientific survey of the waters and islands comprising Fiji’s Northern Lau Group]

Many of the islands we have explored in northern Lau remain much as they were during the days of Captain Cook’s early exploration – untouched and unparalleled in beauty.

Originally, the islands of the Lau Group were formed from a volcanic island arc along the Lau Ridge. Around 5.5 million years ago the active volcanoes that formed the islands underwent a period of subsidence and the Lau Ridge became covered by shallow water reef limestone. The geology of these islands now comprises both volcanic and reef-limestone rock.

Vatuvara is an unspoiled paradise ‒ a 1200-acre privately-owned island covered in overgrown forest over karst limestone, with a prominent vertical summit. The research team had been anticipating surveying this uninhabited jewel. After a sunrise start to cross 18 km of open water, the dive boat floated in azure waters over Vatuvara’s surrounding fringing reef. We were in awe of the vast limestone island, with the coral sand beaches sparkling under the sun – a set straight out of a Hollywood movie!

Humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) favor reef areas in the Coral Triangle and the western Indian Ocean. Photo: Gustavo Gerdel/BAB Buceo, under terms of the GFDL License.

Underwater, the team surveyed complex coral reefs with a variety of habitats ‒ from shallow exposed reef crests and reef flat communities to forereef drop-off zones with spur and groove ridge structures supporting a range of corals, diverse fish, and invertebrate species.

The island supported healthy populations of several globally threatened species, including the humphead, or Maori, wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), which is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and vulnerable giant clams (Tridacna species). Humphead wrasses at Vatuvara Island were not disturbed by the presence of divers in the water, suggesting this species has not been exposed to constant fishing pressure (especially spearfishing), unlike other parts of Fiji where fish can be wary and flighty.

Vatuvara Island also has a large, unique, and prehistoric looking land crab that rules this island. Coconut ‒ or “robber” ‒ crabs (Birgus latro) can be found roaming the forest floor searching for dropped coconuts, which they crack open with their powerful pincers to feed upon. Coconuts crabs are the largest land arthropods and are indigenous to a few islands in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Although small in populations, the species is listed as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List, with no regulations for a protected breeding season or harvesting size.

Vulnerable Coconut Crab (Birgus latro). Photo: ©Vatuvara Private Islands.

Coconut crabs are easily over-harvested, as commercial demand for local consumption is impacting their survival. These crabs reproduce from 5 years of age and are terrestrial except for when females lay their eggs in the ocean. The juveniles that survive make their way back to land after a month. Surveys of these land crabs are urgently needed to understand the state of stocks in Fiji and to ensure measures are in pace to protect this species.

Vatuvara Island is a critical area for both marine and terrestrial species. Vatuvara Private Islands and Vatuvara Foundation are working with communities on awareness of threatened species, marine management, and poaching surveillance within their traditional fishing grounds.

Katy Miller is Director of the Vatuvara Foundation.


Previous blogs in this series:

Exploring Coral Reefs in the Northern Lau Group

Signs of Adaptation to Climate Change

Impressive Lagoonal Coral Formations in a Community ‘Tabu’ Area

Why Weedy Species Matter on Coral Reefs

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.
  • Lenard Leslie Taylor

    Awesome pictures, truly paradise.

  • John Mckenzie

    Survivors of a shipwreck on Vatuvara Island 100s of years ago arrived in a small longboat in the lagoon at Gnau Island trying to trade food for others left behind possibly, with what turned out 100 years later to be silver or gold coins,
    They were killed as they were thought ghosts and the chief ordered the coin thrown in the lagoon where the odd one were found again in the lifetime memory of old men in the 1970s.
    This was told to me through the then chiefs daughter about 1975 on Gnau Island. Much Karva was drunk but it came out of the blue. May be of interest. An acquaintance , a local white and my cousin spent 2 weeks on the Island Vatuvara looking. With no skill, no magnetometer, no metal detectors, no knowledge of geology to pick historical storm changes, no areas survey with balcony cameras ( today drones).
    Interesting area if you have the money as everything has to be carried in.
    John Mac

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media