New Caledonia’s Living Reef

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Like a galaxy of muti-hued stars, these coral polyps thrive on the reef in New Caledonia’s Natural Park of the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

I welcome visitors when I am sailing alone, even when those visitors are a curious pair of white tip reef sharks. They seem fascinated with the flash of my underwater camera. Sharks, being the alpha predators, always seem fearless — until they threatened by man, particularly those in this hemisphere who want to cut off their fins to make a bowl of soup. These white tips are a kinder, gentler predator. They seem to know that in this lagoon food is plentiful and they can swim without threat.

New Caledonia is internationally renowned for its exceptional natural beauty, rich biodiversity, and remarkable coral reefs. The Natural Park of the Coral Sea protects 502,000 square miles of the southwest Pacific islands. It is sanctuary for sharks, whales and turtles. New Caledonia is also home to one of the world’s largest populations of dugong, the last remaining marine mammal on earth that eats strictly plants. These creatures live in a lagoon circled by an epic 618-mile long coral reef. To summarize the superlatives, this tiny, French semiautonomous territory of New Caledonia boasts one of the largest nature reserve on earth.

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All images are of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Paradoxically, New Caledonia’s maritime sanctuary is measured against the country’s unremarkable environmental record on land. As I swim with the sharks and turtles and tropical fish over the shallow coral reef inside the lagoon at Ilot Maître, it is possible to look back at the mainland and see the scars of strip mining. New Caledonia has one of the largest economies in the South Pacific. It is home to a quarter of the world’s known nickel reserves. The foreign dollars earned from nickel mining and smelting account for more than 90% of all exports. It explains the affluence of New Caledonia when compared to its neighbors in the South Pacific. But the wealth has come at a price. Strip mining in the 1970s turned once lush valleys rust red in color and sliced off entire mountaintops. Mining techniques and regulations have improved since then but in the past decade there have still been several serious leaks of acidic effluent flowing directly into this UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are other challenges to this pristine maritime environment. Despite there being literally thousands of boats moored in several modern marinas in New Caledonia, there are few if any functioning sanitary pump out stations in the entire country. Most sewage goes directly into the water. Enforcing the sanctuary’s well-intentioned marine regulations in an area twice the size of Texas is hardly possible with the limited resources here to police it.

Tourism is underdeveloped in New Caledonia with a little more than 100,000 visitors a year, compared to neighboring Fiji where tourism numbers are approaching 900,000 annually. This seems surprising considering the attraction of New Caledonia’s unique natural habitat of 3,700 species of plants, 114 species of birds and 143 species of reptiles. Over 80% of these species are found nowhere else on earth. Its lagoon is a thriving nursery for 25 kinds of marine mammals (including dugongs and humpback whales), 48 species of shark and five different marine turtles.

New Caledonia is proud of its 2019 tourism advertising campaign titled, “Feel The Pulse Of New Cal.” That pulse is clearly in the natural habitat of this island with its spectacular lagoon. Nature is the carotid artery, the life blood of New Caledonia. At some point in the future, as the nickel and other minerals in the land are depleted, the marine environment will be what sustains this beautiful island.

Follow the initiative of groups like Conversation International and the Pew Trust that focus on New Caledonia’s marine environment.

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A white tip reef shark passes by to welcome Flying Fish to the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

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To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

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A New Neighbor in Nouméa

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HMB Endeavour, an exact replica of the first ship Capt. James Cook commanded when he charted the Pacific, arrived in Nouméa, New Caledonia this week after having twice circumnavigated the globe. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Walking along the wide planked decks of the Endeavour replica, one has the sense of treading two worlds.

There is this vessel, a working reproduction that recently arrived in Nouméa, a tall ship that has twice navigated the globe. And then there is the ship she represents, the HMS Endeavour, launched more than 250 years ago that carried Capt. James Cook and a crew of 94 on an epic voyage of discovery around the world. 

Cook departed England in 1768, ordered to the South Seas to observe the Transit of Venus and to secretly search for the fabled Great Southern Continent (Terra Australis Incognita). The HMS Endeavour rounded Cape Horn east to west against the Roaring Forties and then sailed into the Pacific bound for Tahiti. Cook returned to England by way of South Africa after two years and 11 months, having travelled some 30,000 miles and charted over 5,000 miles of coastline.

“Cook not only redrew the map of the world, creating a picture of the globe much like the one we know today” writes historian Tony Horwitz, “he also transformed the West’s image of nature and man.”

The replica of Cook’s ship is no tourist boat. Construction of the Endeavour replica began in Australia in 1988 and the ship was launched 5 years later. Since her commissioning she has sailed over 170,000 nautical miles–more than five times the distance sailed by James Cook on the original HMS Endeavour.

The Endeavour replica was built using surveys and plans archived by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. The timbers are of jarrah, a West Australian hardwood with spars from old-growth Douglas fir. The ship’s traditional iron fittings, including lanterns and the large iron firehearth, were handmade in a specially installed blacksmith shop. Traditional manila was used for the standing rigging, handmade on a 140-year-old ropewalk to the exact specifications of the original rope. The necessary concessions to the 21st century–engines, generators, an electric galley, showers, and safety equipment–are all hidden away in the cargo hold where Cook stored his ship’s provisions.

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In over 200 voyages aboard the Endeavour replica some 8,000 men and women have been able to experience 18th-century seamanship and see how Cook and his men lived. Hundreds of others have joined day sails in harbors and rivers around the world, and many more have worked as guides and volunteers.

With Flying Fish currently undergoing repairs in Nouméa, I was invited by Shipping Agent Chloé Morin to help a group of fourth graders from Nouméa’s Paul Duboisé elementary school tour the Endeavour replica. The children were wide-eyed at the 100-foot, 400-ton ship. The Endeavour was built for endurance, not speed or comfort. It  bluff-bowed and wide beamed with an average sailing speed of 2.5 knots. The ship has been described (unkindly) by one historian as “A cross between a clog and a coffin.”

Endeavour’s Master John Dikkenberg, showed off his ship with enthusiasm to the children. The two areas that most fascinated the kids, Capt. Dikkenberg said, were the sitting boards hanging outboard with holes in them used during the Cook era as toilets (from which one unfortunate seaman plummeted into the ocean while underway), and the flogging rack. “Were sailors really whipped?” one young girl asked Capt. Dikkenberg. “With a cat o’ nine tails,” he replied, and he invited a boy to spread eagle on the rack, much to the delight of his fellow students.

Capt. James Cook’s mission was a voyage of science and discovery, and his legacy continues in the voyages of the Endeavour replica. Who knows in which student this spark of adventure may eventually alight. I know as the passage of Flying Fish crosses the wake of both Endeavours that my adventure is greater for having known their stories.

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The rig of the HMB Endeavour carries over 10,000 square feet of canvas with 17 sails. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Please subscribe at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new post, and please share this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish

To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

For current weather along the route click here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

All rights reserved