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.
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.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019
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