New Caledonia’s Living Reef


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.


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.


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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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

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17 thoughts on “New Caledonia’s Living Reef

  1. What a sad contrast between land and sea. As always, you have shared splendid photos of marine life and allowed us to enjoy what you are experiencing. I mentioned your name and your adventure when speaking with a group last evening. Thank you for the uplifting stories and images which are most appreciated during these tumultuous days in America. Safe sailing, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What happens on land will always affect the sea. Erosion and effluent can be controlled. There is an awareness. That’s a start. I just read that in tiny Vanuatu one-use plastic bags have been banned. Thank you for following, Michael.


  2. A great story and pictures on New Caledonia. If he is still around, you may have an opportunity to swim with a dugong at Port Resolution in Tanna.Love, Dad


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Jeffrey – its been so fun keeping tabs on your adventures the last couple months. Thank you so much for sharing not only beautiful images, but thoughtful words about some of the experiences you have been able to have.

    Do you have any information anywhere on what you are using for your photography set up? Particularly what underwater housing and flash system you are using? I’m a photographer saving to go cruising, and have no experience shooting under water but hope to while underway. Your images are so rich and I’d love to know more about your capture & editing process if you don’t mind!

    Also, just followed you on instagram! Looking forward to seeing more regular photos there… thanks and safe travels.

    // Phil


    • Hi Phil thank you for your kind words about Flying Fish. The writing and photography is a big part of this journey for me. I hope it will serve as my memory once the gray matter begins to deteriorate. In a nutshell, (the cameras, not the gray matter 🙂 I use the full format Nikon D810, when I can keep it dry. I also use my iPhone 8 camera, especially for videos. I am constantly astonished at the quality of image from that camera, and it’s not even the most recent version. I have a few GoPros mounted with remotes around the boat to capture semi-candid images when I am underway in wet conditions. But underwater things couldn’t be simpler. I free dive with an Olympus TG-5. It is a perfect camera. It shoots RAW and at reasonably higher resolution (I have to reduce the size of the image for WordPress and Instagram). With a steady hand, I can shoot close ups, even macro. The built in flash has enough punch to add fill light on an overcast day. Best of all it is always ready to go. I keep two of them in my pockets. One caveat, if you are a SCUBA diver going deep you will need a professional camera in a housing and stronger strobes. But for my use this little camera is just what I need.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Whoa! So cool. I would have not guessed those underwater images are from an Olympus TG-5. I smell a potential sponsorship of your journey here if they catch wind of some of these… ; ) Your editing and treatment of those RAW files is something spectacular in and of itself and I would have thought that some of those were taken with a macro b/c of all the detail. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work! Can’t wait for the next post…


    • Thank you, Renard. It is fascinating to learn about the places Flying Fish takes me. It’s like going to school, in a good way! It is an exercise for my mind and a great way to remember where I have been and what I have seen.

      Liked by 1 person

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