Send in the Clowns


A Fire clownfish is hiding in plain sight on the Pango Point Reef in Vanuatu. These remarkable fish have developed a symbiotic relationship with anemone and an immunity to their toxic sting. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas

How can a person not smile when in the company of clownfish?

Flying Fish is on the island of Efate in Vanuatu making final preparations for a departure to Australia and points west. I like to make my goodbyes not only to those I have met onshore but also to my friends living underwater.

As I make a final dive on the Pango Point reef, clownfish blossom all around me in their beds of anemone. These clownfish are not here because of baited handouts, as in many tourist-oriented dive sites. They are here because they are survivors having lived through a series of destructive cyclones and the fallout from a Hollywood cartoon character.

All anemone fish, including clownfish, are hermaphrodites. They are born male until the most assertive fish transforms sexually to become female. They make their nests in clusters of anemones existing in a symbiotic relationship that is both practical and sensual. Clownfish acclimate to the venom of anemones after a gentle and prolonged period of touching the sinuous tentacles of the beautiful but predatory anemone. The touch of the anemone generates a protective mucus layer on clownfish that shields them from nematocysts, the harpoon-like stingers on the anemone’s tentacles.

Anemone protect clownfish from all underwater predators, except for those that wear dive gear and net them in the wild for captivity in aquariums.

A surviving population of Vanuatu’s clownfish. All images © Jeffrey Cardenas

After the Academy Award winning blockbuster Finding Nemo was released in 2003 (with, ironically, a pro-conservation message) the worldwide aquarium demand for wild clownfish tripled. Vanuatu was at the epicenter of an out-of-control harvest of clownfish.

By 2006, according to a report by the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries, some 200,000 fish and other marine creatures were being annually exported from the country. The four species of anenome fish in Vanuatu were classified within the archipelago’s top 10 most exported species

At the time, a US-owned company, Sustainable Reef Suppliers Ltd, was fishing the waters around Vanuatu’s main island of Efate for the aquarium market. They were shipping nearly “8,000 wild animals a month from the capital, Port Vila,” according to David Fickling, reporting in the international edition of The Guardian. Clownfish were selling in US and Australian wholesale markets for more than $10 each. According to the report, Vanuatu dive operators said that aquarium firms had over-fished several popular scuba sites, including Eretoka Island where they claim 38,000 fish were taken within one month.

Recognizing that their resource was being ravaged by foreigners, the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries in 2008 set up the Marine Aquarium Trade Management Plan. The Plan limits exporters to only four operators, two of which must be Ni-Vanuatu residents. A total annual catch quota allocation of 12,250 fish was established for Efate. The Plan, however, rewarded Sustainable Reef Suppliers, Ltd with 80% of that allocation.

Not much can be found about the tropical fish exporting company Sustainable Reef Suppliers. There are no business or phone listings for the company in Port Vila directories. Their last Facebook post was two years ago saying, “We suffered through 2 cyclones… This has left us unsettled for potential conditions years forward. We are looking forward to getting caught up and back better than ever.”

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the global value of the marine ornamental trade is $330 million USD a year and it supplies an estimated 2 million people worldwide keeping marine aquaria. Clownfish make up 43% of the global marine ornamental trade. Some 25% of those clownfish are bred in captivity–a positive step–but the majority are still captured from the wild, decreasing clownfish densities in exploited areas like Vanuatu.

Sadly, according to the Aquarium Welfare Association (AWA), many people buy clownfish without knowing how to properly care for them. According to the AWA, hundreds of children, after seeing Finding Nemo and inspired by a line in the movie, flushed their clownfish down the toilet in the hope of setting them free.

Nemo’s cartoon friend Dory, a blue tang, probably said it best: “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.”

An Orange-Fin clownfish in Vanuatu tenatiously leaves her nest to confront a diver with a camera. Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas


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The Happiest People on Earth

Tanna Sheila cooking

In the bush village of Enkahi under the Mount Yasur volcano on the island of Tanna, Sheila Willie prepares a meal of roots and boiled bananas over an indoor fire. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

A group called the New Economics Foundation (NEF) rates the happiness of human beings worldwide. Several years ago they concluded that the small Melanesian island nation of Vanuatu had the happiest people on earth.

Flying Fish was introduced to the Ni-Vanuatu people at Port Resolution on the island of Tanna. My welcome was tumultuous. A pack of schoolboys descended onto the beach laughing, singing, jumping, and talking all at once.

“Where you from? Why is your hair white? Where is your wife? What is in your bag? Want a coconut?”

After a while the boys’ school teacher, Willie Jila, 33, appeared and brought order to the joyous melee. “They have too much energy in the classroom,” he says in perfect English. To settle them down he sent the kids to the beach to fill sandbags to be used in the village for construction and for barriers against sea level rise. I help load the sandbags and then together we all walk to the village.

“What is the most important lesson you teach these children?” I ask Willie Jila. Without hesitation he responds, “I teach them to remember who they are, and who their father’s fathers were.” He said there are nearly 100 children in the tiny Port Resolution village and they all attend school. “The most important thing I can teach them,” Willie Jila says, “is not to forget their heritage.”

The Ni-Vanuatu are the indiginous Melanesian population of 83 islands in the Republic of Vanuatu. Many of these islands were formed by volcanoes, others by the buildup of coral. The island chain was previously called the New Hebrides, named like so many other South Pacific islands by Capt. James Cook who sailed into Port Resolution 245 years ago. The country gained independence from Britain and France in 1980. Vanuatu is probably best known to Americans as the setting for James Michener’s novel Tales of the South Pacific

Despite the importance the Ni-Vanuatu place on maintaining their traditional culture in the face of Western influences, Willie Jila invites me to his home in the bush for a traditional meal prepared by his wife Sheila. The role of women varies among the Ni-Vanuatu. In some areas, men are in charge. In others, especially parts of Espiritu Santo and Efate, women have more power. In these societies, descent is traced through the female side of the family. For the rural Ni-Vanuatu, the choice of a marriage partner is determined by family. The marriage itself is usually accompanied by an exchange of gifts, including woven mats and pigs. Women are often the main food producers. With this invitation to their home Willie and Sheila ask for nothing other than the opportunity to talk with a person who’s culture is so radically different from their own.

Over one hundred distinct languages are spoken in Vanuatu. English and French are the official languages, a result of the countries’ colonial past. Bislama, a pidgin-English, is the common language spoken by nearly all Ni-Vanuatu (How are you? / Yu oraet?The main religion of the Ni-Vanuatu is Christianity. Still, many Ni-Vanuatu practice traditional ceremonies including ritual dancing and the drinking of kava which are considered pagan by some church authorities. 

Tradition is an essential part of life here. Some Ni-Vanuatu practice male initiation, which usually involves circumcision, Willie Jila said. “Do the boys cry?” I ask. Yes, he says, but a boy who refuses to undergo circumcision may not be considered an adult man. Following the ritual, a young man wears a cover of braided fibers over his genitals. Tradition dictates other interpersonal relations among the Ni-Vanuatu. For example, in some communities there is a strict rule that brothers and sisters must avoid each other at a certain age. After reaching adolescence, they are not permitted to speak to each other, or even to be in the same place. In these communities, brothers and sisters must communicate through a young girl who acts as a go-between.

Willie and Sheila’s home, which they share with their young daughter Nahio, is in a family community called Enkahi located deep in the Tanna bush under the active volcano Mt. Yasur. It is a 45-minute walk from the Port Resolution village along a steep and narrow dirt pathway. My guide to the village is a young boy named Kennedy. He moves with quick grace as he leads me up a steep ascent into the bush. He occasionally turns around to say, “Are you okay, sir? Can I help you, sir?”

Sheila welcomes me to Enkahi with a wide smile. “Welcome to my home,” she says. “I think it must be different from your home.”

In cities, Ni-Vanuatu live in the style of western nations; houses, apartments, and condominiums. Rural housing such as this one at Enkahi includes traditional elements, such as woven bamboo walls and dirt floors with thatched roofs. There is no electricity at Enkahi but, more importantly, there is no fresh water either. Wells were dug some time ago but they have gone dry. There are no springs. A small creek several kilometers aways flows from the direction of the volcano but the water is “poisonous” Sheila says, and only drinkable if it is boiled for a long time. Willie’s family must hand-carry heavy jugs of water from Port Resolution, up the mountainside to their homes.

Most island families grow food in their gardens, and food shortages are rare. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes, plantains, and sweet potatoes are abundant through much of the year. Coconuts are used to flavor many dishes. Food is usually cooked using hot stones or by boiling and steaming over open fires.

Sheila starts an indoor cooking fire in her hut and puts some of her precious water into a smoke-blackened pot. There are pigs and chickens in the village but eating them is reserved for special occasions like circumcision, which is not happening today. She instead prepares namambe, a delicious seed that tastes like a chestnut, and boiled banana with wailu root. She asks me to grate a couple of coconuts which she then squeezes between her bare hands to make coconut cream. She garnishes the food with a flourish, sprinkling it with green onions from her garden. We hold each other’s hand and give thanks. I feel honored to share this meal.

Willie Jila arrives after the meal has ended and receives a few sharp words from his wife (as would happen in any culture, in any part of the world, when a spouse is late for supper.) He explains that he is building a stronger house in the bush, one more capable of standing up to storms like Cyclone Pam which devastated these islands four years ago. He has been shoveling coral rock for hours to make a foundation for the new home. He is thirsty. He has carried five gallons of water back to Enkahi, holding the jug aloft like a trophy.

The British think-tank NEF which has created the Happiness Index recognizes that a country’s well-being does not come simply from consumer-driven goals.  Vanuatu has no military (Ni-Vanuatu like to say, “Our culture is our strength”), and the GDP per capita is more than twenty times smaller than neighbouring Australia. The country has been consistently democratic and peaceful despite its immense cultural diversity. Ni-Vanuatu in tight-knit social communities like Enkahi meet often to discuss family matters from conflict resolution to ceremonial planning. These social meetings, according to NEF, are a key factor contributing to Vanuatu’s high level of well-being.

Vanuatu also rated high in the world index for its use of renewable energy from hydropower, wind, solar, and coconut bio-fuel. In 2011, according to data from the World Bank, 34% of the energy Vanuatu consumed came from these renewables. The country aims to be completely powered by renewable energy by 2030. Earlier this year Vanuatu banned all single-use plastic bags and drinking straws.

Willie and his wife Shelia don’t need a happiness index to define their lives. Vanuatu is has a rich Melanesian culture full of tradition, magic and ritual, and love of family. Ni-Vanuatu goals are immediate and personal. They want clean water to drink and stable weather for their crops to flourish. They want their children to be healthy and to remember the traditions of their ancestors. Vanuatu’s ranking in the index slipped recently (Costa Rica is now ranked first) but if the radiance of the smiles and the music in the laughter of the Ni-Vanuatu is any indication I’d still consider them the happiest people on earth.


The Landing at Erramanga PAI4086

The Ni-Vanuatu were not always so happy to receive guests, especially when the visitors arrived bearing guns. This engraving, after a drawing by artist William Hodges, comes from the official account of Capt. James Cook’s second voyage and his landing on the Vanuatu island of Erromango. © Image in public domain.


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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

The Last Voyage of Blue Gold

Efate Blue

Super Yacht Blue Gold was grounded in 2015 during Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. She is still abandoned on a remote beach and islanders say the wreck is a hazard causing damage to the reef and the environment. They want it removed. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Blue Gold was once the flagship of Italy’s prestigious Benetti Group. This 165-foot three-deck super yacht had every luxury imaginable. When it was built in 1982, Blue Gold was the largest sailing yacht to come out of the Benetti shipyard. It had accommodations for up to 12 guests, a master suite on the main deck, an office with video conferencing and internet facilities — and, reflecting her name, there was gold trim throughout.

Then, on Friday the 13th of March, 2015, Cyclone Pam ripped through the islands of Vanuatu. The storm caused unprecedented devastation. Classified as Category 5, Port Vila recorded wind speeds of 116 knots gusting to 185 knots. The anchors on Blue Gold dragged. When the wind stopped the yacht was lying wrecked in a bed of pristine coral near the Sunae village on the island of Moso.

According to the database SuperYacht, Blue Gold was owned by Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, a Dutch investor. In the 1980’s he bought bankrupt companies and turned them around to profitability. In 1985, he acquired the Royal Begemann Group and it grew into a company with 140 subsidiaries and a value of $1.35 billion. Van den Nieuwenhuyzen was accused of insider trading. In 2006, he was convicted of fraud.

Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen sailed Blue Gold to the South Pacific but in 2012 when the yacht arrived in Port Vila it was seized by the Vanuatu government for unpaid taxes, according to a report in the Vanuatu Daily Post.

Today Blue Gold lies abandoned on a remote shoreline in Vanuatu. The yacht has not been vandalized or looted. The chiefs and villagers of Moso Island have asked the Government, through Efate Rural Member of Parliament Gillion William, to remove Blue Gold from their reef, according to the Daily Post. The islanders say the ship is a hazard and causing damage to the reef and the environment. They want it out of their backyard.

The parliment minister told the newspaper that the Department of Ports and Harbour, has been working on a resolution. “They had several meetings with the landowners and council of chiefs, (in) which they attempted to address the issue,” he said. “Unfortunately, the current legislation has some loopholes. The responsibility does not lie with the government, it lies solely on the owner of the vessel. We are working on this,” according to the report.

In the meantime life on Moso Island is simple and self-sufficient. Islanders fish from traditional dugout outrigger canoes. Villagers take their produce some 20 miles overland to sell in the markets of Port Vila. There are no roads or cars on Moso. Access is via banana boat. The Ni-Vanuatu villagers are often described as the happiest people on earth, always laughing and smiling. But it must test the limits of their good humor that the view from the tiny village of Sunae (population about 40) is obscured by the wreckage of this mega yacht, of which neither the ship’s owner, their insurance company, or the government seems inclined to take responsibility. 

Efate Blue

Blue Gold wrecked on an Moso Island where islanders work and travel in hand handcarved dugout canoes. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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