The next landfall for us after Palmerston is a small self-governing island called Niue, however, this was not the next place we set anchor! En route to Niue is a little submerged atoll with no land at all known as Beveridge Reef. This atoll is very similar to the Tuamotus in structure and formation – with an external reef, a lagoon in the centre and a pass to allow us to enter…………… just no land. At all. Not even a rock poking its head above the surface. This didn’t deter us in the slightest however, and as the inside of the atoll contained a convenient sandy shelf only 11 feet deep, we decided it was a perfect place to anchor. Alex was keen to see what it felt like to be anchored in the middle of the ocean and I was keen to do fish and coral surveys in a part of the world with minimal human interference. I had a little bit of trepidation about surveying this particular reef as the sharks have a reputation of being somewhat aggressive and dangerous. The atoll is home to an abundance of gray reef sharks and one of the recorded attacks in the ‘official world shark attack register’ is from this particular reef. In fact, one of our good friends (Josh from s/v Maistral) was anchored near us and had a close encounter one afternoon when he was out spear fishing. After catching a small jack an inquisitive shark came up to him, mouth wide open and attempted a number of times to steal his well earned fish. After seeing the sharks teeth more times than he cared for, Josh decided to forfeit his fish to the shark in the hope that it would then leave him alone. Big mistake! The shark instantly gobbled the fish up and in the process attracted two more even larger sharks. All three sharks then started to aggressively circle around Josh less than 30cm from him, touching their bodies against his. As if that wasn’t scary enough, he was all by himself and his boat was a good 50m swim away! Despite punching the shark’s faces a few times and jabbing them with his spear they still persisted next to him until he was only 10 feet from his boat. Luckily he made it with no loss of life or limbs! Note to self – no spear fishing in isolated reefs! The sharks don’t appear to have developed any fear of humans at all.
Since the very beginning of our voyage I’ve been trying my best to do species and abundance surveys for the fish that occupy the reefs in the islands of the Pacific and also do coral bleaching assessments to evaluate the health of the reefs. As an ecologist I wanted to use this voyage as a means of diversifying my knowledge and to learn more about marine ecology. Not only does it keep me active, but it’s a good way to develop my own skills and who knows, maybe those skills will come in handy one day when looking for work. The main thing is that it’s contributing to conservation and improving data about an area of the world that’s seldom surveyed – and, of course, I absolutely love doing it.
I didn’t want to let Josh’s experience put me off doing my survey at Beveridge. I had been looking forward to it for months and as I wasn’t planning on spear fishing I thought it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Besides, I took Alex with me as my own personal body guard. After two surveys, one in the shallows near the barrier reef and another in the 40 foot deep lagoon with scattered coral heads, it became clear that there were a lot of gray reef sharks and not a whole lot of large reef fish for them to eat. Many of the fish appeared to be juveniles and any fully grown adults were usually small by nature, so not a whole lot of prey available and perhaps this explains their desperation for Josh’s fish! I got my surveys done without any harm, although we counted over 10 grey reef sharks during our scuba dive and many were very inquisitive. Although they never acted aggressively towards us, many came much closer than I was comfortable with. Luckily Alex was always right next to me keeping a beady eye on them ready to jump to my defence if needed – my hero!
I don’t want to give the wrong impression about sharks. While the ones at Beveridge were unusually inquisitive and even aggressive towards our spear-fishing friend, we have swum with literally hundreds of sharks, perhaps a thousand, and have never once experienced overly aggressive behaviour ourselves. With very few exceptions every shark attack on record is a case of mistaken identity (eg. The propeller of our dinghy – see earlier post from Nuku Hiva, Marquesas) or are associated with humans putting large amounts of blood into the water through fishing activity. Sharks are a beautiful and exciting feature whenever they are encountered on a dive or snorkel, and their presence is an excellent indicator of a healthy reef ecosystem. The reefs of the tropical Pacific are some of the most healthy and diverse in the world. The fish and others creatures we encounter are numerous, colourful and diverse – the variety of life is just amazing and the species so unusual it’s like being on an alien planet. Snorkelling and diving around coral reefs is an absolutely fabulous experience that’s not to be missed.
I’ve added a few extra pages to the website which might be useful to other cruisers wanting to see what fish they are encountering as they explore their local coral reefs. I’ve collated my photo collection and created a small fish ID guide which I will continue to add to as we progress through our voyage which you can see here. I would highly recommend doing a structured survey of the reef when out snorkelling or scuba diving. They’re a lot of fun, very easy to do and you can learn a great deal about the reef habitat and the weird and wonderful species living within it. The data can then be submitted to conservation organisations where it can be used to benefit the environment. If you’re interested in learning how to do this, see here for instructions on how to do fish surveys and here for instructions on how to do coral bleaching assessments.