Thursday, April 9, 2009

#13: Makogai Village visit, 2009

Guest Post by Bruce Thayer

The people of Makogai

I wanted to share a few of my thoughts regarding our special village visit to the island of Makogai, but first a disclaimer and a compliment.

During the recent Joint Aquarium Fiji expedition, I saw the efforts of those dedicated bloggers among us, putting aside personal time and sleep to share their Fiji experiences, both wet and dry. In real time, they shared their joy. Today, I have the luxury of time without that real time sacrifice.

Also, this is the first dive trip in over ten years that I have gone below to 'blow bubbles' without a camera of some kind in my hands. I did watch the skillful actions of those who did venture below with photo gear, and I can tell you how hard it is to bring good images back to the surface.

So, a tip of my fins to the bloggers who have gone before, and the SCUBA-endowed photographers, whose dedication and generosity have already been displayed on this blog.

Makogai Village visit, 2009
Makogai island is unique as a former leper colony, and much more. The 12-foot-tall concrete steps to the old hospital still remain, as does the original cemetery.

The island is the unlikely site of the South Pacific's oldest outdoor movie theater. Dating to 1911, the concrete projection building (above) overlooks a grassy 'theater,' having projected movies onto a solid concrete wall.

The building wall and the almost 100-year-old Lister Company electricity generator (above) remain to this day. In today's world of planned obsolescence, and expendability, I am impressed beyond belief that this generator still works.

Chief Watson (above), like that British Lister generator, is a force to be reckoned with. He recognizes that the health of his island and its people are intimately connected to the health of the surrounding coral reefs. His vision led him to start a series of reef initiatives to bolster reef health and diversity.

Serving Kava to guests (left) Steve Webster of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (right)

In conjunction with the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries and Forests, Chief Watson launched aquaculture projects including tridacna (giant) clam rearing pens, a hawksbill sea turtle farm, coral propagation, and fish grow-out facilities. The intent was to release these species onto surrounding reefs, rather than to harvest them commercially. In this way, the island acts as a kind of marine reserve that replenishes ocean species.

Connecting with the village children

Other chiefs have succumbed to officially or unofficially selling commercial fishing rights--or not paying attention at all to marine encroachers, resulting in the decimation of top of the food chain species, notably sharks and other pelagics. Although our Nai’a hosts carefully showcase our Joint Aquarium expedition the very best that Fiji has to offer (wonderful reefs indeed). Others around the globe, including many of the unseen and unprotected reefs are in various stages of decline.

Fiji smiles are legendary for their all-embracing warnth. The Makogai children are exemplars that bring me into the immediate moment, and to joy. What a gift that is. They are everychild, and they are wonderful. Chief Watson recognizes that, as well as the lure of the big city (Suva) to island children. He is working hard to keep the children on the island and out of Suva, and is focused on preserving their childhood, education, and their natural heritage. In no small part, Makogai's research and repopulation projects were intended to provide a platform for learning, challenge, and higher purpose, -a future for the island's children.

Oh, you've noticed I refer to the projects in past tense. For our most recent visit, they were 'on hold' (dead). The current Fijian government (outcome of the recent coup) has for one reason or another suspended deliveries of diesel fuel to Makogai, essential to run the water pumps supporting the island's marine enterprises.

Up close and passionate

It is not known whether the fuel was suspended for budgetary reasons, political, or due to bureaucratic error. Attempts are being made to get to the source of the problem in hopes of restoring the flow before the project's training and confidence are totally lost.

Best Bubbles -till next time,

Bruce Thayer
Iowa City, IA
Unofficial Dive Capital of the World

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