Massive corals, like this 6 meter sphere of Porites, grow between 5 to 10mm per year making this one somewhere between 600 to 1200 years old. It appears to be in excellent health although many of the other corals inhabiting this patch reef in Ilot Mato's inner lagoon are showing clear signs of distress. When I first saw this massive coral head some twenty years ago there were a large number of fish of various species making their home under and around the colony. Over the years, the population of fish has steadily declined - decimated by spear-fishing enthusiasts.
In 1970, I was the lead scientist investigating coral reef ecology during one of the scientific missions in the Tektite II underwater habitat program. We spent up to 8 hours a day diving on the coral reefs surrounding the habitat in the Virgin Islands. One day when taking close-up photographs of coral polyps I saw - and photographed - a coral polyp eating a fish faecal pellet. I immediately realized that fish droppings, like bird droppings, were a rich source of phosphates and nitrates - perfect fertilizers for the zooxanthellae symbiotes that make up 2/3 of the tissue weight of most reef building corals. During my 30 day stay in the underwater habitat I took hundreds of photos of corals eating fish droppings and followed the schooling reef fish out onto the grass flats at night and watched them return to their places on the reef during the day where they digested their night's catch and dropped fertilizers onto the corals. I saw this as a very important part of coral reef development and wrote about it in Scientists in the Sea (Miller et. al. 1972) and Living Corals (Faulkner and Chesher 1979). Judy Myer and Eric Schultz, then at the University of Georgia, expanded on these early observations, gathering very convincing data to prove corals grow faster and have more symbiotic algae in their tissues when fish schools are present. Other researchers have since conducted population studies of coral reef fish showing that corals suffer more diseases and decrease in abundance when people overfish an area.
There are still fish around the patch reef where I took this underwater panorama, but very few of the larger ones; the ones people spear. So I took this underwater sphere image of this ancient creature, doing my level best to give you a little of "wow" that I feel when I look at it; an appreciation of the hundreds of years it has lived right here in this sheltered inner lagoon in New Caledonia. It was growing right where you see it in this image long, long before humans had the technological capability of diving underwater and seeing it at all. It is a great pity I can't show you the schools of fish that lived in association with this coral - the ones I saw only a paultry two decades ago. Coral reefs where visitors don't shoot the fish look much different to this image. Have a look at a similar patch reef in a protected marine sanctuary to see what a healthy coral reef fish population looks like.
So the objective of this image is to try to share with you a feeling of "wow" at the size and age of this giant of the sea leading to a sad "oh no" as you notice the absense of the larger fish that support the long term health of this creature. My hope is that it might possibly prevent some of you who look at this image from spearing everything that swims next time you go for a snorkel - anywhere.
By the way, the diver with his fins towards the camera is Frank Taylor, another 360Cities.net sphere photographer who is sailing around the world providing images and information for Google Earth aboard the Catamaran Tahina. Frank is also the author of the famous Google Earth Blog.
New Caledonia is the closest South Pacific Island to Australia and New Zealand. It is a French Territory and although the official language is French the culture is a blend of Melanesian, European, Polynesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian, and more. There is one large mountainous island called Grande Terre and 6 smaller islands - the three Loyalty Islands, Belep and the Isle of Pines.The islands are remarkably unpopulated and there are vast areas of wilderness. There are hundreds of kilometers of walking treks, camp grounds, more than 42 parks and reserves, and crystal clear rivers with sparkling waterfalls. Almost one third of the population is located in the capital city of Noumea. Nickel mining is the primary industry and is the major contributor to the high standard of living in the country. Grande Terre is surrounded by the second largest barrier reef in the world and the protected lagoon created by this barrier reef is the largest in the world. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008, the lagoon is 24,000 square kilometers and supports a diverse and luxuriant fauna of fish and invertebrates.The vibrant, clear and rich colors are one of the first things that visitors notice when they arrive. Noumea has a complete range of hotels, resorts, restaurants, and activities to welcome visitors.