South Pacific skeletonsSuva, Fiji: Flying south in a small plane from the Suva, the capital of Fiji, we could see deep into the ocean. We were heading for the island of Kadavu in early April, and we gazed down on waters of rich indigo and blue and the pale greens and browns of the coral reefs. But we were suddenly shocked as we edged closer to our island destination at the sight of patches of stark white - the skeletal colour that meant coral bleaching.
We had heard a week earlier that very warm water currents had moved across from Australia into the Pacific. Sea temperatures had reached an unprecedented 31 degrees Celsius in February and March, and this warming trend seemed to be continuing into April. Simon Foale, based in the conservation organization's WWF Solomon Islands office on the island of Gizo, had reported coral bleaching in the vicinity, estimating that roughly 20 per cent of the affected corals he had seen were already dead or partly dead.
But hearing about coral bleaching and seeing it are two very different things. When the three of us from WWF Fiji arrived in Kadavu - Etika Rupeni, Fiji project officer, Peter Blumel, communications officer, and myself - we piled into a boat and headed north to the site of our marine protected area project. As the boat skimmed across the waters we were silent as we saw that most of the corals close to the surface were showing signs of bleaching - their former blues, reds and yellows had been replaced by an almost artificial white.
Marine biologists say coral bleaching occurs when reefs are stressed by external factors, especially excessively warm water. When the coral goes into stress, it expels the algae living inside it. These algae, called zooxanthellae, enable the coral to turn light from the sun into energy and they help provide the vivid colours that make coral reefs so famous. Where bleaching has occurred elsewhere, many of the corals have died completely. Green algae grow over them - heralding the end of up to 200 years of healthy growth. Fish populations are then forced to move in search of healthier reefs.
A "hot spot" of very warm ocean water has been hovering around the South Pacific, and besides the Solomon Islands to our north, we have also received reports of coral bleaching from WWF offices in the Cook Islands (east of Fiji) and Papua New Guinea. Even in April, when temperatures normally start to cool down, sea temperatures around Fiji were still up around 29 to 30 degrees.
As I pulled on my fins and checked my air tank I was excited at the prospect of diving, but afraid of what I might see. As I started to descend, I could already see evidence of bleaching. Most of the hard corals around me � possibly 80-90 per cent - and some of the soft corals were showing signs of bleaching. The corals normally noticeable for their rich, deep colours were like skeleton bones.
Some corals in the first stages of bleaching were still vivid in colour but the colours were exaggerated, almost bizarre. Strangely, lilacs, intense yellows and electric blues are the forerunner of the whitening to follow. The reef around Kadavu was even more beautiful than usual, but this is a beauty you never want to see.
I was overwhelmed by a great sadness as I thought how governments continue to allow excessive emission levels of carbon dioxide, even though they know this causes global warming. Most climate scientists agree that this cannot be the result of natural processes, yet we continue our unsustainable lifestyles and hot spots like this one in the South Pacific are becoming more and more common.
*Elisabeth Mealey is a Press Officer with the WWF South Pacific Programme based in Suva, Fiji