TWENTY years ago villagers of Waitabu on the north eastern coast of Taveuni would never a give a second thought about their reefs or what dwelled on their shores. They walked on the reefs breaking the corals and took home whatever they could eat no matter how small.
There was heavy seaweed growth because there was no more fish to feed on it.
The state of the Waitabu Village coast was so pathetic that at first sight, Helen Sykes, a marine ecologist, had no hope it could return to its natural state and refused when approached by the community to set up a marine protected area (MPA) or tabu on their fishing ground. But with the community's continual persistence Ms Sykes agreed.
As the project began, the community was constantly reminded that once the tabu was in place, they were to respect it. They were taught not to disturb the area by taking boats through the MPA or break any corals or take anything out whether it be fish, invertebrates or any dead coral. They were also not allowed to use poles when sailing across the tabu area or anchor their boats as it would damage the corals.
Ms Sykes then held workshops with the villagers to monitor the tabu area. The monitoring was done to find out whether there was an improvement in the tabu area and if not, what could be done about it.
The first three years they nurtured the MPA until 2001 when the marine park was opened to tourists and visitors.
The US Peace Corps placed a number of volunteers in the village over the past four years to provide organisational and directional support otherwise the project had been largely self-supporting and self motivating, said Ms Sykes.
The project also had long-term support from the Reef Support and Marine Ecology Consulting, project-based development support from New Zealand through NZAID, Coral Reef Alliance, Reef Check, Fiji Water and Quicksilver clothing.
A decade later the community is now reaping the benefits of its marine reserve called the Waitabu Marine Park which is a five-minute boat-ride away from the village.
On May 26, Waitabu celebrated the 10th anniversary of their marine protected area which covers an area of about 0.27 square kilometres of shallow fringing reef flat and slope.
The chief guest was Ms Sykes who was honoured by the village for her work. They referred to her as "the mother of the project".
In her celebration address, Ms Sykes praised the efforts put in by the community.
"I know what has made Waitabu so special is that many times we have not had a great deal of financial support, or a large organisation behind us for 10 years or people who would just be able to bring money in whenever we needed it," she reminded the people.
"When we started out we only had help from NZAID and most of this work had been done by small people and small organisations.
"I had been very lucky to have a relationship with the village for the past 10 years. And the marine park began in April 1998 after long talks with the community. We were originally helped by the NZAID and the Tourism Resource Consultant and that time Sala Apao (the late manager of the park who died two years ago) had asked me to come down and three times I said no and the community insisted."
She said she refused because the villagers were fishing on the reef all the time, people were walking on the corals all the time and when she went in the water she saw "nothing, nothing, nothing".
But it was the determination and persistence of the community that they finally closed it for three years.
"And since that time it has been my honour to be proved wrong. Every year since then we have come back and counted the fish, corals and animals.
"We have seen the people of Waitabu make this area grow like a garden and create amazing things that will provide fish and animals and cash income in the future for its people."
Waitabu was the third site to start an MPA and also a member of Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas (FLMMA) through which they had been able to share all throughout Fiji what they had learnt from the MPA in Waitabu
It has been assisted by NZAID who supplied the first boat and also built an office with the National Trust. Tabu markers and boat moorings and marine tour guide training was done by Reef Support and CORAL.
A new boat was donated by Reef Check, Quicksilver and Fiji Water. Annual biological surveys were done by FLMMA, Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, Coral Reef Alliance, Beqa Adventure Divers, Matagi Island Resort and the USP Institute of Applied Sciences.
As part of the special day, guests were taken to the tabu area to snorkel and take a look at the various forms of marine life that Waitabu has to offer.
Our boat crossed over the village fishing ground before reaching the marine reserve, which was marked with buoys.
We noticed how the fishing ground was covered with sargassum and other seaweeds and there were hardly any corals and fish to be seen.But as one reaches the edge of the reserve, fish begin to swim by in numbers and beautiful coloured corals lay untouched on the rocks.
Ms Sykes explained why there was a sudden change: "In the tabu area there has been no fishing for 10 years and there are very many surgeonfish (balagi or ika loa) and parrotfish (ulavi). These fish eat seaweeds and keep the rocks clean.
"In the fishing grounds, large seaweeds had overgrown the tops of the coral boulders.
"And there are very few live corals in the area because new corals cannot grow among the overgrown seaweed."
Before going into the water, Marine Reserve tour guide Okostino Apao reminded the visitors on the importance of the marine park and its rules.
"You are going to have tour guides with you and do not wander away from the group. You have to watch that your fins do not touch or break any corals.
"You must never pick or take anything out from its place. Leave them where they are, even if they are dead corals do not disturb them because you are here to see and not to touch."
The tour began from the fish houses built by the villagers that are now overgrown with beautiful corals and a place for different fish species to hide and nibble.
Snorkelling above the reef one can see that this area is really a haven for fish.
They have humphead wrasse, surgeon fish, damsel fish, trevally, and other reef fishes and such big sizes, one hardly finds nowadays on our reefs.
It was an awesome sight just watching them swim at their leisure and it would be a motivating evidence for those qoliqoli owners whose fishing grounds have been overfished and want to set up an MPA.
"Added to the beauty were the giant clams that I had never seen which had embedded themselves in the reef and they also had trochus shells.
The quantity of corals was another story as they also have different species. I even saw a turtle swimming by and it was amazing to see what 10 years of protection did to an area that had been overfished and devastated by human activities.
Best of all it seemed that the fish did not care about the intruders as they were very tame and unafraid going about their normal activities.
Unlike other reefs where fish swim away when they see people the fish on these reefs just stay where they are and seem to think you are one of their kind.
I had snorkled in three tabu areas around Viti Levu and I consider Waitabu the best and would recommend it to any tourist.
By 11 o'clock the villagers came to the beach bure in their colourful shirts and jaba or dresses and skirts.
Their beautiful radiant smiles revealed the happiness they got from the magnificent underworld of the Waitabu Marine Park. n Ms Nakeke is the Ocean Science reporter for SeaWeb. SeaWeb is a non government organisation that helps the media promote and protect a healthy ocean.