As I dived for the very first time in the lagoon of New Caledonia, at Duck Island, with only my mask and my fins, I quickly recognised something I had not seen in a while: a healthy coral reef! My first scuba dives in the north of the main island, in Koumac, a week later were a festival of colours and shapes along densely covered walls.
The stunning & healthy coral barrier reef of New Caledonia
I quickly wondered why the lagoon of New Caledonia remains rather unknown internationally while it beats many records:
- a total surface area of more than 40,000km² making it the largest lagoon in the world.
- a coral reef stretching over 1,600km, the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia which is 2,300km long and not Belize as often mentioned, which is only 300km long, even if we count the Meso-American barrier reef, which goes from Mexico to Honduras over 1,000km.
- more than 20,000 marine and plant species, including protected species such as dugongs, sea turtles and humpback whales, an exceptionally high number of coastal fish species (1,764 species were listed, it is much more than the rest of the Pacific, especially compared to Hawaii or French Polynesia), and 400 coral species.
While coral bleaching events, especially in 2016 with a stronger El Niño phenomenon, have hit hard the Great Barrier Reef of Australia or Hawaii, the coral reefs of New Caledonia remained healthy beyond expectation. During 3 months, I collected press articles I read, photographed all the information boards located across New Caledonia and met many people to better understand the ins and outs of the good state of the corals and an ambitious protection project.
A piece of information found in the Atlas of New Caledonia published by the IRD (Institute of Research and Development) caught my attention: during El Niño phenomenon, the movements of hot water masses combined with the currents would have the effect of slightly lowering the water temperature around New Caledonia! However, of all the people I have met who work for the protection of the New Caledonian marine ecosystems, no one is adamant. The ability of coral to be more or less resilient might be another answer.
I was impressed by people’s awareness going beyond ethnic divisions and the means deployed to protect what Caledonians love the most, compared to what I had seen before. It may not be enough in regards to the appeals of environmental associations present in New Caledonia (WWF, Sea Shepherd, Pew, Caledoclean for example), but it nevertheless goes in the right direction, shows the example and gives hope for the future.
The lagoon of New Caledonia: UNESCO World Heritage for 10 years
Since July 2008, New Caledonia’s lagoons and associated ecosystems (mangroves and seagrass beds) have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. New Caledonia celebrated its 10 year anniversary a few days after my arrival.
UNESCO has described the New Caledonian lagoons having an “exceptional reef diversity”. However, not all lagoon areas could be registered. Of the 40,000km² of the lagoon, 15,700 km² (a little more than a third) are covered by this prestigious label. They are grouped into 6 zones: the Great South Lagoon (from Nouméa to the Isle of Pines), the West Coastal Zone (around Bourail), the North-East Coastal Zone (off Poindimié and Hienghène to Koumac), the Great North Lagoon (around the Belep Islands), the Entrecasteaux Atolls and the Ouvéa and Beautemps-Beaupré Atolls.
UNESCO’s World Heritage status is not a protection mechanism per se but includes limitations and obligations to conserve the ecosystem in its state of conservation. It is also a compelling argument against the threats that may weigh on this fragile ecosystem. Unfortunately, mining activity in New Caledonia represents a risk as it is the primary source of income for the island. Without proper monitoring, the likelihood of being on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites at risk is real. For example, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia may soon find it if the Australian government does not show enough action to protect this site.
The Natural Park of the Coral Sea & the marine protected areas of New Caledonia
Pristine coral reefs now account for only 1.5% of all coral reefs in the world and one-third are in New Caledonia. One of the most positive points of UNESCO’s ranking was the momentum it created. On the 23rd of April 2014, the Government of New Caledonia established the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. This park is a managed marine area of nearly 1.3 million km², making it the largest marine park in France and one of the largest in the world. Its borders start outside the lagoon of New Caledonia and cover all of its territorial waters. They include the Entrecasteaux Reefs, the Chesterfield Islands, the North Loyalty Basin and a large area towards Fiji.
Marine protected areas in New Caledonia still represent a small part of the lagoons and the Coral Sea Park, but their numbers are gradually increasing. There are several types of nature reserves in New Caledonia. They are open to the public but, strict rules apply like the ban on fishing since 1989. In the case of sustainable resource management areas, their goal is to protect biodiversity while allowing the development of tourism activities, like Amédée Island near Noumea since 1981.
Integral reserves are the highest level of protection in New Caledonia: all access and activities are prohibited, and even scientific expeditions are subject to authorisation. Since the 16th of August 2018, 7 000 km² of a part of the Entrecasteaux and Chesterfield-Bellona reefs, as well as the entire Petrie and Astrolabe reefs, in the area of the Coral Sea Park, were declared integral marine reserves.
Humpback whales in New Caledonia, beloved and carefully watched
The nautilus may be the emblematic marine animal of New Caledonia, but it is still difficult to meet underwater. On the other hand, the migration of humpback whales, which happens every year from mid-July to mid-September, makes them the darlings of Caledonians.
Every “winter” (remember that New Caledonia is in the southern hemisphere), humpback whales from Antarctica come to mate or give birth in the waters of the lagoon of New Caledonia. This year, the season ended with more than 400 observations allowing to identify more than 300 individuals. Since 1995, more than 1,500 cetaceans were identified by IRD teams. Monitoring the migration of whales is a serious matter, the whale migration serves as a reference for the good health of the lagoon of New Caledonia.
Whale-watching cruises depart for the day to Prony Bay and Ouen Island (departure at 6:30 am for a return around 5 pm). The long day cruise is nice because you embark aboard a beautiful catamaran but it can seem long (more than 10 hours) for sometimes only half an hour of watching the whales. Given the relatively high price of the activity, I would recommend finishing your scuba diving tour of New Caledonia during the whale season first before booking. During my stay in New Caledonia, I was able to see whales but also pilot whales 3 times during my scuba diving day trips from Nouméa, Koumac and Hienghène between mid-July and the end of July.
If you do not have the same luck (it’s nature after all) then make a reservation with Caledonia Charter, whale-watching cruises start at 11,500 CPF (about 96 € / £85 ). Let me highlight the excellent supervision of these whale-watching cruises in New Caledonia; their ethical charter aims to disturb as little as possible the whales with rules of distances and observation times which are for once really applied. For information, voluntary swimming with whales is prohibited in New Caledonia.
Discover the lagoon of New Caledonia through accessible outdoors activities
Although boarding a small plane is the best way to see the beauty of the lagoon of New Caledonia for a breathtaking view of its shades of blue and turquoise, a couple of easy hiking trails allow to enjoy breath-taking points of view:
- the Boé Arérédi trail in the Domain of Deva with a point of view of the Shark Isle rift
- the Kô salt marshes trail from the Poingam Inn
- the Three Bay trail from Bourail
- the ascent of N’Ga Peak on the Isle of Pines
Access to all these trails is free. On Ouvea Island, the guided hike I went on was also an opportunity to enjoy the heavenly beauty of the island’s lagoon and its long half-moon beach (contact Ouvea tourism board, 3,000 CPF about € 25 / £22 )
Scuba diving was undoubtedly my favourite way to enjoy New Caledonia’s reefs as I could stay underwater longer. On the other hand, to cut your underwater activities budget a bit, you can take advantage of the educational underwater trails located all around New Caledonia. Accessible to all, including children, you can find them in Noumea, Bourail, Hienghene, the Isle of Pines, Lifou Island and Ouvea Island.
Here is the list of marine reserves in New Caledonia where you can easily go snorkelling:
- From Nouméa, you can easily reach Larégnère, Signal and Duck Islands thanks to the taxi-boats departing from Port Moselle or Anse Vata Beach. Duck Island or “Ile aux Canards” has been a sustainable resource management area since 1989, located only 1km from Nouméa (5 minutes taxi-boat, 1,200 CPF A / R, or about 10 € / £9). The reef is small, but 150 species of fish have been identified there. Its underwater trail stretches for 400m from the beach of the islet and has a maximum depth of 7m. It is equipped with 5 educational buoys with a small information board presenting the marine species. Every weekend, volunteers are present to give free information about the underwater trail.
- The underwater trail of the Domain of Deva is located at the heart of the protected marine area of Poe. There are many turtles, and the corals have unusual shapes and colours such as a purple coral looking like a horseshoe. The Domain of Deva is a natural park used as a buffer zone protecting Poe Lagoon. The underwater trail is located 2.5 km from the beach, near the barrier reef of Poe Lagoon. The best way to get there is with the Poe glass-bottom boat (2,500 CPF, the 1 ½ hour trip, about 21 €/ £18).
- Hiengha Island is a protected marine area of the Northern Province of the main island. After a short boat trip, it is possible to explore the underwater trail with a mask and a snorkel, with Babou Côté Océan, the scuba diving centre of Hienghene (half-day tour at 5,000 CPF, or about 42 €/ £37)
- The natural pool of Oro Bay on the Isle of Pines: the central part of the natural pool is a sandy bottom lagoon about 8 m deep where we cross many schools of fish glittering in the sun. The natural pool is separated from the sea by a small coral reef. Around the corals, in 1m of water, you will see Sergeants Major fish twirling and many colourful clamshells (Entrance 500 CPF for people staying on the island, about 4 €/ £18, 1,500 CPF for cruise ship passengers).
- The underwater trail of Jinek Bay on Lifou Island: I discovered this site during a night dive in Lifou, and I was surprised to see such a beautiful coral reef full of life so close from the shore. Free access from the shore.
- The underwater trail of Pointe-de-Moulis on Ouvea Island: The site is so calm and beautiful, I, unfortunately, could not get in the water because of super-low tides at the time of my visit. Free access from the shore.
Guide to enjoying and respecting the lagoon of New Caledonia
If you love exceptional marine ecosystems such as those of New Caledonia, then note the following items on your to-do list for your next vacation:
- Buy a sunscreen made of mineral filters (non-chemical) that do not kill corals. The pharmacies in New Caledonia generally have 2 to 3 references available. (I take this opportunity to highlight the initiative of the company operating the tours to Amedee Island which has set up a free distributor of non-toxic sunscreen on the beach, hoping it will be soon done everywhere else!)
- Protect the corals by keeping your distance and not giving a devastating kick.
- Only take pretty pictures of seashells or pieces of coral found on the beach but leave them on the spot.
- Remember that fish and seabirds do not need us to eat and, on the contrary, we could make them sick with what we would feed them.
- Marvelling at turtles from a distance, their shell is covered with a fragile mucus that protects them from invasive species and that we can destroy by touching them.
- Reduce plastic waste by using a refillable water bottle (made of aluminium for example), reusable cutlery and straws (made of bamboo for instance), tote bags instead of plastic bags.
- Remember that in New Caledonia, you cannot go anywhere without making sure whether you are or not on the lands of a tribe and if a customary ritual is necessary to get access to it. In general, this rule is found in all Melanesian nations of the Pacific (Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia).
Feel free to check Longitude 181 guidelines for more ideas on how to be a responsible diver traveller!
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This article was written in partnership with Aircalin & the Tourism Board of New Caledonia. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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