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Fiji's Reefs
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Fiji's Reefs @ National Geographic Magazine
By Les KaufmanPhotographs by Tim Laman

In the South Pacific a spectacular reef system takes an environmental walloping and lives to tell the tale. Scientists are listening closely.

Fiji's reefs can take a punch and come back swinging  Expert at being both whomped and resilient, these reefs are prime ground for scientists struggling to understand the catastrophic decline of Earth's coral habitats.  Though cyclones, disease, predators, and volcanic eruptions all harm reefs, corals tend to regenerate after such natural blows.  But the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere humanity is brewing, and the resulting rise in sea temperatures, may cripple coral's ability to recover.

When water heats up, corals expel the symbiotic algae that provide nutrients and color, leaving the corals "bleached." Some scientists theorize that bleaching evolved to help corals adjust to shifting temperature by swap-ping existing algae for others more heat-hardy. But as global temperatures rise, corals are reaching their upper limits of heat tolerance. In Fiji corals can survive in waters up to about 86°F. Beyond that, it's like asking corals to shift into a gear they just don't have.
Fiji's reefs took a major hot-water hammering in 2000 and 2002, leading to widespread bleaching. As a marine biologist long interested in coral reefs, I joined a recent expedition to Fiji to see how its reefs were faring after the heat waves. We found vast differences from place to place. Stripped of algae, some corals had starved and died, leaving denuded limestone hulks. But in some spots where staghorn and other hard corals had bleached white, new life blossomed. We saw gardens of baby corals sprout ting over fields of bare rock, multicolored sea life mobbing newly lush pastures, and some reefs that had entirely escaped bleaching. Big fish swam all around us—sharks, groupers, mantas, all evidence of a sys-tem with a hard-beating heart
Fiji is like the patient who did not die of AIDS, and global reef health may depend on learning why. Support is growing to create protected areas around some of Fiji's reefs, where scientists can hunt for answers.  Protection will help ensure that bleaching events won't be compounded by polluted runoff, over fishing, or eager tourists. But in the end, human ability to turn down the heat may ultimately determine either death or renewal.

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Explore the underwater world of Fiji's rich and colorful marine life. Videography by Zafer Kizilkaya. Video editing by Brian Strauss.

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In recent years the Fiji government, grassroots activists, private businesses, and nongovernmental organizations including the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF (known in the United States as the World Wildlife Fund) have pioneered new partnerships for protecting Fiji's endangered marine habitats.
The proposed World Heritage Seascape surrounding the Vatu-i-Ra Channel (click on map at left) is an example of such a cooperative venture. The proposal calls for the preservation and management of roughly 2,500 square miles (6,500 square kilometers) of reefs, submerged plateaus, and small islands between Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. The area's immense variety of fish and resistance to coral bleaching make it an invaluable marine wilderness. The World Heritage plan, if implemented, would add a new layer of scientific management and enforcement to ongoing conservation efforts in the islands, including the innovative locally-managed marine areas (LMMAs).
The Fiji LMMA, supported in part by the South Pacific Programme of the WWF, is based on a couple of core ideas. One basic tenet is that the people who live and work near the ocean should play a role in conservation planning and management. Another is that the local residents' quality of life should improve as the ecosystem's health improves. LMMA participants often cooperate with government agencies and implement modern conservation methods, but they also take advantage of more traditional cultural knowledge and practices. For example, Fiji's residents have harvested clams for centuries, following traditional prohibitions that varied according to time and place. In the 1990s supplies were dwindling rapidly—a disaster for villagers who depended on clams for their livelihoods. LMMA activists worked to identify "no take zones," based on breeding areas and long-standing local customs. Today many of the communities involved are reporting improvement in the health of their local waters—measured in larger numbers and sizes of clams harvested. In keeping with LMMA goals, better harvests have meant an improvement in Fijians' economic outlook as well.
—Shelley Sperry
Did You Know?

Related Links
The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network
On this site find the latest scientific data, photographs, and studies of coral reef health worldwide. The GCRMN also provides links to its prime affiliates, including ReefBase (, for the most current scientific data, and Reef Check (, where you can take action for reef conservation.
NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program
Check out an amazing collection of up-to-date information about the science of coral reefs and global efforts to protect them, collected by the U.S. government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The site also includes educational materials for teachers and students.
Locally-Managed Marine Area Network
This is the place to look for inspiring stories and practical information about LMMAs in Fiji and throughout the Pacific, which are revolutionizing the conservation of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.
Wildlife Conservation Society: South Pacific
Take a look at the highlights of WCS efforts to protect the Pacific from overfishing, global climate change, and pollution.
WWF South Pacific Programme
Read scientists' diaries of diving expeditions and news about the WWF's work in Fiji and other Pacific islands. Special projects include promoting sustainable tourism and saving marine turtles and whales.


Hughes, T. P., and others. "Climate Change, Human Impacts, and the Resilience of Coral Reefs." Science (August 15, 2003), 929-33.
Murphy, Richard C. Coral Reefs: Cities Under the Sea. Darwin Press, 2002.
Spalding, Mark D., Corinna Ravilous, and Edmund P. Green. World Atlas of Coral Reefs. University of California Press, 2001.


NGS Resources
Chadwick, Douglas H. "Coral in Peril." National Geographic (January 1999), 30-7.
Doubilet, David. "Coral Eden." National Geographic (January 1999), 2-29.
Vaughan, Roger. "The Two Worlds of Fiji." National Geographic (October 1995), 114-37.
"Fiji Down Below." National Geographic World (September 1992), 10-15.
Thomas, Marjory C. "Copra-ship Voyage to Fiji's Outlying Islands."  National Geographic (July 1950), 121-40.
Duncan, David D.  "Fiji Patrol on Bougainville." National Geographic (January 1945), 87-104.
Oliver, Douglas L. "Treasure Islands of Australasia: New Guinea, New Caledonia, and Fiji Trace Across the South Pacific a Fertile Crescent Incredibly Rich in Minerals and Foods." National Geographic  (June 1942), 691-722.


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