Anatomy of a Reef

Anatomy of a Reef

After three days of seasickness my only thoughts were to get firm ground under my feet. I didn’t care if I ever saw a sailboat again and if anyone cared to ask, I would have opted for the white picket fence and a proper 9-to-5 job.

Thank God for my guardian angel and Chesterfield Reef.

Something about sitting on one’s own personal island, hundreds of miles from anyone, on a breezy tropical day contemplating the life of the hermit crab, makes those seasick eternities fade.

Chesterfield reef and islets lay approximately 450 miles west northwest of Noumea, New Caledonia. Merely a large reef with several tiny islets it covers a 150-mile-long area with its pristine beauty.

My introduction to Chesterfield was a sandbar the size oa a football field. Not a tree or a blade of grass, but it was enough for me.

At first glance the sandbar looked devoid of life except for the sea birds that rested there. Upon closer inspection the area revealed its own little ecosystem and the surrounding waters proved to be teeming with life.

To reach our anchorage in front of the sandbar we had traversed twenty miles of coral reef full of sea life. Dolphins as well as several whales greeted us along the way. We waited only three minutes for a catch after casting our fishing lines and soon we were throwing fish we didn’t recognize back in and trying for something more familiar.

Ciguatera, a condition resulting from eating poison fish, is prevalent in both Vanuatu and New Caledonia. The fear of illness in our remote location encouraged us to be cautious.

Because Chesterfield is in such an isolated area not very many yachts call there. The “dangerous zone” warning on the uncharted area directly to the south and east of the reef also discourages some sailors.

Whatever the reason, I got the distinct feeling of being something of a novelty to the creatures there. Huge black sharks came to inspect us as we were frolicking on the beach. Small, black-tip sharks swam back and forth between the coral shelf on the leeward side. A gigantic ray with a 7-foot wingspan rested in the shadow of the yacht and swam slowly and gracefully away when we arrived in the dinghy from shore. I had thought it was a coral head and the boat had dragged its anchor – until it moved!

The sandbar displayed its own ecosystem. The birds that had appeared to be resting actually nested there and the beach was strewn with bird eggs and chicks. We had to watch our step for fear of crushing them. In addition to the birds were crags, each vying for a shady spot on the bar’s barren landscape.

While inspecting the area I came across a large hermit crab advancing toward a baby chick. Survival of the fittest, I thought – unless you’ve got fitter friends. I picked up the crab and threw it far enough away to cause no harm.

Farther down the beach I arrived in time to see a hungry crab eating a bird egg. He had cracked a small hole in the egg and was eating the yolk. I was too late for that one.

Although we saw no turtles on the beach, we saw signs of them. They had left hills and valleys of sand where they had come ashore to bury their eggs.

After a few days of lounging around this isolated sandbar we got the urge to see something a bit different so we pulled up anchor and headed off to a larger islet farther west. After a half-day sail – all within the reef – we arrived at an area with three islands in view.

These islands were all larger than our first landfall and all had a bit of plant life. These islands also had a much larger bird population.

Almost as if to welcome us, three turtles showed themselves as we anchored and a whale in the distance jumped in the air, landing with a healthy splash.

This welcome seemed to be the opposite of what we encountered when we landed on shore. The mass of birds squawked their annoyance at these human intruders. The bolder ones flew about our heads. I picked up a broken branch and held it over my head to ward them off. What a silly sight I must have been.

As on the first islet, bird eggs littered he ground, but unlike the sandbar, these birds had bushes to build nests in and they did so with seeming abandon. Birds, eggs and nests were everywhere. The smell of guano hung moist in the air.

Walking at the water’s edge, I spotted several eels feeding in ankle deep water. A procession of hermit crabs scurrying from the water to the shade of the jungle formed a column we had to step over. But it was the three very large turtles warming themselves on the beach, unconcerned with our presence, that made me realize the privilege of viewing such creatures as they live unafraid of humans in their natural environment.

The rising tide hurried me back from the sand spit that I had wandered onto but I stopped long enough to find a beautiful cowrie shell sitting where the waves left it. I looked at the yacht anchored serenely in the lee of the island and thought, “I never did like fences and 9-to-5 would never do.”

Leave a reply