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There are still extraordinary places in this world – wild places edged with white beaches and cerulean water, and palm trees scattered along the shore. The Lau archipelago in Fiji is one of these places. Adventurous travelers who arrive by boat will find quiet bays dotted with limestone karsts that look otherworldly. It is a land that time forgot, and life has remained the same way for centuries.
Yet even at the edge of the world, the Lau archipelago is threatened by climate change, unsustainable fishing and coral degradation. The crystal-clear water that is home to whales, sea turtles and dolphins is under threat. “There’s not a lot of scientific attention to these islands, maybe because they are seen as too far and too expensive to get to,” said Fiji Country Program Director of Conservation International, Susana Waqainabete-Tuisese.
So, in 2017, the Conservation International (CI) team chose to carry out a marine assessment of Lau, and in just ten days discovered six new species of fish and 50 fish and coral species never found before in Fiji. During the survey, CI found one particularly unique area called Navatu Reef. Within hours of presenting the results of the survey, the local chiefs declared the reef a Marine Protected Area. Since then the chiefs of Lau have committed to protecting the entire Lau Seascape, and recently established a sea turtle sanctuary to safeguard threatened species.
Hayley Baillie – philanthropist and owner of hotels such as Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island, Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island and Longitude 131 at the foot of Uluru – understands better than most people how important and effective sustainable tourism can be. She discusses her experiences and hopes for the Fijian hideaway with fellow Conservation International supporter Caroline Blackmore.
Both, from the moment they arrived in Lau, were swept away by what they saw. “Approaching Lau was unforgettable. High limestone karsts lead to the most unique lagoon I’ve experienced. I still can’t believe it exists. It’s just mindblowing,” said Baillie.
It was clear to Baillie and Blackmore that they were discovering a new frontier. “Lau was utterly beautiful, it felt like a prehistoric wonderland. It was untouched and unexpected. In some ways it’s unique to Fiji,” said Blackmore.
Stepping ashore, Baillie realized that Lau doesn’t receive many visitors as the whole village turned out to greet them. “Visitors are rare to Lau. When we arrived, they held a huge ceremony with lots of dancing for a whole day. It was amazing,” she said
The pair are among a rare few that have taken to the water and seen what these communities are committing to protect. “The best snorkel I have had in my life was at the entrance to Fulaga Island” said Blackmore. We nicknamed it the magic carpet. We journeyed down a kilometre in about five minutes flying past stunning reef biodiversity with sharks, hard coral and reef fish. [Hayley and I] are going to go back together to do it soon!”
While they are now two of just a handful of travellers that have enjoyed this experience, they know that times will change. The secret of the Lau islands will soon be out and with just four-hour flights to Fiji from Australia, plus a sleeper boat, it will be easier to reach the archipelago.
“Places like this will become rare, and more people will want to visit, so they need to have strict controls,” said Baillie. “I’ve seen other natural gems like this opened to tourism, the people flood in, but little benefit goes to the people that call it home. My hope is that sustainable tourism will ensure Lau is protected and the local people benefit.”
The goal of Conservation International is to create a network of protected areas from the ridge to the reef all across the Lau islands. Low impact tourism will create new livelihood opportunities so the young no longer have to leave the island to find work.
For Baillie and Blackmore, Lau and its people hold a special place in their hearts, and they plan to return together. “I made some friends and we’re still in touch. Just recently they opened a school building and asked us to visit the opening,” said Blackmore.
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