Serendipity in the South Pacific

Leadership Network members Dana MacDiarmid and Ajay Ravindran found themselves concurrently working and living in Niue on New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) mahi. In this article, they describe their unexpected involvement in a local conservation project addressing an issue affecting coral reefs across Asia and the Pacific.
Ajay and Dana standing in front of a car adorned with leaves

Ajay and Dana in Niue

A year ago, neither of us thought we’d be in Niue, a small Pacific island nation known as ‘The Rock of Polynesia’. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a pause on international travel for many, we were lucky to have the opportunity through our respective New Zealand government jobs to come to this beautiful country for a number of months.

Serendipity saw us both in Niue at the same time with a shared history as members of the Leadership Network and Ship for World Youth alumni. We know from our involvement with the Foundation and our professional experiences that Aotearoa’s unique location, history, and role in the region means that we can help put the ‘Pacific’ in the Asia-Pacific.

It turned out that scuba diving was among our common interests - which was perfect because Niue has some of the world’s best conditions for water lovers.

Unlike many other Pacific islands, Niue doesn’t have sandy beaches to lounge on. Rather, the coral atoll of Niue is made entirely of porous limestone, which means rain quickly filters down into the sea underneath rather than washing sediment into the surrounding Pacific ocean. This results in a stunningly clear sea that is a mesmerising mix of blues and has visibility of over 50 metres.

Coupled with a huge coral reef encircling the island and average annual water temperatures of 27 degrees Celsius, Niue offers stunning diving and snorkelling opportunities.

Ajay standing outside with a coastal panorama stretching away into the distance behind him

Ajay a lookout point with the eastern shore of Niue behind him

Diving into learning about coral bleaching

We have both dived in parts of Asia and the Pacific, including Timor-Leste, Malaysia, Indonesia, Fiji, Samoa, and Thailand.

The health of coral reefs is massively important for the ocean, and for all life on earth (including humans!). Among their numerous functions, corals filter the water, provide a home for algae which absorb carbon dioxide, and create an environment for countless species of fish and sea life. They are a vital part of the ocean ecosystem.

Ocean warming due to climate change can cause coral bleaching, which can be disastrous for a reef, and catastrophic if it continues on a mass scale. However, another cause of coral bleaching is a coral-eating snail, the drupella.

A phenomenon seen in coral reefs across the Indo-Pacific region - including Viet Nam, Japan, and the Philippines - Niue’s coral have been under attack by drupella, whose numbers appear to have risen in recent years.

Local dive professional Rami Oved spent years studying Niue’s reef and founded a programme to remove these snails, in an effort to restore the coral and preserve Niue’s pristine underwater environment.

As an integral part of the ecosystem, saving the coral will also ensure that Niue’s fisheries continue to thrive. The dive company Niue Blue has carried on this kaupapa with the support of the New Zealand High Commission in Niue, and has also extended it by involving Niuean officials in the work.

Dana with her Niue National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) colleagues, Robin Hekau and Heileen Togiamana (credit to Heileen)

Dana (far right) with her Niue National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) colleagues, Robin Hekau and Heileen Togiamana (Photo Heileen)

Contributing to local reef resilience

As qualified divers and professionals whose mahi is linked to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), it was fitting that we accepted an opportunity to join a number of MFAT-supported drupella snail dives.

As Leadership Network members, we also acknowledged the value of getting stuck into the practical aspects of causes we support, such as ocean conservation.

Roxy Damseaux, a dive instructor at Niue Blue, provided us with detailed information on identifying, collecting, and cataloguing the Drupella and an educational video by Rami augmented our knowledge about corals, mass ocean bleaching, and the Niue undersea environment and recent history. For example, Rami posits that category 3 Tropical Cyclone Tino in 2020, which brought destructive 20-30 metre high waves and strong winds to the island, not only destroyed large parts of the Niue’s coral reef but also brought more drupella to the area.

Collecting the snails involves looking for scarring (bleaching) on live corals underwater and visually searching for live Drupella on that coral. If they're present, we carefully hand-pick larger shells from the coral or use tweezers to retrieve smaller sized snails. The collected snails are put into a mesh bag and then counted on the surface after each dive.

In 2021, Niue Blue collected almost 13,000 drupella snails, often collecting hundreds of snails in a single dive. We joined Roxy on the last day of diving for the year in late December and between us collected 447 snails from Avatele Bay during two dives.

While methods to control drupella appear not to be widely documented, research is being conducted into the impacts of drupella on coral reefs and initial studies seem to indicate that small-scale removal of drupella snails may be an effective conservation measure.

The snails can be eaten (though preparing them takes some effort and local consumption has declined in recent years), and enterprising locals are also looking at turning the shells into jewellery, so keep an eye out for unique Drupella earrings and necklaces when you come to Niue!

Dana celebrating International Women's Day and the 'Breaking the Bias' theme with NZ High Commissioner to Niue, Helen Tunnah, and local businesswomen Mamata, Moka, and Roz (credit to Niue Chamber of Commerce)

Dana (far left) celebrating International Women's Day and the 'Breaking the Bias' theme with NZ High Commissioner to Niue, Helen Tunnah (second from left) (Photo: Niue Chamber of Commerce)

The Niue Blue team intends to carry on Drupella removal efforts in 2022 and continue Rami’s work of documenting, analysing, and championing the health of Niue’s coral reef and ocean environment.

We hope that these efforts help to restore and preserve Niue’s precious waters. As a Niuean proverb states: Kia fakatumau ke leveki, tokiofa mo e puipui e tofia ma e tau atuhau anoiha; Always cherish, safeguard and treasure the ocean and its resources for future generations.

Dana MacDiarmid and Ajay Ravindran are Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network members and Ship for World Youth alumni. Dana works for the New Zealand National Emergency Management Agency | Te Rākau Whakamarumaru on a MFAT-funded Pacific Disaster Risk Management Programme and is based in Niue providing in-country support during the 2021/22 cyclone season. Ajay works for MFAT | Manatū Aorere and was seconded to the NZ High Commission in Niue providing holiday season relief cover.