Chesterfield Islands: an intact jewel of biodiversity

© Francois Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions

18 September 2017

Tara’s mission to the Chesterfield Islands is ending. Before arriving in Nouméa and the Caledonian lagoon by September 20th, we are enjoying these last privileged moments far from any civilization to take stock of the exceptional biodiversity of this French archipelago. Three sites have been explored by the Tara Pacific team and the first report is extremely positive.


Either on land or below the surface of these crystalline waters, Christian Voolstra (KAUST), our scientific coordinator and his entire team, are unanimous: “We are in an exceptional sanctuary. We did not see any signs of on-going or past bleaching events. This coral ecosystem is as healthy as from its first day. This is extremely rare and may be the first time I’ve seen it. The Chesterfield Islands are a source of hope for the future. We are still at the same latitude as the reefs of the Great Barrier or New Caledonia which are themselves damaged. We’re looking forward to understanding why this ecosystem is doing so well.”


8 photo 2_tortue Chester crepuscule_Francois AuratA green turtle in the Chesterfield lagoon at dusk. © François Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions


Mission accomplished

Our diving biologists have not yet recovered from their efforts to bring back all the samples needed to characterize this new island. All the planned dives were carried out, including biodiversity sampling, but the coring proved very complicated. The drill bit remained blocked for several hours in the coral and after 5 dives, it was finally recovered, not without difficulty.


An exemplary biodiversity

During the dives many species of corals were observed with all colors and shapes. As for fauna: tuna, skipjack, groupers, triggerfish, parrot fish, manini or surgeonfish and blackhead reef sharks were sighted and also amongst these predators, 3-meter long silver-tipped sharks.


photo 16_variete oiseaux ile longue ChestefieldLarge variety of seabirds on Long Island in the Chesterfields. © François Aurat / Fondation Tara Expéditions


On land, we observed seabirds such as gannets, terns, wedge-tailed shearwaters* and the magnificent frigate with a red crop. For all these species, the young had just hatched and were already struggling to survive. On the beach of Long Island, we were able to approach green turtles in their full reproductive period, including 30 adult specimens.


A French jewel

The Chesterfield Islands (reserve of the Coral Sea Marine Park) are a jewel which France must really cherish and take care of! They already have the value of a sanctuary in this region of the Pacific, especially since ocean temperatures are continuing to rise. Regarding the excellent health of Chesterfields, the biologist Claudia Pogoreutz (KAUST) puts forward a hypothesis: “The causes are perhaps in the birds and the odor of their guano** that can be smelled well before disembarking on these islands.”


In any case, the 15 Taranauts on board will not forget the short week spent in this archipelago that the Anthropocene*** seems to have spared, apart from some plastic macro-waste.


Vincent Hilaire


* resident breeder in this Pacific region

** seabird droppings

***era of Earth’s history when human activities started to have a significant overall impact on the terrestrial ecosystem.

Related articles