300 hours underwater

Diving in Lau: Delight, danger and detritus


By Edgardo Ochoa
June 7, 2017

Editor’s note: Last month, a team of conservationists set sail from the island of Fiji. Their mission: to survey marine life in the Lau Islands, an unheralded group of islets scattered over thousands of square miles of the South Pacific.

They were seeking out species — but also clues to the health of these little-explored waters. With warming seas wreaking havoc on coral reefs and upending fish migrations throughout the Pacific, managing this area will be crucial for ensuring its resilience to climate change — and ensuring that it can continue to provide food and livelihoods for the thousands who call the Lau Islands home. (Read the first story in this series here.)

In this report, Edgardo Ochoa, marine safety officer at Conservation International, recounts the resplendence and the risks of daily dives in remote waters — as well as some of the unfortunate finds he came across in the deep.

When I came across the fishing line, I knew immediately what it was — the material, the thickness, the size. My air was low, but I needed to at least try to retrieve it, or it would remain tangled in the reef. To roll up the lines, I have a specific technique to protect myself from the fishing hooks: wrapping the line in on itself and making several large bundles to gather as much as the line as possible (see video above). In this case, the section I retrieved was 500 meters (1,600 feet) long.

Five hundred meters that some commercial fishing boat cut off and left in this pristine coral reef to damage it for years.

Part of the issue is the lack of accountability among commercial vessels, which is why we’re working on a comprehensive tool to analyze these lines and other abandoned equipment based on a strict set of criteria. Once we know who’s leaving these things behind, we can start holding people accountable for their impact on places like the Lau Islands.


© CI/Edgardo Ochoa

Clown fish swim between sea anemone and coral reefs off the coast of Matuku in the Lau Islands.


300 dives, 10 days

For the marine survey, we were in the Lau Islands for 12 days, and 10 of those days were spent diving: three times a day, an hour at a time, for a total of 300 dives. Each dive ranged from between 45 minutes to an hour and 10 minutes, depending on how much gas we had in our tanks, which was between 2,600 and 3,000 psi (pounds per square inch).

We had an informal trick for telling how long we’d be diving for each time: Given how many of us there were diving, we needed about 40 tanks a day ready and filled with compressed breathing gas. Each diving tank took six to eight minutes to fill, and it was one crew member’s job to fill the cylinders. To pass the time, he would fish with a couple of rods over the side of the boat. If the fishing was good, he would be a bit distracted, and we’d get maximum gas in our tanks; but if the fishing was slow, he would stop each tank a little lighter than usual in order to speed up the process.

Before each dive, we asked him, “How was the fishing this morning?”

How many airstrips does this island have?

Diving is full of these small details that to me, as Conservation International’s marine safety officer, are not only critical to ensuring we make it out alive, but ensure we’re able to do our work: to discover new species, to protect new marine areas and to help the communities that rely on these resources to thrive.

Before we even landed in Fiji, I could tell you exactly how many of the Lau Islands have air strips in case of an emergency evacuation (two), where the nearest decompression chamber was (Australia; both of Fiji’s were out of order when we there) and what our plan was in case of inclement weather (a plan we got to put into action during not one but two near-misses with cyclones).


© CI/Katie Bryden

Edgardo Ochoa, marine safety officer at Conservation International, with a large plastic bottle cap he found while walking the beach on Olorua Island in the Lau Islands of Fiji. Olorua is completely uninhabited, yet plastic still makes its way onto the beach.


A pristine beach, except for the plastic

When the weather wasn’t treacherous, we ventured off the boats and onto Olorua Island, an uninhabited stretch of white sand and palm trees only a third of a kilometer around. Almost immediately after I started walking along the beach, I nearly tripped over a pair of green rubber flip-flops, half-buried in the sand.

Like the palm-sized plastic bottle cap I discovered a few meters away, these items must have washed ashore — evidence that even on the most remote island, in a place that to me felt like the absolute middle of nowhere, human beings always leave their mark.
I brought the bottle cap home with me — I keep it in my office — as a reminder of our impact on the oceans.

When you’re diving, you’re up close with the coral reef, the fish, the sharks — it’s impossible not to feel connected to everything underwater, and to recognize how that fishing line could be swept along with the tide and scrape away delicate corals, or how a turtle could mistake those flip-flops for food and take a bite.

It’s impossible not to see your own impact — and your responsibility to the ocean.

Edgardo Ochoa is marine safety officer at Conservation International.