Defying the Wrath of Pam…Diving after the cyclone

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Janelle with anemone.

By Anne Simmons  Photography by Anne and Eric Simmons

Recently I read a post on Facebook discussing the merits of going to Vanuatu, particularly for diving, in the wake of Cyclone Pam. The writer and participants in the conversation were obviously ill informed and it was dismaying to see how easily one person’s misconception of the situation could portray the situation so badly and incorrectly. So in an effort to alleviate any concerns from those considering Vanuatu as a dive destination we did some homework to provide an accurate picture.

Firstly – in a nutshell, know that the diving in Vanuatu remains stunning with very little damage to dive sites from the recent cyclone. The islands of Vanuatu stretch out in an elongated Y from North West to South East, and as would be expected there were varying levels of devastation from the Category 5 cyclone named Pam, that hit the central and southern islands full force on March 13, 2015. It’s difficult to conceive the terrifying power of 270 km/hr sustained winds, gusting up to 360km/hr, the sheer noise alone must have been horrific, not to mention the ensuing loss and damage. However in the main centres where the scuba diving operations exist it seems that the dive sites have suffered only slight damage, in many cases none. Even in the exposed places some patches of the fragile staghorn coral have been broken in the shallows but the sturdy hard corals remain untouched, while below four metres there is little evidence of Pam at all.

In the North, Espiritu Santo escaped relatively unharmed both above and below the water. It’s business as usual here, accommodation businesses and dive operators are all operational. The world renowned wreck, the President Coolidge, along with a plethora of WWII wrecks and planes, still calmly sits awaiting divers to explore her secrets. The colourful reefs of Santo still teem with fish and brightly coloured soft corals scattered amongst the plentiful hard coral structures offer protection to a myriad of fascinating marine critters. The beaches are still beautifully white and sandy giving that idyllic contrast with the sparkling turquoise waters beyond, as ever with the iconic coconut tree leaning sideways. In fact a perfect vacation location for the avid diver.

Further south the islands took a beating, with houses and crops destroyed, livestock scattered and the already scarce infrastructure demolished, however the resiliency of the people remains intact and life goes on – it’s just that much more harder now. Pam hit the capital, Port Vila, with a vengeance, ripping off roofs indiscriminately, creating havoc with the boats in the harbour and destroying homes and livelihoods. But once the storm has passed and the noise died away out emerged the smiling faces, ready to face the challenges ahead and recoup their losses. Within days the Dive Operators in Port Vila were ready for business again, with boats replaced and roofs repaired they inspected their usual dive haunts with trepidation. And were relieved to find that due to the wind direction and protection from the land most dive sites have escaped with only a few plate corals tipped over. On one or two exposed sites some soft corals have been damaged but their usual tenants such as families of anemone fish or shrimps remain tenuously loitering waiting for their home to regrow – as it will. Diving is GO!!!!

So while land based structures have taken the brunt of cyclone Pam the underwater world of Vanuatu remains for the most part untouched. Port Vila Dive Operators report minimal or no damage to their sites and while a few resorts in Port Vila may remain closed there are plenty open and ready for guests, and Santo remains as beautiful above water, and below, as it did pre Pam.

In short Vanuatu remains a great place for that diving holiday – whether it be a relaxing family holiday with a smattering of scuba diving, or the serious full on dive trip with little time for anything else.

Havannah Harbour, a short drive over Klem’s hill from Port Vila, offers spectacular visibility with amazing marine life and dive sites. Here the islands of Lelepa & Moso have diverted the winds and helped protect this serene harbor with its majestic underwater playground. Dugongs, dolphins, turtles combined with wrecks and WWII debris, plus pristine reefs full of colorful swim-throughs and drop-offs make    Havannah Harbour a must do on any dive or snorkel agenda.

Back in Port Vila lie a variety of shipwrecks and reefs for divers of all levels and the local operators report they have been scarcely touched by Pam’s wrath. Of course, as is the case in any natural disaster there remains the evidence from the excessively high winds, but like the resiliency of its people the natural environs are already starting to return to their usual vibrancy.

The Konanda, the Tasman Flying boat, the Semele, the Star of Russia and the many other wrecks to dive upon remain just so – waiting for you to come visit them. Out at Hideaway Island the wrecks of the Bonzer & Aloara likewise remain as they were, and their Coral Regeneration and Rehabilitation Projects are well underway with Dr Ken Zimmerman from the University of Newcastle recently arrived to lead the latter project in its infancy.

So if you are debating about your next dive destination don’t write Vanuatu off – the underwater world is still just as good as before. Check it out with your chosen Dive Operator and discover how much Vanuatu has to offer, even now in the aftermath of one of the biggest cyclones ever in the South Pacific. If ever a country needed your tourist dollars, while still offering an amazing underwater experience – it has to be Vanuatu.

Vanuatu has always had all of the above but now it also has the aid factor value. There is no income tax in Vanuatu – and while this may sound attractive to us tax payers – what happens when a disaster like Pam comes along? Income from Copra or Sandalwood will be scarce for years to come. There is no government assistance because there is no money in the coffers. The main form of income is tourism, and while this might be paid to a white fella operation the reality is that this provides an income to the locals too. A win-win for all, you get great diving while at the same time providing money to the local community.

Think about it……and Discover What Matters – Vanuatu.   

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Giant clams on Turtle Reef.

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A morey finds a new home.

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The locals – friendly as ever – wish you welcome.

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Wrecks offer new opportunities and create new reefs.

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Cascades on Efate Island.

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Stunning soft corals.

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