Just a few days before Christmas, Tara finished the first complete inventory of marine biodiversity in the Wallis and Futuna archipelago — an undertaking partially accomplished for the last time in 1990, before the impacts of warming. We also had a chance to review our 2 weeks of encounters and discoveries in the French territory furthest from the metropolis, where every enterprise depends on the agreement of the highest traditional authorities: the Kings.
About 20 people were gathered silently under the falé of the Palais de Wallis. A simple palm-roof beneath which the village chiefs and ministers awaited us, and in their midst, Patalione Kanimoa, the king of Wallis. Tara’s crew entered as if on tiptoe, under the gaze of the assembly, somewhat intimidated by the solemnity of the moment. Before starting to work in the waters of Wallis and Futuna, the schooner had to obtain the authorization of the ministers who have the power here to block any project. Kava, the traditional Pacific beverage made from the root of a shrub, was passed from hand to hand, while Serge Planes, the scientific director of the expedition, and Martin Hertau, Tara’s captain, explained to the King the reasons for our arrival in the archipelago. Following local custom, the crew came with some gifts, including a photo book recounting Tara’s Arctic drift odyssey: the images of the boat caught in the ice quickly captured the eyes of the sovereign.
Tara immediately obtained the green light and would soon set sail for Futuna, the sister island of Wallis.
Tara’s crew received by the King of Wallis © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Since the beginning of the 1990s, no inventory of biodiversity had been carried out around this island which has very steep terrain. Led by Serge Planes, the scientists on board had only 12 days to collect as much data as possible on the species inhabiting the island’s coasts, between the surface and a depth of 20 meters — a multidisciplinary mission in search of fish, corals, coralline algae, ophiures and sponges. By mapping the species here, scientists hoped to fill the information gap in this region at the intersection of Melanesia and Polynesia. Beyond the known species, Tara’s mission was to try to discover rare and endemic species.
Divided into 2 kingdoms, Sigave and Alo, the island of Futuna regularly suffers the fury of the Pacific and its powerful cyclones. In 2010, cyclone Tomas left its mark, destroying many homes and fragilizing the coastal areas. At risk because of global climate change, these islanders may well be among its first victims. Tara’s mission began with this same cyclonic rainfall near the islet of Alofi, a land covered (about 80%) with primary forest, with only one inhabitant. At the foot of the island’s cliffs and in the depths of its narrow lagoon, Tara’s teams discovered reefs that have been spared from bleaching and harbor a multitude of corals and sponges.
Tara in the passage of Wallis © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Serge Planes and Jeff Williams (from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington) studied fish populations in these waters for 2 weeks. Employing local methods of poisoning or arrow-hunting, they managed to identify nearly 400 different species. “This is about a third of the species that live here. Others live in deeper zones” explains Serge Planes. “This is the first time an inventory of this type has been carried out on Futuna and Alofi and it will be interesting to compare it with those made in Wallis, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia”.
These findings will serve as a point of reference for future research in these isolated islands and will inform local people about the marine riches surrounding them.
After the invitation to meet their kings, the Futunans shared a traditional tauasu with the crew. This is an evening ceremony during which the villagers gather around a kava to discuss everyday problems. It was also an opportunity for the locals to question Tara’s crew on the results of their investigation, and to share their concerns about the island’s future. A few notes from a ukulele soon made us forget the pouring rain and an improvised dance floor opened before our eyes. Men bowed to invite women for a few dance steps while the kava continued its round in the assembly.
Olivier Thomas prepares a species of sponge with its precious mucus © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Aboard Tara, Olivier Thomas is a very happy man. This specialist from Ireland had embarked to inventory the sponge populations in the archipelago. He did not expect the many discoveries awaiting him here. “I was quite surprised at the diversity in sponges around Alofi and Futuna,” he says. “Here one realizes that there are real ecosystems concentrating very diverse sponges. Under the reefs are areas where corals do not extend too far, and where many new sponge species can be observed.” Some species produce a mucus rich in chemical molecules that are of particular interest to the drug industry, especially for certain cancer treatments. A valorization of these sponges (probably endemic to Futuna) could perhaps become a significant source of income for this island in need of resources. A new adventure that Olivier Thomas will follow closely: First he will analyze these new sponges before considering a possible synthesis of the molecules of interest.
Pierre de Parscau