I’m a teacher and marine scientist, and I’ve recently returned from a visit to Aitutaki.
To put it bluntly, I was shocked and saddened at the state of the marine environment there. I had read that Aitutaki’s lagoon was “pristine” and, while my professional knowledge of coral reefs meant I wasn’t entirely naïve to the likely reality, I expected better. It got me thinking.
We use words to communicate ideas that have relevance to the real world. In the way that maps are only useful when they accurately describe the territory, words are only useful when they refer to real things.
When words lose their meaning or have their meaning redefined to excess, we risk losing something very important in our discourse and risk incurring real-world harm. I believe the word “pristine” is currently being redefined to the point of uselessness and with harmful consequences. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it thus: 1. “Belonging to the earliest period or state”; and/or 2. “Not spoiled, corrupted, or polluted”.
Aitutaki lagoon, is often described as “pristine”. One lagoon company tells us that they “allow you to snorkel in Aitutaki’s pristine lagoon”. A resort’s website tells visitors they can walk up to Aitutaki’s highest point and view the “pristine lagoon”. Another resort markets itself as sitting on the “pristine atoll of Aitutaki”.
Yet, Aitutaki and its lagoon are not pristine. The coral in the lagoon is dying, partly due to declining water quality and largely to climate change-driven coral bleaching. The dead coral is being overgrown by seaweed/algae.
Additionally, there’s strange green algae growing in floaty clumps all around the island. This is normal for an estuary. It’s not normal for an island in the middle of a tropical ocean. I was taken to one of the best snorkeling spots in the lagoon; the area where the giant clams (paua) are raised.
Most of the coral was dead. The death was recent (probably last summer’s bleaching); the fish were still hanging around their home-corals, apparently confused as to what had happened. The boat operator dropped anchor on one of the few living, resilient coral patches (see photo), destroying decades of growth.
Whatever this is, it’s only “pristine” if we redefine that word through some Orwellian process whereby “war” becomes “peace” and 2 + 2 = 5. We can tell ourselves and our visitors that Aitutaki’s lagoon is pristine until we’re blue in the face. It will not make it so. The territory is changing before our very eyes, but we’re addicted to a beautiful (and profitable) map we call “pristine”.
If we forget what pristine actually means and redefine it as yet another synonym for “nice to look at”, then we lose not only the concept of unspoiled nature, but the ability and motivation to try and get back to it. And we’re pretty close to that, it seems.
It could be better. I understand that the tourist industry has a conflict of interest. Tourists come here having been told that the marine environment is “pristine”. Telling them, on arrival, that actually it isn’t, is not likely to go down well. But, (I’m talking directly to resorts and tourist operators now), how often do tourists ask you about the health of our coral reefs/lagoons? I’d wager at least once per trip.
What do you tell them? Do you pretend that all is well? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. More likely, you say something like “Yes, there are problems here, but it’s still better than a lot of other places”.
Fine, but that will always be true, won’t it? Even when there’s one little living coral sitting alone in the lagoon, somewhere in the world there will be zero living corals. It doesn’t make it pristine or even desirable.
The point is this: you, the tourism operators, are at the frontline. You are in the position to influence people. Having paid money to go on your tour, visitors are financially and emotionally invested and want to get something out of it.
Most likely, you know more about the environment here than the visitors do. And if you don’t, at least you look as if you do! Tell our visitors the true state of affairs. Tell them that every few years, a lot of the corals in the lagoon get stressed, die and are replaced with seaweed. Tell them that this is because of climate change, because that’s the truth.
Kiwis and Aussies have among the highest per-capita CO2 emission rates in the world. Tell them that they are partly responsible for what’s happening here and, more importantly, what will happen in years to come.
By their actions at home (driving a big versus a small car, supporting coal versus green energy etc.), visitors can influence the future course of the Cook Islands marine environment. Tourism operators influence these influencers, and I’ll bet they can make a more concrete impact than the pity-voting that passes for action at the global, annual climate change conferences.
Let’s use tourism to raise consciousness in places like New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. It doesn’t have to be “eco-this” or “eco-that”. It just requires honesty: “Our reefs and lagoons are beautiful, yes, but they’re not pristine. They are ecosystems in peril because of the actions of people like those in New Zealand, Australia, and the USA.”
It might be a downer for 10 seconds, but that knowledge will be empowering because it will create a sense of agency and responsibility.
We could just re-draw the map and define “pristine” as whatever makes us money in the here-and-now.
Alternatively, we could take a good look at our map, at what it actually shows, at what used to be there, at what “pristine” actually means.
Talk to our old people. Ask them what the lagoon/reef looked like 50 years ago. Their answers will be at once illuminating, depressing, and empowering. With that, we can start working harder to create an environment worthy of the word “pristine”.
It can be done, but nobody will do it for us.