GERALDINE PANAPASA, Fiji Times
However, many people have limited knowledge about the history of Nukulau Island.
The island was a picnic spot until 2000 when coup plotters were kept there as prisoners.
Nukulau is off the Laucala waterfront and is a 15-minute boat ride from Suva Point.
George Speight, Jo Nata and others will always remember Nukulau for they were imprisoned there as political prisoner Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island.
But while Mandela spent more than two decades on Robben island, Speight and his band were transferred to Naboro prison.
Nukulau Island played a role in the ceding of Fiji to Britain in 1874.
The island was owned by the American Consul John Brown Williams in 1846. The funny thing is that Williams had bought the island for a mere 30 dollars. He lived there in a wooden two-storey house he built, for three years.
On July 4, 1849, his store was destroyed in a fire which started from a canon burst during American Independence Day celebrations.
When his store burned, natives looted the few belongings he salvaged.
Six years later, another fire destroyed his house and this time, Williams held Ratu Seru Cakobau, the Vunivalu of Bau and self-proclaimed Tui Viti (King of Fiji) responsible for the looting.
With the support of the United States Navy, Williams demanded Cakobau pay $US43,531 in compensation for his losses which were valued at $US5000 plus claims by other settlers.
Cakobau's inability to pay the debt led to a series of negotiations with the United Kingdom resulting in the decision to cede the Fiji Islands to the UK in 1874. Historians believe the debt was deeply exaggerated and largely fabricated. The history of Nukulau did no tend with the commencement of British colonial rule. Between 1879 and 1916, the island served as a quarantine centre for thousands of Indian indentured labourers brought in by the British. They were either employed in Fiji's sugar plantations or sent back to India after health checks.
A prison was opened on the island on July 21, 2000, two months after a coup.
The prison was home for coup frontman Speight and former journalist Josefa Nata.
On December 18, 2006, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama decided to close the prison and convert the island to a public park.
The island prison was decommissioned because of the excessive costs of maintenance such as the provision of two boats provided by the Prisons department costing about $160,000 in 2001. Commodore Bainimarama had said the Prisons department had to stretch its resources to cater for extra fuel and maintenance of the boats. The total cost of operating the boats alone came to $100,000 a year.
Present and future
The decommissioning of Nukulau prison paved the way for possible tourism openings.
The Suva City Council has expressed interest in securing a lease from the landowners to transform Nukulau to a cruise destination. The possible introduction of a ferry service between the island and Suva harbour would boost tourism in the capital.
The acting assistant director for the Lands department, Laisa Raratabu, said the island was a picnic spot again.
She said if people wanted to enjoy a day on the island, they have to apply to the department.
"The fee is $2 a person. There are rules people need to follow. The money from the fees or charges is revenue for the Government," said Ms Raratabu.
The divisional surveyor Central/ Eastern, Peni Racava, said the fees helped to maintain the island. There is a caretaker on the island.
"There have been a lot of interest shown by individuals and shipping businesses. From what we gather from tourist agencies, many tourists want to visit the island.
"Locals go there for a picnic and it is open from 7am to 5pm. Tourists are charged $5 a head. People wanting to visit the island should write to management stating the reason for going to the island. They have to find their own way to the island and back."
There are several thatched bure on the island and cooking places.
The barbed wires, prison dormitories, fencing and all indications to suggest the island was a prison have been removed.
Now, Nukulau is a hideaway for picnickers or divers wanting to explore the coral reef.
Managing and maintaining our coral reefs
Fiji's Great Reef or Cakaulevu is the longest and most complex reef system in the Fiji Islands.
It is also the third longest barrier reef system in the world. It runs along the shelf edge in a near continuous chain for more than 200 kilometres converging toward the coast of Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu
An estimated 202,700 square kilometres of the Fiji archipelago are coral reef habitats.
This underwater pride is estimated to represent 9 per cent of coral reefs of the Pacific and 3.5 per cent of the total area of coral reefs in the world.
There are about 298 species of scleractinian coral recorded with 475 species of mollusc and 60 species of ascidian in Fiji.
A total of 1208 species of fish have been recorded within Fiji and most of these are associated with coral reefs.
All these findings and records are the reasons coral reefs are important.
The alarming decline of the Earth's coral habitats through cyclones, disease, predators and volcanic eruptions harm reefs and corals.
However, even after such catastrophe, corals tend to regenerate.
Two other critical factors to coral reef decline are the high percentage of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere and rising sea temperatures.
These two factors may cripple coral's ability to recover.
Other threats to the Great Reef include over-fishing and poaching by illegal fishers, fish poisoning, siltation of near-shore environment caused by erosion and upland activities, dredging of sand for construction purposes, use of small-mesh fishing nets and use of hookah for beche-de-mer collection.
One way to address this devastating environmental issue is practising coral reef maintenance or management.
This is where 20 youths representing four different communities in Fiji come into the picture.
They participated in a Fiji country program community survey methods training instigated by the World Wildlife Fund.
The youths are from Kabara, Malomalo and eight from Ono-i-Lau. Despite coming from different districts, the youths are connected to their coastal environment.
For the past three weeks, the youths have been trained in diving by certified divers on Nukulau Island for a week.
The aim of the training program was to allow the youths to apply all of their training and theory work exercises when they go back to their island communities.
The training will make them better monitor their respective island reefs.
WWF community coral reef survey team leader Monifa Fiu said the youths were chosen by their village heads.
She said the dive training involved coral reef survey methods based on a worldwide methodology to determine the health of reefs.
"The training was an orientation of that methodology. This is not the first time we have worked with members of different communities.
"Part of our work is visiting the various communities and enlightening them on our work. We used to work with small groups of four but this is the first time we had a combination of youths from four different communities.
"The youths have a lot in common and they not only get the opportunity to share their fishing skills but will be able to learn more about the different coral life forms.
"We had three dive operators helping with the training. They are very natural when it comes to diving but with diving there are certain procedures to follow. They also learn about these procedures."
Ms Fiu said dive practice included going out to the reef where groups of four divers would practise coral reef survey methods. She said the youths were taught data collecting.
Ms Fiu said the work of WWF on managing and maintaining healthy coral reefs was part of their message on good environmental practices.
"In each group, the members are paired-up. They are always in pairs, no one swims alone.
"Two divers would be at one coral point while the other two would lay the tape measuring 50 metres to another coral point. Once the tape is set out, one pair would swim to the end of the tape and conduct a fish count.
"Once they reach the other side, the other pair would swim to the other side counting inverts such as clams and lobsters in between the coral reef.
"In the process, data is being recorded with every survey or training.
"Data is important. It determines basic information regarding the health of the reef, status of fish life and management ideologies on maintaining the reef.
"Not only has the training provided them with a general background and understanding the ecology of reefs but it will also give the participants information about survey methods of coral reefs and explore the potential of coral reef bleaching and monitoring of their local reefs."
She said one of the objectives was to enhance village-level coral reef management by training customary resource owners in low-tech, locally tailored, coral reef monitoring.
Ms Fiu said good environmental practices would be more meaningful if carried out by the different communities.
She said by doing so the environmental messages would be much stronger and they were planning to get more people involved and become aware of the roles they can play in monitoring the health of coral reefs.
One of the youths, Josese Voce from Malomalo in Nadroga, said he was happy to be part of the WWF-funded training.
He said he was used to free diving in the village and did not know the ecology of coral reefs until he joined the program.
For Josese, diving is an aspect of life in the village. Not only is it a hobby, it is also a job especially for villagers depended on food from the sea.
"I learned a lot about the different species of fish and corals.
"When I used to dive in the village, I already knew about the corals and fish but to go deeper and learn about the different kinds was new to me.
"I plan to teach others in my village the things I have learnt, especially in caring for the coral reef and the importance of having a healthy coral reef.
"I feel this is important because we depend so much on the sea for our livelihood and food.
"Learning about coral reef survey methods is also interesting. Even diving with equipment was new. I don't use the kind of equipment for diving such as gas tanks and flippers.
"Free dive is different because we don't have gas tanks and it is hard.
"We learn how to use gas tanks and they monitor how much air we use. It helps us control our breathing under water."
The 17-year-old said being a certified diver was a golden opportunity to find employment in the tourism industry.
He hopes to act as a tourist guide for his village.
The Great Reef fringes the entire coast of Macuata province in Vanua Levu.
To date, of the total number of species recorded in Fiji from any one area,
Cakaulevu has the highest percentage recorded including 55 per cent of the known coral reef fish in Fiji, 74 per cent of the known coral species in Fiji, 40 per cent of the known marine flora in Fiji and 44 per cent of Fiji's endemic reef fish species.
The island which played a role when Fiji was ceded to Britain - Fiji Times Online