A loud splash breaks the early morning quiet. Those of us lounging on the bow of our catamaran look to Cyrille Cottica, our dapper French captain, who is scanning the impossibly blue water with binoculars.
We’ve been cruising New Caledonia’s southern lagoon off Dumbéa Bay for an hour, and we’re all hoping to see a green turtle. It turns out we don’t need binoculars to spot these graceful teardrop-shaped creatures.
Dropping anchor in the shallow reef that surrounds L’îlot Amedée, a speck of palm-laced sand off the coast of the country’s capital Nouméa, we’re soon surrounded by more turtles than we can count.
Slipping into the warm South Pacific water, I find myself mask-to-flipper with an adult male, gliding between rainbow schools of parrotfish, clownfish and angelfish. Encircled by a double coral barrier reef – the second longest in the world after the Belize Barrier Reef – New Caledonia’s six linked lagoons cover more than 15,700 sq. km.
Together, they form the largest lagoon on the planet and, thanks to conservation efforts since its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, it has become a breeding ground for a mind-blowing menagerie of marine animals.
As we’ve just discovered, these waters are an important nesting site for the green sea turtle, but they’re also home to a third of the world’s endangered dugongs as well as an estimated 1000 species of fish and 146 species of coral.
Swimming toward Amedée’s whitewashed lighthouse we’re accompanied by spangled emperors and giant trevally, and even a spotted eagle ray, gliding along the sandy ocean floor.
Seasonally, the lagoon also hosts Spanish mackerel, flying fish, giant manta and great barracuda. There’s so much diversity here that many species are still being discovered – last year, in fact, two fishermen on Tombo Reef nearby came across a small silver fish with googly eyes; after analysis, scientists declared it a new species, now called Polyipnus laruei.
An avid sailor since he was a child, Cyrille moved from Paris to the archipelago – a French overseas territory since 1956 – 10 years ago. He launched an adventure cruise company and has since been taking guests on day trips to explore the reef, as well as overnight excursions to outer islands including Ile des Pins, a glorious coral atoll known locally as l’île la plus proche du paradis (“the island closest to Paradise”).
“Nothing bad ever happens out here in the water, on the beach,” Cyrille tells me. “You swim, you sleep on the sand, you have a Number One beer and watch the sunset.
People are always happy when they come see me. How can I not love my job?” Cruising back to land at a leisurely pace, our captain points out Îlot Goéland, a tiny lagoon island that is closed to visitors from 1 October to 31 March, the breeding season of the roseate tern.
“This archipelago is also an Endemic Bird Area [EBA],” he says. “There are 23 species of birds here that you will only find in New Caledonia.”
As we near Nouméa, the lagoon’s perfectly proportioned surf-white fringe, aquamarine inner band and high green centre meet the deep sea.
A cluster of islands in the South Pacific, around 3300 km east of Australia, New Caledonia manages to squeeze an incredible amount of diversity into its landfalls.
Grande Terre is by far the largest of the islands, its terrain as varied as the shores are beautiful: from cattle herding and French-cowboy farmland to forest-carpeted hillsides; from staggering waterfalls to craggy mountains; from sunken tree marshland to palm-lined stretches of sand.
The islands’ European heritage means that French is the main spoken language, although there are still 28 Melanesian dialects traded among the indigenous Kanak tribes.
It’s an incongruous cultural union. At Nouméa’s popular farmers’ market, stalls sell gooey Camembert and Brie alongside coconuts and cassava; Champagne is as cheap as kava; and you’ll just as likely find freshly baked baguettes on the menu as you will fresh fish ceviche.
It’s like someone took everything travellers love about France and injected it with a relaxed island vibe. Arriving in Nouméa, hugging the southern coast of Grande Terre, I’m overwhelmed by the tropical aromas that hit me on the way to my resort: coconut husks, frangipani and warm, damp earth, oil and salt air, a complicated, pungent layering of scents.
Standing on my hotel patio staring at Anse Vata Bay, the sunset blazes behind a parade of kitesurfers making the most of the warm evening breeze.
Nouméa is becoming a magnet for the world’s top freestyle kitesurfers, who come here for the flat lagoons, reef waves, and seasonal winds – and to compete at the annual World Kiteboarding League’s final contest, often held on the very same stretch of sea my room overlooks.
There are a handful of other attractions in Nouméa, such as the busy produce market where stallkeepers sell piles of bluespine unicornfish, prawns of every denomination, lobsters, green-fringed mussels, oysters, marlin, mahi-mahi, octopus and crab and I discover big, ruby-red chunks of glistening tuna piled at every other shop.
There’s also the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, an insightful introduction to Kanak heritage, and the Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie, with exhibits from across the Pacific region. But between Cyrille and the kitesurfers, I’m fast learning that life here revolves around the water.
Take the Plunge
When I’m not on the water or in it, I’m flying over it. From the seat of a tiny Pipistrel plane, an ultralight monoglider that takes me from Kone airfield on the west coast over an intensely hued stretch of sea and sublime lenticular reef, I gaze over a lagoon that goes on and on for kilometres before finally breaking in toothpaste-white billows of surf onto the reef.
It’s a coral patchwork filled with every shade of blue, from azure to turquoise, so vivid and piercing it’s as though a filter has been applied to the landscape.
Before long we’re skimming over palm trees then mangroves on the way to the Great Blue Hole, where the ocean floor sinks from 10m to 300m in an instant, creating a dramatic smudge of inky black in the middle of the azure.
The area owes a large part of its popularity to French photographer and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who covered two of his books, The Earth From the Air and Earth from Above, with images of a natural heart formation amid emerald-green coastal vegetation, which we fly over next.
A perfect heart shape formed in mangroves, La Cœur de Voh (The Heart of Voh) can also be glimpsed on a hike through Kone’s mountains, but my bird’s-eye vantage is by far the best way to take this wonder in. •
Photography by Natasha Dragun.
The international airline of New Caledonia, Aircalin, operates 12 flights per week non-stop from Australia to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. Flights take just over two hours from Brisbane, less than three hours from Sydney and under four hours from Melbourne. 1300-655-737; au.aircalin.com
Where to stay
Newly renovated, the beachfront Le Méridien Noumea Resort & Spa is a laidback blend of French sophistication and warm Pacific island ambience. Overlooking Anse Vata Bay – a hot spot for sunset kitesurfing – the resort’s tropical gardens and excellent restaurants complement spacious, light-filled rooms and suites. lemeridiennoumea.com