Sumong! The Day After
The Earth was reshaped dramatically in just seven minutes last Boxing Day. Weeks later, photographer Massimo Boyer and Heike Bartsch visited and were first to dive the area in Indonesia closest to the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the Tsunami
|ON THE FOURTH DAY, we reached the north side of Simeulue, in North Sumatra. It was this side of the 50-mile-long island that had taken the full force of last Decembers Tsunami, and at Lekon island the view was breathtaking. The whole island had been lifted by at least 2m, pushing the coral reef out of the water.
We were seeing an event normally associated with geological eras, but which had occurred in just seven minutes of tremors.
Whole coral colonies had emerged from their environment to be bleached under the Equatorial sun. Crabs, molluscs, animals normally living submerged under the protecting canopy of the reef, had grotesquely dried where they died.
As we dived along the sheltered side of the small island, we could see the destruction caused by the earthquake that had shattered the limestone platform below.
The shock of the arriving wave had been absorbed well, but the return of the water toward the open sea had carried a huge mass of silt and debris onto the reef, choking the coral. Fouled with macro-algae, they could no longer offer shelter even for small fish. Only the herbivorous fish such as surgeonfish and parrotfish still sought food here.
The map of Simeulue needs to be redrawn. The oriental composure of the inhabitants allows few feelings to show, but in them we could read fear, in memory of those seven minutes during which the ground had rocked; sadness for everything swept away by a series of five waves, each one higher than the last up to 10m; and the pride of people accustomed to living with this crazy, ever-moving Earths crust.
Their close link with nature helped the people of Simeulue to limit the loss of human life to six. As soon as the end of the strong tremors allowed them to walk again, they responded to an ancestral call by heading for the hills to safety. Back in 1907, a similar event had devastated these shores. People then had baptised the phenomenon in the local dialect: sumong.
We were part of a scientific expedition in which Italian and Indonesian marine biologists and ecologists had come to survey the state of the reefs two months after the Tsunami. With the help of local dive centre Mondoblu Indo Scuba and the liveaboard Santa Lusia, we were the first to dive the area in which the phenomenon that had devastated Indian Ocean coasts had originated.
In southern Simeulue, we found that large reef areas had already been heavily damaged, probably by dynamite fishing, but elsewhere the reef was pretty, healthy and rich, with abundant feeding butterflyfish a good sign.
Simelutjur island was exposed to strong western winds, so its reef had adapted to survive the impact of powerful waves, with the coral growing horizontally. Fish and reef had stood up to the tsunami well.
But further north, Langi reef had been turned upside-down. We saw inverted boulders, amazing cracks, and surviving coral striving in unnatural positions, scarred by impact from objects hurled at it by the wave.
What fish remained were mostly juveniles, recruits from pelagic larvae that had settled after the event.
Silaut Kecil was the nearest point to the epicentre, and the uplifting of the Earths crust here gave some idea of the earthquakes overwhelming power. This was a reef accustomed to strong water movements, but we saw it dried and bleached.
On the protected southern coast of Silaut Kecil we found signs of an older destruction from fishing methods such as dynamite or cyanide. Here the reefs worst enemy had not been the tsunami.
Throughout northern Simeulue, the shallow reef and all its associated fauna and flora have been dried and killed. At least 60 miles of coastline were affected. The submerged reef was also destroyed in many areas.
Simeulue and neighbouring Banda Aceh took the full force of the Tsunami, protecting what lay east and south behind them. Locations close on the map but sheltered behind Sumatra, such as Singapore or the rest of Indonesia, registered no damage at all.
How long will it take for the reef to recover It will never be exactly the same but its condition will improve. This recovery will bee faster in area of low population. It will take between 10 and 100 years to have new colonies of coral of 1m diameter or more.
|Surviving acropora colonies, unnaturally posed on their substrate. |
|Views of Simeulue soon after the Tsunami struck, (taken by rescuer Sony Muchnizon) |
|The presence of pinstriped butterflyish is a good indicator of the health of a reef |
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