Vanuatu: Snorkelling in an emerald lagoon

By Shandelle Battersby

Shandelle Battersby enjoys a day of thrilling adventures on - and under - the water.

Snorkelling in the lagoon. Photo / Supplied
Snorkelling in the lagoon. Photo / Supplied

We were halfway to a golden beach on the northern side of Moso Island in Vanuatu when Olive, our host for the day, who was perched on the end of our tender boat, started quietly whistling between her teeth.

A couple of minutes later a pod of about 20 dolphins popped out of the water and began taking turns to leap and dive in the waves before peeling off to give their mates a go.

Driver Sam slowly circled the tender so the thrilled passengers could enjoy the free show, before the dolphins got bored and sped off into the distance.

Olive had been careful not to promise a dolphin encounter as part of our day cruise aboard the classic sailboat Coongoola, especially as the mothers were feeding, so it was the icing on the cake of what proved to be a magical day on the water.

We'd been picked up earlier that morning in Port Vila after a quick ferry ride from Iririki. Our beautiful island resort in the middle of the harbour had reopened in May after extensive renovations following last year's devastating Cyclone Pam.

Over the next 25 minutes we wound our way north to Havannah Harbour via the steep Efate ring road, past ramshackle villages and through the lush tropical rainforest of the Vanuatu hinterland.

The Coongoola. Photo / Supplied
The Coongoola. Photo / Supplied

As we stood on the shoreline and surveyed the empty, serene expanse of the harbour, it was hard to imagine it populated with Catalina flying boats, aircraft carriers and battleships during World War II when the US Navy used it as a military base.

The Coongoola awaited us, anchored out in the bay, a handsome 23m timber ketch - built in Queensland in 1949 - which carries up to 60 passengers.

Our first stop was a baby turtle conservation rookery at the Tranquillity Island Eco-Resort, an impressive local project which has seen the survival rate of endangered hawksbill turtles increase by 80 per cent in the 10 years it has been running.

It is a simple but effective set-up - about 400 to 500 turtles at different ages up to 15 months old occupy concrete tanks shaped like flower pots, with some of the smallest babies wallowing around in an old bathtub. Each turtle is tagged before it is released so the programme's organisers can keep track of the numbers. One even ended up in Byron Bay on Australia's east coast. So far 1000 have been released into the wild.

We were shown how to carefully hold some of the more mature turtles - they flap their arms vigorously when they've had enough - and it felt good to know that half of the proceeds of our tickets went towards the rescue operation.

Our base for the rest of the afternoon was the pristine, private beach on Moso's north side, where we enjoyed a superb lunch of salads, vegetables and Santo steak and sausages.

Turtles on Tranquillity Island Eco Resort, Vanuatu. Photo / Supplied
Turtles on Tranquillity Island Eco Resort, Vanuatu. Photo / Supplied

Some in the group took the tender out to the coral reef for crystal-clear snorkelling in the emerald lagoon. They saw harmless reef sharks, manta rays and moray eels, but the dugong proved elusive. For those not keen on the deeper waters, there was plenty to see in the shallows around the beach.

Back on board the Coongoola there was one more leaping aquatic show in store for us as we motored back to Havannah, when the staff threw our lunch scraps overboard for the circling yellowfin tuna, wahoo and snapper to fight over, thrashing about in the water in a feeding frenzy.

The dolphins were prettier, but this bubbling mass was a sharp reminder of the life teeming beneath the waves.


Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies from Auckland to Port Vila.

Details: The Coongoola Day Cruise departs from Havannah Bay, Efate.

Further information: See

- NZ Herald

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