30 March – 2 April 2013
Mali Island, Fiji – 16°19’60” S 179°21’0″ E
When we first received our shot list from Patricia Mallam of WWF South Pacific on what to document in the Great Sea Reef, one line jumped out like it was in ALL CAPS and in BOLD LETTERS. MUD CRABS!
I simply adore eating mud crabs. To go to a village or villages harvesting mud crabs from their mangroves, I might as well be in heaven. On Mali Island, thick mangrove forests cover substantial parts of the island’s coastlines. This got me really excited seeing pure mud crab habitat in the thick mangrove forests! I was not shy in telling our hosts in each village that I could eat mud crabs every day! And guess what, I ate mud crabs EVERYDAY!
Oh, but I digress. I must talk about the importance of mangroves as an ecosystem. Mangroves are often perceived as muddy and stinky marine environments full of mosquitos. Superficially, it is all that but its treasure lies beyond the face value (which actually is quite beautiful). Mangrove environments protect coastal areas from erosion, storm surges especially during cyclones, and tsunamis.
For providing villagers sustenance, mangrove areas are fish nurseries and sanctuaries where many fish species raise their young. Countless living organisms inhabit mangroves from microscopic life forms, to fish and invertebrates to sea birds and bats. Oh, and did I mention mud crabs?!
In Nakawaqa Village, we saw a handful of boys climbing in and out of the mangroves quite excited. It was not yet full low tide so our boat managed to get very close to them.
They showed us a newly caught mud crab that recently molted off its old shell. The boy was holding it with his open palms and I exclaimed “Isn’t he afraid of getting pinched by the claws?!” They laughed and said the claws were too soft and the animal too weak to do anything. They all agreed this crab was for me to eat so I can try even the shell which is also edible at this soft state. I was flabbergasted. Our host prepared the soft shelled crab in coconut milk for dinner and I was urged to eat even the claws! My oh my, was I insanely happy. And this was just the beginning…
When we got to Ligaulevu, the real deal was to unfold. Sally Baily Conservation Director from WWF South Pacific in Suva was on her Easter break and she went home to Mali Island to be with her husband Leone Vokai and his family. Sally quickly told us what life in the village was like and what we could do and photograph while in Mali. We were in very good hands and the days ahead filled up with activities. Leone’s sister Dee right away found out my love of crabs and that we wanted to photograph the best mud crab harvester from their village. Sooner than a flash, we met dear Mita. Mita is the best crabber in the village and the moon and tides were perfect for Mita to catch our crabs.
Guess what we had for lunch everyday for 3 days? Dee & her mum made us crab in coconut milk the Fijians call lolo. Dee first boiled the crab for 12 minutes and they painstakingly took out all the meat from the shell! Dee grated 2 coconuts to extract milk from it. From their outdoor kitchen with wood-fired cooking, Dee steamed the crab meat with garlic, onions, coconut milk and a little salt. They made us our crab meals we will never ever forget. The effort they went through to prepare this dish again and again left us feeling so special and cared for, as we knew what it meant to spend time getting meat off a crab!
So how could I not love the mangrove environment when it brings heavenly food like crabs in lolo sauce to the dining table?