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Sailing Circus: Sea stewardship's creative approach to cruising and conservation

by Lisa Benckhuysen 28 Jul 09:49 UTC
Aerialist Rumah in the rigging of SV Rosalie Clare, at anchor in Whale Bay © Jorge Rodriguez Roda

Acrobats in the rigging, clowns and jugglers on deck, 70 foot SV Rosalie Clare is a sailing circus! Designed and built by John Lidgard, this 1980 wooden ketch is currently the platform for a unique combination of conservation, cruising and now Cirque Lemuria.

Owner Ari Vanderschoot bought the vessel in Washington in 2010 and, with her partner Engineer Ben Vroom, sailed her to the South Pacific to enjoy their shared passion for the ocean.

Determined to contribute to the effort to save tropical coral reefs, they had planned to run a series of Sea Stewardship coral planting training sessions in Tuvalu in 2020. Covid-19 travel restrictions have put those plans on hold. Stuck in New Zealand, the pair hosted an impromptu circus onboard for the month of June and toured the Northland coast from the Bay of Islands to Aukland. The tour was such a success that a second is planned to Coromandel, Great Barrier Island, Waiheke and beyond. I took in the show at 116 Bank Street in Whangarei and spoke with them backstage.

How did the circus happen?

"We had a new crewmember who was a circus performer stranded by the pandemic. We asked her if she knew any others and she put it out on social media," explains Ari. Within a week they had assembled a group of ten artists and put together a show and a tour plan. The eclectic troupe includes professional acrobats, jugglers, clowns and musicians hailing from Spain, France, Austria, Netherlands, Bahamas, Canada, USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Onboard they share cooking, cleaning and watch duties as well as equal part in the tour proceeds and "lots of laughter". Performing in a variety of venues including coastal town halls and waterfront fields, Cirque Lemuria puts on a delightful performance that marries poetry, music and professional circus artistry with a timely conservation message.

Sea stewardship

Ben is originally from the Netherlands and trained as a mechanical and electrical engineer. In 2014 he worked on the Kwai, a sailing cargo ship servicing the remote islands of Kiribati, Tuvalu and other island groups. "I was so often asked for help," explains Ben." Can you fix the washing machine, the generator, the solar panels... in a few hours I could only do so much! Now (with Rosalie Claire) we have time and we can ask these remote villages what they need... We can help them with electronics and engines but also composting, organic farming and now coral planting... It all depends on the skills of the current crew. Sometimes our crew roster includes doctors and nurses, sometimes marine biologists and ecologists."

Ari elaborates, "Our purpose in Sea Stewardship is to train islanders in Tuvalu to build coral nurseries... and rebuild coral reefs with heat resistant corals...I want to do something to help the ocean and the reefs." Born in the Bahamas and having spent much of her adult life in Hawaii, she is a diver and surfer as well as an artist. "The ideas just keep coming" she laughs. Building on the model of Oceans Watch, a yacht based environmental organization founded in 2007 by Chris Bone of New Zealand, Sea Stewardship is a registered charity in Tuvalu. Reef restoration fits into the Tuvalu government's Ridge to Reef program which promotes community-based biodiversity conservation and restoration projects and development of sustainable livelihood.

Ari and Ben went to Dr. Austin Bowden Kerby, an American marine biologist and coral planting expert based in Fiji, to learn about reef restoration. He promotes resort based coral planting programs and has raised awareness of coral reef devastation through TED talks. He ran a training seminar for 23 NGO and resort staff from all over Fiji in May 2019 on Malolo Island. Bowden-Kerby sees a need for resorts to hire trained coral gardeners to protect and restore the reefs which draw tourists in the first place. He recognizes that untrained coral gardeners likely do as much harm as good!

Coral planting programs led by Victor Bonito, of the Coral Coast Conservation Center and Reef Explorer, going back to 2006 have shown that with informed scientific guidance, reef restoration can be done at low cost by community workers or volunteers. Heat resistant corals are propagated in nurseries made with three ply nylon lines on metal frames. In less than a year, fast growing Acropora fragments extend out in all directions and can be planted out on damaged reefs. Slower growing coral species can be propagated on cement disks.

In 2019 Reef Explorer reported annual planting of 7,000 corals. Over a period of 13 years, "over 50,000 corals consisting of more than 50 species have been propagated and transplanted back to the reef in village MPA s(marine protected areas), and village youth have received basic training in cost-effective coral propagation techniques, reef ecology and fauna, and integrating this work into guided snorkelling tours." The same article notes key best practices for coral planting.

Coral reefs are often described as the rainforests of the sea, providing habitat to approximately 25% of marine fish species at some point in their life cycle. Worldwide over five million people depend directly on reef fisheries. Reefs provide protection from erosion to marine coastlines and they contribute to the oxygen produced by the ocean.

According to some estimates, the ocean has absorbed 90% of the heat generated by the burning of fossil fuels and this has triggered increased frequency of coral bleaching events. Coral planting projects are under way in various parts of the globe: Fiji, Thailand, the Phillipines, Australia, the Caribbean, the Maldives and Mauritius to name a few. During the pandemic, dive tour operators have teamed up with researchers to propagate heat resistant corals and restore Australia's Great Barrier Reef. With Rosalie Clare, Sea Stewardship is poised to bring coral nurseries and reef restoration to the remote atolls of Tuvalu once pandemic travel restrictions are lifted.

Backstage at 116 Bank Street in Whangarei the performers of Cirque Lemuria gather their props and prepare to return to the Rosalie Clare in the dark but mild austral winter. They have performed for donations and put out a request for fresh vegetables and an outboard motor for the ship's tender. The outboard need not be in good repair as "Bengineer" can fix anything. The Rosalie Clare will ride the 3 am tide downriver and sail on to the next town where, no doubt, Cirque Lemuria will educate and enchant another audience.

Lisa Benckhuysen is a Canadian educator and freelance writer sailing around the world, slowly, with her husband Henk, on their modified 1985 Express 37, SV Harlequin. Currently in Whangarei, New Zealand, she is exploring how international cruisers are adapting to restrictions imposed by the pandemic.


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