About twenty-five years ago, I read a story about giant clams in Outside magazine. At that point, all I knew about giant clams is what I had seen in the Tarzan movies. I’m talking about the really old Tarzan movies that starred Johnny Weissmuller… B&W movies from before WW II. Anyway, they liked putting in scenes where Tarzan’s wife Jane swims to the bottom of a lagoon and gets her foot stuck in a giant clam’s mouth. At that point, Tarzan swims down to the rescue.
The reality is there have been very few fatalities attributed to giant clams…if any. On a coral reef, they’re the equivalent of couch potatoes. Once they settle in, they cement themselves in place and are there for life. Giant clams are filter feeders, sucking in every kind of nutritive detritus that happens to float by. They do it very efficiently; well enough in fact that they can grow up to about three feet in diameter. Unfortunately for them, they also happen to be good eating for pacific islanders, most of whom live off the bounty of the sea. In too many places, culinary appeal has turned the giant clam into an endangered species.
Anyway, this Outside magazine story I read was about Dr. Richard Chesher, an American marine biologist, who’s working with local villagers in Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga to create underwater sanctuaries to restore giant clams to places where they had disappeared because of overexploitation. And, it turns out, it’s an idea that works. In places where you create clam sanctuaries protected by the local people, the entire reef is restored.
So, I tracked down this guy Chesher. The next thing I know, I’m in Tonga, hanging out with him and his artist wife, Frederique Lesne aboard Moira, their beautifully maintained 44 foot sailing yacht/research base. I found myself swimming above a circle of giant clams living happily in one of Chesher’s sanctuaries. Not exactly an everyday experience. The most satisfying thing that came out of that trip to the South Pacific was the lasting friendship I developed with Rick and Freddie, two of the most remarkable people I have ever met.
Today there are many giant clam sanctuaries in the South Pacific. See the video below.