Journal archives for May 2016

May 13, 2016

More Fiji Diving

I’m back from another scuba diving trip to Fiji. My friend Heidi and I spent a week at Matava Resort on Kadavu Island, then ten days on the Nai’a liveaboard with a group led by Steve Webster.

This was my first time to dive in Fiji someplace besides on the Nai’a. Kadavu is the fourth-largest island, south of the main island of Viti Levu. It is bordered by the Great Astrolabe Reef, the second largest reef on the planet after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We flew into the international airport at Nadi, then took a very small plane for the 45 minute flight to Kadavu. We were met by someone from the resort, and taken by pickup truck to the harbor after making several stops for groceries. Then we had an hour long boat trip to get to the resort, on the south east coast of the island.

Matava prides itself as an eco-resort. They have taken a number of steps to lower their environmental impact. Electric power is only available during the day from solar power, and very limited power in the evenings for fans from a generator. There is no power in the burés (cabins), only in the main lodge. Water comes from a rain collection system, with solar heaters. At night they use kerosine lanterns to light the lodge, and provide solar-rechargable flashlights for guest use. They grow many of their own vegetables and raise chickens. Kitchen scraps are fed to the animals, and much else is composted. They have tried to do the right thing for the right reasons, though in such a remote location some of it is from necessity. There are no municipal utilities and the nearest store is an hour away.

We only interacted with 7-8 staff members, though there were clearly more around. During the week we were there, thye hosted as few as six and as many as twelve guests, though they could handle double that. All meals were served at the main lodge on an open patio. Breakfast featured eggs to order (except for the day that the hens didn’t lay enough) and most other meals were served family style. Their website claimed that they can cater to vegetarians and vegans, but Heidi found that they weren’t feeding her well, especially with a lack of vegetable protein, and ended up leaving a couple of days early because she was starving. They had a bar with a nice list of speciality drinks, with happy hour every afternoon; we enjoyed that, particularly the Rattlesnake Margarita, which had muddled ginger. There had been a shakeup in the staff recently which probably explains some of the mixups and service problems. Two of the three owners were present while we were there, trying to fix things.

James ran the dive operations. They offered a two-tank boat trip every morning, plus shore diving on the house reef or additional dives if specifically requested. The first two days had poor visibility and mediocre conditions, but the next three days were markedly better. The first day we dived inside the lagoon, probably because we had snorkelers and novice divers along. The next day we did a pair of manta dives where we did see a few reef mantas, though not close in the 30 foot visibility and there wasn’t a lot else to see. However, the weather improved, and we dived outside the lagoon on the Great Astrolabe Reef the next three days where the visibility and marine life were much better. Richard Akhtar, one of the owners of the resort, arrived mid-week and offered to help when he heard that I am a fish geek looking for rare species; he took us to a point where deep water species can be found as shallow as 120 feet. There I saw Gilded Triggerfish, Painted Anthias, Barrier Reef Anthias, and Fourspot Butterflyfish.

The boat operations are tricky at Matava. Directly in front of the resort is a shallow mud/sea grass/reef flat much of which is exposed at low tide and only a few feet deep at high tide. To get to the dive boat, we walked across the mud & sea grass area until it got to be at least 18 inches deep, where we could get in the dingy. This boat then ferried us to the dive boat moored in the channel 300 feet off shore. The crew moved tanks and scuba gear (and my camera rig), but it was still time consuming and a lot of effort to transfer between the actual dive boat and shore. I snorkeled the house reef a couple of times. There were several fish new to me in the sea grass, shallow reef flat and along the mangroves nearby. The reef and fish life looked good where it became deeper than a few feet, but I never really investigated that.

We had also chosen this location for the birding. Kadavu has four endemic bird species, not found anywhere else on earth. The resort offers birding walks. However, due to communication issues we missed an opportunity to go birding early in the week, so I only went my last full day there. The walk was fun, but I only saw one of the endemic species, the Kadavu Shining Parrot, and that only from a great distance. A couple of guests there while we were came primarily for the birding, and they did get to see all four endemics.

After my week on Kadavu, I few back to Nadi just in time for the transfer to the Naia. I was concerned about getting there on time and with all of my luggage. There’s no guarantee that these small planes (a Twin Otter) will take all of the luggage if it’s a full flight. But we made it, a little early even, so I transferred to the hotel where everyone else was waiting for the bus to take us to the ship. On the way we stopped in Loutoka to pick up Judith, the U.S. ambassador to Fiji who was also aboard this part of the trip. Shortly thereafter all eighteen of us boarded the Nai’a and I was greeting old friends among the crew.

Amanda and Joshua are still the cruise directors, as they have been for my previous two trips as well. Keni is now captain, as Johnathan is currently captain of the Fiji Dancer. The other two dive masters were Big Mo and Koroi (previously a skiff driver). There were some new faces among the 14 crew, but the same friendliness, sense of humor, singing, and so much kava. The food continues to get better aboard the Nai’a, and they make ongoing improvements to the boat like a new lounge area at the back of the salon. The 18 guests were mostly from California and a varied bunch. This trip was originally announced as Steve Webster’s last dive trip, but like the Rolling Stones, he has already scheduled another farewell tour after this one.

The big news in Fiji was Cyclone Winston back in February, which did a lot of damage both on land and in the shallow seas. The village on Makogai and resorts on Namena and Taveuni were wiped out, and many other villages were damaged and people died. The Nai’a aided in relief efforts following the storm, and continues to bring more needed supplies to some small islands. Judith brought along boxes of school books to be delivered to several villages during our cruise. Several of the favorite dive sites on Nai’a’s usual itinerary were damaged by Winston and are not worth diving right now. However, given the health of the seas in the area, some recovery is visible three months later and a few years from now many should be fully recovered. But it was disappointing not to spend much time in Namena; most of the hard corals are gone from North Save-a-tack and half of the “wheat” from Kansas. We did not go to the sea mounts of Mt. Mutiny or E6 at all, and the wreck of the Nasi Yalodina has slid down into the abyss. Following the cyclone, they did many exploratory dives, and have added some new sites to the itinerary, and we spent a couple of days diving Taveuni, a place that the Nai’a never used to go to. There are plenty of great dive sites still in central Fiji.

Because I am looking for seldom-seen fish to complete my Fiji Reef Fish book, on every dive with a wall or slope facing the open ocean I started down at 120 feet, as well as getting into wave-swept shallows when possible (sometimes both on the same dive). I was successful in finding several of my target species in this way. Thirty new species on the trip, and many many more improved photos for my book.

This was a good trip for big fish. Besides the expected White-tipped Reef Sharks on many sites, and occasional Grey Reef Sharks cruising the outer edges, we saw quite a few Dogtooth Tuna and Spanish Mackerels. Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks were seen several times (with photos to prove it) and a Great Hammerhead too far into the blue for a picture. Mantas were seen on many dives at Wakaya and Gau. The usual shark dive at Nigali Passage near Gau had about 20 Grey Reef Sharks, plus plenty of other excitement.

As usual, I’m a sucker for the small colorful reef fish. Three different kinds of anemonefish, clouds of purple and orange anthias, and streams of blue and yellow fusiliers were on most dive sites. Pairs of yellow, black and white butterflyfishes move about the reefs, Groups of turquoise and lavender parrotfishes browse on algae. Wrasses in a dizzying array of colors and patterns fly about the reef. Most of these fish are familiar, and what I love about Fiji. When I am not finding anything new, I study the behaviors of the fish I know. I see how three different fishes, a bream, an emperor, and a goatfish, can hunt cooperatively together. How damselfishes try to defend their territories from schools of surgeonfish who cannot compete one at a time, but can overwhelm when they appear in large numbers.

We also saw plenty of the weird and wonderful. Tiny pygmy seahorses 1/4 inch long. Crinoid clingfishes living among the feathery arms of a crinoid. Transparent cleaner shrimp with spots of blue, purple, pink, and white. Black and white banded sea snakes. Upside-down jellyfish pulsing on the sandy bottom. Nudibranchs in every color imaginable. Night dives especially have unusual sightings: dinner-plate sized pleurobranchs, decorator crabs that can only be seen when they move, and flashlight fish glowing green.

We did our village visit at Kioa Island where there is a group of Polynesians from Tuvalu. They moved to this island during World War II and are the only such group in Fiji. They keep their language and customs alive to maintain a unique cultural identity while participating in Fijian life too. They sang and danced for us, but appeared more Hawaiian than Fijian. Another afternoon some people visited Vatu-i-ra Island where there is a seabird colony (I didn’t want to skip a dive for that on this trip). Cyclone Winston stripped most of the vegetation from the island and this year’s nesting is likely a total loss, but there are still birds flying about the island and new growth appearing from stripped tree trunks, so the colony will hopefully recover quickly.

Two of the guests, Bill & Tami, were married during the trip. Steve Webster officiated with the Nai’a crew performing music. It was held up on the sun deck, decorated with palm fronds and flowers. Bill had proposed to Tami underwater during a dive in Baja last year, and they are doing another wedding this summer in California for family.

I did every dive during the trip, five on one day and 37 total on the Nai’a. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts of this trip. I continue to find that Fiji is my favorite diving, with colorful healthy reefs, friendly people, and it’s easy to get to from the States. And in spite of so many trips, I still find new fish I have never seen before. I took 3700 photos while logging 337 species at Matava (18 new to me) and 482 species on the Nai’a (12 new to me). And I will be returning to Fiji in November.

Some of my favorite photos from the trip are at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157665888554584

Posted on May 13, 2016 14:22 by maractwin maractwin | 1 comment | Leave a comment

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