Journal archives for November 2016

November 17, 2016

Back to Fiji again

I’ve just completed my tenth scuba diving trip to Fiji. This trip was organized by Josh & Liz of Undersea Productions, former Nai’a cruise directors who had not been back to Fiji in ten years. Eighteen of us were guests on the Nai’a, from Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and the United States. We had a rare twelve day cruise, longer than the Nai’a’s usual trips.

I few from Boston to Los Angeles to Nadi Fiji, arriving a day early to get over my jet lag and have a chance for any lost luggage to catch up. Fiji’s main airport is still being remodeled and is a huge construction zone. I stayed at the Tanoa International Hotel before and after the cruise. It is across the street from the Novotel where I usually stay and was very similar—the food maybe a bit better, the grounds somewhat smaller. The birding is better at the Novotel, so I’m likely to return there.

We were picked up by bus from the Tanoa and two other hotels for the ride to the Nai’a where it docks in Loutoka, half an hour away. The Nai’a looks so small next to the other ships there. She’s a 120 foot steel ship with a single mast, though it is rarely under sail rather than diesel power. We were greeted by the new cruise directors, Vanessa and Chad. This was just their fourth cruise, so myself and several others in our group had more experience here than they did. Kenny is captain now, Johnathan having switched to the Fiji Aggressor. And Big Mo was off this cruise, with Koroi filling in as dive guide. Mita and Suli still run the kitchen, and the food was very good as always. All of the cabins are doubles with private bath; I was sharing one with Doug Smith.

It is now nine months since Cyclone Winston devastated central Fiji. Besides the destruction on land, in some places coral 100 feet deep was wiped out. The Nai’a has been avoiding some dive sites since then, but we planned to check out a few of them during our time here.

As usual, our checkout dive the first afternoon was at Samu, just outside Loutoka. The cruise directors apologized that it is not a very pretty site, chosen to be close so they can go back into port if necessary before heading further afield. As a fish geek, I like the site because it has some fish that prefer silty lagoons and are not seen at other places that are more exposed. We spent our first full day of diving in Vatu-i-ra which is beautiful and in good shape. The sites consist of current-swept slopes, walls, and large pinnacles. Most are covered in soft corals and clouds of orange and purple anthias. Then we went south to the island of Gau for two days, where we dived Nigali Passage for sharks. The sharks did not disapoint, with many Gray Reef Sharks, plus White-tipped Reef Sharks, large schools of trevallies and barracudas, and odd pelagics coming through. The wall outside Nigali is now one of my favorite sites. And the lagoon slope inside the passage has changed from a simple sand slope to beautiful hard corals in the last ten years. We next spent a day at Wakaya where there are more beautiful sites on a wall. The usual mantas did not put in an appearance. But caves down on the wall were productive for cryptic fish like cave wrasses, shy tobies and various dottybacks and basslets. We then went north to Namena where we spent three days. This used to be one of the best areas of the itinerary, but it was hit particularly hard by Winston. The sites there are quickly recovering, though the resort on Namenalala Island has not been rebuilt. But Grand Central Station and Kansas are worth diving again. I dived deep on some of the walls, looking for deep water fish like Barrier Reef Anthias (which I found) and Watanabe Angelfish (which I didn’t). We next spent a day in the Vuda area where we dived old favorites Cat’s Meow and Humann Nature which are OK but missing the hard coral gardens on top. The next day we tried some of the very exposed sea mounts E6 and Mount Mutiny which were hard hit by Winston and had not been visited by the Nai’a since. These were disappointing, with much of the coral missing from the walls. So we switched back to Vatu-i-ra for the rest of that day, and a night dive where I showed flashlightfish to cruise director Vanessa while finally getting a photos of them—both fully lit and their eerie green glow in the dark—for my book. We finished the cruise with some sites off the north coast of Viti Levu on our way back to Loutoka.

I spent most of my dives looking for hard-to-find species of fish. I do this partly because I’m a fish geek and like to see unusual species, and partly because I am still looking for some pictures for the Fiji Reef Fish book I am working on. In my early Fiji trips I dived the typical profile, spending most of my time between 60 and 20 feet deep where the reef is prettiest. Now I start many dives as deep as my gas mix will allow, and end in the extreme shallows if present. In the depths I found anthias, wrasses, and even a Silvertip Shark. In the shallows I found damselfishes and other wrasses, and blennies as well. I poke my head into any cave I can find where I managed to see several basslets, dottybacks, cave wrasses and comets, plus the common squirrelfish and cardinalfish. I managed to have a brief glimpse of another rare shark, a Zebra Shark, on an outer slope where I surprised it and sent it off into the gloom.

Our village visit was at Somosomo on Gau, a place I have been to three times before. This time our visit was on a Saturday, so the older children who spend their weeks at a boarding school in another village were home. We toured the village, seeing their farming and weaving businesses. We stopped at their grade school where the little ones learn English and Japanese as well as Fijian. Then into the community hall for the Meke ceremony where we were formally welcomed, presented gifts, shared kava, then the villagers sang and danced for us. After this we did something different—we were invited to just sit among them and chat while more kava was shared.

Two of our days in Namena there were other dive boats also present: the Fiji Siren and the Fiji Aggressor. We coordinated dive schedules so that we were never on the same site at the same time. We held our kava party one of these nights, and invited former Nai’a crew who are currently working on those boats to come visit. They ended up coming over so late that I had already gone to bed, but I hear that Richie, Eddie, and Joji showed up.

I was the only one on the trip to go on every dive, 42 in total. I logged 473 species (13 new to me) while taking 3,200 photos. During the trip I did my one thousandth dive, and it was celebrated with a cake that evening. Now I’m pondering when I will be able to return.

Some photos from the trip are available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157675118273061

Posted on November 17, 2016 03:47 by maractwin maractwin | 0 comments | Leave a comment

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