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  • 2000-09 A Ride Through the Food Chain
    by Clay H. Wiseman
    We landed in Nadi on the west coast of Viti Levu, the largest of the three hundred islands that make up the archipelago of Fiji.

    As I moved across the tarmac my head swam with the sights and smells of wild orchids, frangipani, hibiscus, ginger plants and impossibly tall palm trees ruffled by the warm Pacific breezes.

    After collecting our mountain of dive gear, we headed north to the port of Lautoka for the first leg of a journey that would take us on a ride through Neptune’s food chain.



    Captain Sean Harrison of the Fiji Aggressor first delivered us to Namena Island, which is south of Savu Savu Bay on Vanua Levu Island, the second largest of the Fijian islands. At the entrance to the barrier reef we dived a couple of bommies (pinnacles) that were perhaps one hundred feet in diameter. The bommies reached from the sea bed at about 70 feet to within only 10 feet from the surface.



    From the surface at Chimneys we could see the coral bommie shimmering green and gold within the deep blue field of crystalline water. The current was running, so our Fijian guide, “Bear,” set a current line atop the bommie for us to catch as we drifted down from the drop-off point. I rolled over backwards from the skiff, grabbed my camera and swam toward the line. Ahead of me, dense red fields of color vibrated around the golden bommie. Crimson and orange ebbed and flowed like a blazing wildfire as thousands of anthias danced around thick blooming soft corals. Food delivered by the strong current whipped them into a feeding frenzy. Compact seafans, seawhips, sponges, crinoids and hard coral polyps crowded each other at the base of the soft coral trees.



    It’s obvious that the strong currents pulsing through the passages make this a very attractive place for filter-feeders and those predators that feed on them. Such predators include the Coral Trout, Trevally Jack and schooling barracudas. Watching the activity on that bommie from 20 feet away was like watching a tornado touch down in a paint factory. Pulling myself into the heart of the maelstrom, I began to photograph the soft corals, crinoids, anthias, groupers and jacks while they fed. As you can well imagine, the film was quickly used up during this kind of action.

    After recovering from the intense beauty of Chimneys, we transferred to Matagi Island Resort just east of Taveuni. Matagi Island is a horseshoe-shaped jewel of the Pacific rimmed with sugar sand beaches. The island is lush with tall, wind-whispering coconut palms. The crystalline waters surround Matagi were interrupted only by the tan colored shallow coral reefs.

    That morning we headed eastward toward a dive site called Noel’s Wall. Noel’s is a spot that is indicative of the fantastic diving for which Fiji is famous. The clear waters of the Tasman Strait create an expressway delivering nutrients to some of the lushest hard and soft coral reefs in the Pacific. This is drift diving country. Our Fijian guide knew the tides and their cycles almost by instinct. He dropped us in next to Noel’s, which is a sheer wall starting in 30 feet and dropping straight down to the abyss. The gentle current delivered us along the reef as we dropped to a depth of 50 feet. The visibility was at least 125 feet. Long beams of morning sunlight skewered the gin-clear waters and danced upon the hard and soft corals that dominated the outcroppings below. As we moved around a corner, the current picked up and the wall was in bloom. A fantastic array of soft coral trees, each one colored brilliant red, orange, yellow or white, spread out before us. The soft corals swarmed with schools of purple and magenta colored anthias, pairs of butterflyfish, Clown Triggerfish and Emperor Angelfish. Down a bit deeper an outcropping was crowned with crimson seawhips. Beneath that a six-foot-long Gray Reef Shark stealthily patrolled the drop-off.

    Arranged perpendicularly to the current flow were golden seafans, their polyps agape as they feasted on the plankton delivered by the tidal flow. Atop the fans stretched crimson and yellow colored crinoids. With velcro covered arms these creatures sweep the waters for plankton and other bits of food. Every square inch of the wall was covered with colorful invertebrates, and the water column next to the wall and outcroppings was choked with flashes of anthias, which bring in the marauding jacks in swirling schools numbering a hundred or more, just beneath me. It was as if the current whipped everything into a frenzy of life.

    For our next dive we traveled a short distance to a dive site called the Elbow. Here I found some of the healthiest hard coral reefs I have ever photographed. Table corals nine feet in diameter balanced precariously along the drop-off. They were perfectly formed and resplendently healthy with no evidence of storm damage or El Niño bleaching. Close by, huge heads of Star Coral spread 12 to 15 feet across. The sun danced over the surface of thousands of healthy golden polyps. A little farther down the wall, soft corals bloomed atop outcroppings. Orange and blue Coral Trout eyed anthias darting in and out of the current. Pairs of frolicking clownfish darted in and out of their host anemones.

    A Welcoming Tradition

    At Nathamaki Village on Koro Island we were invited to a traditional “sevu sevu,” a ceremony during which we drank kava and seeked the chief’s blessing (permission) to explore the waters here. The mixing of kava, a rather mud-colored, but healthful concoction, is not an exact science. Still, the business of preparing the slightly narcotic drink is conducted with utmost gravity. Our offering of the dried pepper plant root (“the waka”) was gravely accepted. Next, the waka was pounded to a pulp, placed in a cloth sack and mixed with water in a huge hand-carved bowl called a “tanoa.” While the kava is steeped, we offered a few words to explain why we had traveled here: “We hope to explore these beautiful reefs and to carry away only memories and images.” Graciously, the chief accepted our formal explanation and gave us his permission to dive these waters.

    Now it was time to consummate his blessing. The “mbilo” or coconut shell cup was filled with kava and passed round and round, each person in the ring drinking deeply from the shell. Finally, it was my turn. The flavor of kava, not to mention the sheer volume of a “high tide” (16 ounces or more), can be a bit overwhelming. Under the circumstances though, I downed the musty mix trying not to spill any. Everyone around the ring, islanders and fellow divers alike, clap three times signifying my fullness and the mbilo’s emptiness.

    After kava we enjoyed a traditional “meke” or dance routine performed by village men and women. The meke is composed of several performances, each a unique combination of dance, song and storytelling. The women perform the “sea sea” and the men perform a “vakamalolo” or sitting dance. Both vivacious renditions are performed with sweat pouring and drums beating, as if the performers were living out the past experiences their dances recall. Then we were asked to participate in a “taralala,” a kind of two-step shuffle. Before the music started we were thoroughly charmed by the villagers who competed with each other for our attention and dance partnership. Their smiles were infectious and the dancing was great fun. Next was the “lovo.” We were offered succulent pig wrapped in banana leaf and roasted in the earth. Fresh steamed fish, taro and plantain had also been prepared. The food was delicious, earthy and fulfilling.

    Contented, I lay down in the sand under a crescent moon. The voices of the villagers joined together and they began to sing acapella. Several of the female voices ascended to a mesmerizing descant. On this clear night in Fiji the starlight is so bright that the stars seem not to twinkle, but to pierce the soul.

    The current picked up and carried us for a mile or more along seemingly endless tracts of healthy hard coral gardens. Pulling out of the current, I moved up into the shallows to explore an Elkhorn Coral garden. Here, I discovered five tiny comical Orange-spotted Leatherjackets. These dime-sized filefish, with their orange spots set against a bright blue-green background, are one of the most colorful and entertaining fish of the shallow coral gardens. They seemed to play a perpetual game of tag.

    Transferring from Ma-tagi we headed to Beqa (pronounced Beng-ga) Lagoon and Marlin Bay Resort, which is off the south coast of Viti Levu. Beqa Lagoon represents the remnants of an enormous caldera, the center of an ancient sunken volcano. The caldera is ringed by and laced with enormously productive reefs that are fed by currents that perpetually deliver nutrients through the Beqa and Frigate passages.

    From Beqa we headed west to explore a site called the Glory Hole. The ride to the dive site was comfortable with only a small following sea, and within 35 to 40 minutes we had arrived. The guide caught the anchor in the rubble of the seabed 55 feet below us, and we tailed back over a bommie that reaches to within 20 feet of the surface. The bommie is penetrated by a cavern that’s covered with soft corals, encrusting sponges, seafans and seawhips. The cavern is home to lionfishes, including the rare Double Spot Lionfish, Moorish Idols, marauding Coral Trout and countless swatches of colorful anthias feeding in the current. As we eased our way toward the window opening of the Hole, we discovered several foot-long lionfish levitating along the wall of the bommie. Edging my way up into the window I was blasted by the current that had picked up. I was in only about 20 feet of water, and so both the current and the surge kicked in to create turbulence. Kicking to maintain my position, I took several pictures. Next I dropped below the surface current toward the sea bed and looked to where the guide was pointing. Settling gently to the limestone sea bed, I discovered a Blue Ribbon Eel curiously protruding from his hole. It dipped and dodged, jaws agape, as if to lecture me on proper etiquette for approaching his territory. So I backed off a bit, and with the utility of a long macro lens, proceeded to take his portrait as he continued the lecture. Suddenly, out of the same hole popped “Junior.” I made portraits one after the other until the film was gone. The pair was still carrying on their lecture as I, with now empty cameras, approached the anchor to begin my ascent. Naturally, along the way I discovered a rare Leaf Scorpionfish nestled among the low branching hard corals of the sea bed. Adding injury to insult, the Leaf Scorpionfish behaved irrationally by pushing himself out from under the coral and coming fully and splendidly out into the open. I took heart though and, after a safety stop, quick sandwich and surface interval, found him there waiting for me upon my return.

    As I headed toward the far side of the bommie some quick movement among the corals caught my attention—a Banded Sea Krait! Better known as a sea snake, these five-foot swimming reptiles are some of the most venomous creatures in the sea. Fortunately for us, they are totally non-aggressive and are even playfully handled by some of the village children. I approached the sea snake carefully and made portrait after portrait of him as he foraged among the corals of the bommie.

    Truly fascinated but out of film I hovered mid-water to do my safety stop. In water this clear I could look down and still see the Ribbon Eels lecturing. Looking straight ahead I could see clear through the window of the Glory Hole, to the reef beyond, and looking back over my shoulder I could see where the skiff waited to take me back to Beqa Island.

    I had been privileged to explore a tiny bit of the culture and the amazing waters that surround the three hundred islands of Fiji. Nowhere in the world have I found people ready a smile, and so colorful and healthy a natural marine environment as I have been privileged to experience in these magic islands.

    GETTING THERE

    BEST TIME TO VISIT
    Dry season (June through October). The tropical rain season is from December through February coinciding with the warmest summer months.

    TOPSIDE CLIMATE
    Fiji enjoys an ideal tropical climate and can get hot in the summer but seldom reaches above 96ºF. Trade winds from the east southeast bring year-long cooling breezes late afternoon and early evening.

    WATER TEMPERATURE
    Averages 78°F to 82°F year-round.

    EXCHANGE RATE
    One U.S. dollar equals 2.045(FJD).

    TIME DIFFERENCE
    Fiji is 16 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

    CONTACTS
    Fiji Visitors Bureau (North America) • (800) 932-FIJI • www.bulafiji.com • e-mail: infodesk@bulafiji-americas.com

    Garden Island Resort—Taveuni • (800) 541-4334 • www.aquatrek.com • e-mail: info@aquatrek.com

    Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort • (800) 246-3454 • www.jmcfir@aol.com

    Matagi Island Resort • (800) 886-7321 • www.matangiisland.com • e-mail: info@matangiisland.com

    Marlin Bay Resort • (800) 886-7321 • www.marlinbay.com •e-mail: info@marlinbay.com

    LIVE-ABOARDS
    Fiji Aggressor • (800) div-boat • www.aggressor.com • email: info@aggressor.com