MARIE DAVIS's latest assignment is a liveaboard trip in the Pacific, and this time it seems she's gone full Tom Cruise
GALAPAGOS HAS ITS SHARKS, Truk Lagoon its wrecks, Belize has the Blue Hole, the Red Sea has – way too much cool stuff to mention – and the Great Barrier Reef has… well, you get the idea.
But what about the 330 islands in the South Pacific that make up Fiji?
The mention of this idyllic country conjures up images of white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, flaming sunsets and more political coups than I’ve had chicken vindaloos. But what about under the waves? What attracts divers to these 330 slices of paradise?
Soft corals. Really? Really. Fiji is heralded as “the Soft Coral Capital of the World”.
Sinking into a comfy lounge suite on my first day aboard Fiji Siren, I spy a group of divers from Stanton Island, NYC, one from Minnesota and a couple from Israel. These guys have travelled 25-40 hours to dive for seven days on this luxurious liveaboard. Have they really come all this way just for soft corals? Cue music.
LOCATION: Vatu-I-Rai (overnight steam from Viti Levu)
DIVE-SITES: Yellow Mellow, Instant Replay and Black Magic Mountain
TEMP: 24°C (abnormally cold for the time of year)
PROTECTION: 7mm semi-dry (agent acknowledges wimp status)
We take stealth transport to three dive-sites (aka the “tender“) and slide into a world of multi-coloured pinnacles and walls. There’s definitely something fishy going on down here.
Yellow Mellow lives up to its name, serving up a wall engulfed with soft sunny coral and giant lemon-coloured sea-squirts. This must also be the home of Fiji’s fusilier population – schools of twinspots and scissortails swirl around us, joined by three large Spanish mackerel. Just before we ascend, we spot our first hawksbill turtle peeping out from under a ledge.
Our next dive, Instant Replay, astounds us with pristine coral fans scattered along its wall – a hot pink that Lady GaGa fans would be proud to wear. We spy the usual suspects – butterfly, angel, hawkfish – and a rainbow serving of damsels and anthias.
It’s our first day, but already our guide Tomu has spotted an unusually high assortment of nudibranchs. In fact blue dragon nudis (Pteraeolidia ianthina) are so prolific in Fiji that it’s easy to become immune to their macro allure.
The final dive of the day is another wall dive. As we swim along Black Magic Mountain we marvel at five green ball anemones, a splattering of yellow featherstars and a veil of purple damsels that flit around black coral branches.
Tomu’s eagle-hawk eyes spy two leafy scorpionfish perched on staghorn coral. We couldn’t have asked for a more jam-packed introduction to Fiji.
DAYS 2 & 3
After an overnight trek to Namena, there’s excitement in the air at breakfast. Today we’ll be exploring some of Fiji’s most famous sites – Ned’s Nuts, Grand Central Station, School House, Black Forest and Chimneys. Cruise Director Rani announces that we’ll be here for two days, because “it’s just that awesome”.
DIVE: Grand Central Station
With 30m visibility, it’s easy to navigate to the top of the wall at 20m. Just off the edge, a school of blue-fin trevally hang around cauliflower soft corals.
Keeping the reef on our left, we drop and are soon engulfed by clusters of fish schools – red-toothed and oceanic triggerfish, red snapper and bannerfish.
I follow my buddy’s finger out into the blue – our first hammerhead sighting! It’s too far off for a happy snap, but we take time to ogle its sleek and powerful body.
I dive deeper to get some wide-angle “up” shots, and find a delicate knotted fan for my reef silhouette. Above is an impressive outline of jagged hard corals, like the remnants of an ancient castle wall.
Soon we arrive at our station stop, a sloping sandy patch at 26m. Two reef sharks relax on the bottom, but we don’t give them a second glance – there’s way too much happening off the wall.
All of a sudden, our relatively cruisy dive turns into rush hour. So this is where the sharks and pelagics have been hiding. Fiji, you’re not just a pretty “soft coral” face after all!
We stay as long as we can, pointing wide-angle lenses at schools of bigeye trevally, double-lined fusiliers and chevron barracuda. Meanwhile our guide Rani pokes the sand, looking for black pygmy seahorses. Who knew that pygmy seahorses like to hang out in sand?
They’re hard to spot, and it’s not long before we continue across the reef to a giant arch in the distance. Covered in fans and soft yellow corals, it marks the doorway to the Yellow Brick Road, Kansas and Oz. Aptly named, because we’re only halfway into the dive and it’s taken on a magical, mystical quality.
Swimming along the sandy channel that is the “yellow brick road” (words I never thought I’d write), we follow a hawksbill turtle all the way to Kansas.
Kansas is an impressive coral outcrop named after the leather corals that waft like wheatfields on its top.
There’s so much to see here that we run out of time to explore the small bommie of Oz that sits to our left.
A steep wall, arch formations, sharks, turtles and a sweeping vista of colourful corals – diving Grand Central Station makes you feel more like an explorer than a diver. The sheer variety and diversity of life had me wanting to tap my not-so-red dive-boots to go back for more.
The verdict was unanimous – fist-pumps all round for the best dive-site of the trip.
DIVE: Black Forest
Black Forest is another highlight, two chimney-shaped pinnacles separated by a sandy channel and about 40m apart.
We drop onto the deepest pinnacle first (at 10m) and descend to the bottom (29m). I’m blown away by how many red gorgonian fans cover the wall. We spot a dogtooth tuna and a small school of soldierfish, but otherwise the fish life is surprisingly minimal. Methinks they’re stuck at Grand Central Station.
All good, however, plenty of macro critters here. Tomu points out blue dragon nudibranchs, spider-crabs and glass anemone shrimp.
After 25 minutes we fin over rubble and sand to the second pinnacle. We’re on the hunt for a shy blue ribbon eel that lives in a hole at its base.
Patiently we huddle and are eventually rewarded with a glimpse of blue and yellow. There’s time to snap some pics before racing to an adjacent coral outcrop to admire lace, plate and sea whips.
Spiralling up the pinnacle to our safety stop, I blink twice at what’s becoming a familiar sight – patches of beige soft corals surrounded by anemones and a medley of pink, blue and orange anthias.
That night the group can’t stop talking about Grand Station Central as we tuck into tasty local seafood dishes, as well as chicken and taro curry (vegetarian/vegan options available) – to the soundscape of our crew playing traditional Fijian music.
It’s been a big day, and I head back to my huge cabin for an early night. If Fiji is known as the world’s soft-coral capital, Fiji Siren should be known as having the biggest cabins on any liveaboard.
I’m not kidding, “spacious” is an understatement. This 40m yacht is the newest member of Siren’s liveaboard fleet and takes a maximum of 16 divers. Photographers and videographers will love the camera tables inside the saloon, while sun-worshippers will adore chillaxing on the sundeck between dives
DIVE: Vatu Vai
Today’s highlight is a small pinnacle balanced precariously on the side of a steep “cliff” (3m on top, 15m at its base). Vatu Vai is a cleaning station for manta rays, and we’re not disappointed when we spot two in the distance.
The vis is down to 10-12m and the lack of current means that we don’t see more. But, hey, the site still offers up a steep wall filled with crimson fans, a big bumphead wrasse and two frisky eagle rays.
The wind has not been kind to us on this trip, so for safety and comfort we head to Makogai to dive the more-sheltered sites of Pinball, Halfpipe and Dominoes.
The visibility is the best we’ve had all trip, and we spend an easy day cruising around small pinnacles and overhangs. My favourite is Dominoes, a series of shallow bommies dotted around a large sandy lagoon. The anemones and fairy basslets that blanket the tops of these pinnacles are like an underwater version of a Monet painting.
A stop here includes a visit to the island of Makogai, which has a haunting history – it used to house a leprosy isolation hospital. It was staffed largely by European nuns, and the last patients left in 1969 (after a cure had been found).
The site was abandoned, but it’s possible to pop your head inside the old jail, explore the outdoor cinema ruins, and pay your respects at the cemetery.
Don’t forget to look up, too – roosters often hang out in the tree-tops!
The trip is almost over. My spidey senses are on high alert as we get back to Vatu-I-Ra. I have a sneaky suspicion that the Fiji Siren crew have left the best until last.
Today we can jump off the main vessel because the site has a mooring – whoo hoo! Not that we really need a rope to show us where the wall is – the visibility is easily 30m-plus.
We descend to 9m to the entrance of a swim-through disguised as a tunnel of fans. It’s just wide enough to avoid bumping into the delicate corals.
Following it to the right, we swim into a dip carved inside the reef wall. It’s worth spending time here, searching the small caves and overhangs for blue dragon nudis, anemones and pufferfish. Then it’s a short swim out into the blue and we’re back on the wall.
Sipping coffee later (the boat has a real coffee machine!) we agree that we could easily dive this site twice.
Cruise Director Rani leans back, grinning mysteriously. “Ah yes. But then you’d miss out on Mt Mutiny, and that site will literally blow your mind!”
DIVE: Mount Mutiny
It’s possible to swim around the whole of Mt Mutiny, but once you see Rainbow Wall you’ll want to slam on the brakes.
This is the most colourful reef I’ve ever seen – a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic paint palate that goes on for more than 150m.
Thanks to Fiji’s nutrient-rich water, our last dive has the whole group salivating over a stunning array of fans and soft corals. Throw in a hawksbill turtle and blue, pink and purple damselfish, and we’re in wide-angle heaven. I took more photographs on Rainbow Wall than I did on all the other dives put together.
Just when we thought the trip couldn’t get any better, a pod of dolphins jump our bow waves as we cruise back to Viti Levu. Then Tomu spots a whale about 50m off the starboard side. When its white fin points out of the water I squeal: “Aw, it’s waving Vinaka!” (Fijian for “thanks for coming!”).
Fiji Siren leaves the beautiful and serene resort of Volivoli, located on the north tip of Fiji’s largest island Viti Levu.
With eight- and 11-day trips heading north across the Bligh Waters to Vanua Levi, you’ll explore the “the Koro Triangle’, where most of Fiji’s best sites can be found. Just like the Bermuda Triangle, it’s full of secrets and surprises.
But if a week on a luxurious liveaboard doesn’t float your boat, the resort’s dive centre can arrange day-dives to coral reefs and walls too, including Fiji’s infamous bull-shark dive.
I’m now a big fan of Fiji, and not just because of its jaw-dropping soft-coral landscapes. I discovered an enchanting country with warm and friendly crew and locals who went out of their way to add a “magic touch” to my Fijian experience.
MISSION: COMPLETE This page will self-destruct… oh, right. Not really.
|GETTING THERE: Virgin Australia & Singapore Airways fly from London to Fiji (Nadi).|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: sy Fiji Siren offers free gear hire and nitrox, www.sirenfleet.com. Volivoli Resort, www.volivoli.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round diving. Winter is April-October (peak season) with 22-25°C water temperatures and great visibility. Summer is November-April (rainy season) with 28-30°C temperatures but lower visibility. Take a 3mm suit in summer or 5/7mm in winter.
MONEY: Fijian Dollar.
PRICES: Return flights to Nadi from £780. Eight days on Fiji Siren £2203, 11 days £3053. Volivoli Resort ocean-view room for 1-4 people from £100 per night.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.fiji.travel