Fiji is one of those places you never get tired of coming back to. The diving is world class and the Fijian people are incredibly welcoming.
Coming out of LAX your Air Pacific [http://www.airpacific.com/] flight departs late, 11pm after 10 hours you arrive at 5am two days later. Landing at Nadi (pronounced ‘nahn-di’) you are met by a band that plays traditional Fijian music as you clear immigration. The traditional hustle and bustle of most airports is noticeably absent. You can feel the relaxation starting build.
I’m headed to Pacific Harbor so this trip involves a shuttle around to the south side of Vitu Levu. Viti Levu is the largest of the islands that make up Fiji, the drive around to the Pacific Harbor will take about two hours. It’s a pleasant ride mostly along the coast with lots of nice views.
Pacific Harbor is considered the “Adventure Capital of Fiji’ which is why I am here. After checking into Uprising [http://www.uprisingbeachresort.com] a new small resort that caters to both families and backpack travelers. Uprising’s bures (pronounced boo-ray) are decorated in traditional Fijian style with local materials; they feature a lovely outdoor shower as well as patio with an ocean view.
The beach bar/pool area is the focus of this property. It’s a great spot to chill, or if you are feeling more active volleyball, tons of water sports are available. Since I was here for work I especially appreciated the free wifi that let me stay plugged into my responsibilities while relaxing with a cold one.
My first adventure was at the “Arts Village”. [http://www.artsvillage.com/] I was worried this would be corny; surprisingly it was actually super interesting. Fijians are very proud of their culture and happy to answer all sorts of questions during the demonstrations of what life in a traditional village is like. As part of the tour you can enjoy a traditional lovo lunch. ‘Lovo’ is a meal cooked by fire and covered with leaves and dirt. It’s the Fijian answer to BBQ and super tasty. The finale of this visit featured a series of Fijian dancers performing and singing culminating with the Beqa island firewalkers. Beqa (pronounced ‘Ben-Ga’) is an island directly offshore from Pacific Harbor that is home to several tribes, of which several perform fire walking.
Back at Uprising, I sampled a couple of the Fijian beers: Fiji Bitters, Fiji Gold. The Fiji Bitters is a light beer, a bit malty, very smooth easy to drink, not bitter to my tastes. ‘Gold’ is also a little malty, a little sweet corn taste, with smoother/blander than Bitter with almost no head.
Time to dive! After a great nights sleep, I head over to Aqua Trek [http://www.aquatrek.com] it is just down the road on the grounds of The Pearl resort. They run reefs and soft coral dives on Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday – Sharks are Monday, Weds, Friday, and Sat. Today is coral and reefs. We are to load up at 8:30 ‘Fiji time’ so it’s a lot closer to 9am before we actually pull away from the dock. The Aqua Trek staff pick up your gear at the office as you sign waivers, carry it to the boat and even set it up for you. Their 33 foot boat, is nicely covered from the sun, and while it could handle 15 divers, today its only 10 of us. We make the quick run out to the dive site. They divide us into three groups each with our own DM.
The site, Glory Hole is a series of three pinnacles that rise up from a sea floor of about 50-60 feet to 10-20 feet from the surface. Today there is a fair amount of particulate in the water so vis is limited only 50-70 feet. But the warm water, 80 degrees feels awesome. The vibrant reefs of Fiji don’t disappoint- in the first five minutes I’m circling walls of blue, red, pink, white soft corals, sea fans, clown fish, and schools of antheas darting in and out. The highlight for me was finding two blue ribbon eels.
Site: Glory Hole- 46 feet max depth, 1 hour 7 minutes bottomtime
For the surface interval we anchored up in the lee of the island. While the crew passed out snacks and drinks I decided to swim ashore and do a little exploring. Joining me was Logan, who at age 12 was just finishing his open water check out dives. So we walked the beach and gathered a couple coconuts that Logan taught me how to select and then split for either ‘coconut water’ or ‘coconut meat’.
Dive #2, Seven Sisters was nearby- 7 coral pinnacles. More of the same colorful soft colors and small fish as well as a couple very cool nudibranchs. The dive guides were very helpful at finding stuff, and helped me get some good footage of a pair of lionfish.
Site: Seven Sisters-48 feet max depth, 56 minutes bottomtime
Back at the dock the crew hauls your gear back up to the shop, Aqua Trek provides hangers and locking storage to dry your stuff. Everyone is coming back tomorrow for the shark dive.
After a very tasty lunch at The Pearl, I hustle off to Zip-Fiji [http://www.zip-fiji.com/] one of Pacific Harbor’s news adventures. Eight sets of steel cable that range from 21 feet to 135 feet off the ground. The longest is over 600 feet and you can reach speeds of over 35mph. It is a rush to fly over and through the jungle hillside. The guides strike a great balance between looking out for your safety and make it as fun and exciting as possible. The tour take about 2 hours depending on how many people are in your group. I made it back in time to catch the sunset with a fruit rum drink in hand. Its $65 and a great activity the whole family can enjoy.
Sharks are the focus today. Aqua Trek started this attraction years ago, and has refined the process. Brandon Paige, the GM gives the brief as the crew ties into the mooring. The safety procedures, what we can expect to see on the dive and how the feed will happen. The dive site is called, ‘Bistro’.
As we drop in, first you have to pass numerous remoras that are circling like sentries looking for a good spot to attach. Next it’s the fish, triggers, travel lies, surgeonfish, and other baitfish that clearly know food is about to be served. The location for the first feed is deep, just shy of 90 feet. The guides bring down huge buckets of chum, and tuna heads that are hand fed to the sharks.
One of the most impressive things about this dive is the variety of sharks. You get blacktip, gray, and whitetip reef sharks, along with nurse and lemon sharks but the two big stars are bull sharks and tigers. I didn’t get to see the Tigers, but the bulls were stunning! These huge animals that exude a sense of power even as they slowly cruise. Brandon wears a chainmail glove but this isn’t for protection from the sharks but from the fish, which move quickly trying to get some of the fish heads before the sharks close in gulping the heads in a single swift movement. The guest and I are positioned about 10 feet from where the feed is actually happening, but the sharks are circling and passing over us repeatedly. The action is up close and personal.
Dive site: Bistro (deep) 87 feet, 43 minutes
All too soon the DMs signal that the feed is done and we need to ascend. The surface interval is filled with “Did you see?” and “Can you believe?” as people reviewed digital images.
The second feed happens in about 70 feet of water. We all dropped excited for the second round. This time Brandon who is a long time friend, invited me up to film from right next to him. So now I am literally positioned right beside the chum bucket, and Brandon is flipping the fish heads out less than an arm’s length away. The amount fish is thick and makes it hard to see at times, then suddenly the fish part and a shark is there jaw opening, swallowing the fish head and then retreating. Different species feed differently- the Nurse and Lemons are like puppies nudging asking for food, the reef sharks dart in and out- the big Bulls swing in from patrolling circles, take the food and then rapidly withdraw with powerful tail strokes.
I found myself glued to my camera trying to remain steady and avoid swinging wildly form subject to subject when I felt a squeeze on my thigh, I’d be lying is I didn’t admit to freaking out for a second. But it was deliberate and clearly human. I lift my head to see Brandon looking past me over my head, in an instant I knew what the message was, I hit the record button as I started turning looking toward where his eyes were focused. It was a massive Bull, easily 15+ feet in length. It was maybe 50 feet away and headed directly towards me. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Brandon has flipped a fish head right out in front of me. The Bull swoops in closing the 50 feet nearly instantly, inhaling the fish head and turning 180 degrees to retreat. The pressure wave from her tail was significant washing over me.
This was only the first of several really close passes that left me in awe. The dive was over in what felt like a blink of an eye, the DMs were signaling that it was time to ascend. Something to note is that if you dive a more conservative computer is very possible to slip into deco.
Dive Site: Bistro (shallow) 72 feet, 54 minutes
I’ve been fortunate enough to dive with sharks in Honduras, Belize, Bahamas, Socorros, even other parts of Fiji but Aqua Trek provides by far the most intimate and dramatic experience.
The ride back I spent chatting with the DM, Brandon about his experiences with the sharks. Brandon really is hopeful these kinds of experiences will move the needle of public opinion from fear to respect for these creatures. Having been up close with them, and felt the wash of a bull sharks tail as he swam by its hard to think of a reason that we should be hunting these beautiful animals.
For the remainder of my stay in Pacific Harbor I moved to experience The Pearl Resort. The hotel is large and full of amenities ranging from gym, spa, numerous restaurants and a huge pool as well as golf. The hotel had a very ‘W’ feel to it if you are familiar with that chain. The beach bar has an exceptional mojito that is a perfect way to watch the sunset.
Before moving around to the other side of the island I had one more adventure to tackle, rafting. Rivers Fiji has their main office right on the Pearl grounds next door to Aquatrek, so it was easy to find them. I showed up early for briefing and waivers for my day on the upper Navua.
As the rest of the group rolls in (Fiji time) River Fiji supplies drybags and waterproof shells. What they don’t supply, but sell and I highly recommend is leashes for your sunglasses.
Once the group was ready we piled on to a four wheel drive bus and headed down the road, to another smaller road, to a dirt road, to a smaller dirt road, and then finally we were there at the ‘put-in’. We got divided into boats another safety briefing and then we were on the river. It was stunning! Fiji’s diving is exceptional and I have seen a lot of the coast but rarely get into the interior and this is a great way to see it.
Between exciting rapids that get your heart pumping you have gentle floats that give you a perspective that you just don’t get any other way. The guides really know their stuff and make sure everyone has fun and stays safe. At the half way point we had a picnic lunch that was very welcome- You work up a pretty good appetite paddling along the river. It’s a full day, and the ride back to the Pearl was a long one, but over the course of the day you have made some new friends on the river and sharing photos and stories made the time fly.
The last couple days of this trip were back around to a resort near Nadi called Sonaisali. http://www.sonaisali.com/ The resort is expansive, on it own island with a laid back vibe that contrasted the huge amounts of activities they offered. Everything you would expect waterfront: sailing, paddling, windsurfing, jetski trips, diving- plus paintball… Yeah I didn’t see that one coming either.
This region of Fiji isn’t ‘known’ for great diving, but I was quite surprised- The reefs were healthy, and I saw some sharks and eagle rays on every dive I did as well as turtles and plenty of fish. Its might not be the best in Fiji, but it still rocks many other destinations. If you haven’t done a lot of South Pacific diving, it’s not going to disappoint you.
The dive sites we visited were on the backside of the world famous ‘Cloud Break’. This is a surf spot people fly in for from around the world. It was breaking pretty steady with 10-12 foot faces, which they told me was pretty normal. It made for a great surface interval watching people surf.
We did two dives, with the surface interval in the lee of Tavarua. The boats Sonaisali runs are small and comfortable for 4 to 6 and pretty quick which was extra nice when it came time to get back.
Back at the resort-with a setting sun I logged into the wifi poolside and enjoyed an ‘Island Affair’. A great cocktail that should be on your list of things to try. The food at the resort was very good, I totally recommend anything Indian, and clearly it was the chef’s specialty.
The bures at Sonaisali front to the water and have a Jacuzzi tub on the patio, which is a great way to relax before turning in for the evening.
Hopefully these and the images give you some sense of what a special place Fiji is. The people are amazing, the diving really exceptional and in terms of value for dollars spend combined with ease of travel, there isn’t a better place to visit. I’m already planning my next trip.
Sounds of Fiji: http://www.quietamerican.org/field_fiji.html