I arrive at the Cousteau Resort early in the afternoon. The main large dive boat is out for the day at Namena Reef which is, as Gary the dive centre manager tells me, one of the areas best dives.
Never mind. A couple of skiffs are running local dives so I havent missed the chance to dive, only the chance to see Namena. After lunch we head for Lighthouse, named after the structure standing on the point in the reef just along from the resort.
The reef is made up of steeply sloping coral outcrops that form short sections of wall; its a fairly typical section of reef except that to my eye it is missing something. Where are all the small fish The clouds of anthias or chromis The hordes of small grey damselfish I cant remember a reef where I havent seen at least one of these species swarming in and out of the corals, forming a tight cloud above a coral head, only to dart back into cover at the slightest threat.
In the distance I can see some sizeable grouper. In fact over the dive I see lots of them. None comes remotely close enough for a good photograph. Grouper are close to the top of the fish food chain, anthias and damselfish near the bottom, so there must be smaller fish somewhere.
A tightly packed, amorphous blob of small fusiliers darts in from the blue, reacting in a confused yet harmonious instant to charging attacks from mackerel and grouper.
On a sandy patch, a titan triggerfish guards an indentation in the sand, puffing it clean and chasing any other fish that venture near. I approach cautiously. Its an opportunity to get close, but I dont want to get bitten.
The titan charges its reflection in the dome port of my camera. At the last minute it veers off, scared by an apparently bigger titan approaching head on at twice the speed, its own reflection magnified by the convex surface of the dome. It all happens so fast that I dont know if I have a picture.
The titan manoeuvres to attack from the side. Without the camera to hide behind, I retreat. It must be titan nesting season, because I soon loose track of the number of similar encounters. Even grouper several times a titans size are chased clear by a single manic charge.
I finish my film and conclude that it was more of a divers dive than a photographers dive. A fair bit going on, but all too fast or too far away.
Later I check out the house reef. From the end of the pier it begins with a gentle slope and soon becomes a steep sand and silt slope leading beyond air-diving depths. Its a classic muck dive, with all sorts of small creatures hiding in holes and beneath the odd coral outcrop. Larger outcrops struggle to form genuine reefs in the silty environment.
As I am clearing up, the big boat returns from Namena. A large group of divers from Seattle are bubbling with enthusiasm to go again. Perhaps in a few days time.
The dive centre closes and Gary gives me a lift back into Savusavu town, where I am staying at the Hot Springs Hotel. He fills me in on the Cousteau connection.
The dive centre and resort are two separate businesses, he tells me. Jean-Michel Cousteau is part-owner of the dive centre and lends his name to the resort in return for consultation on development and environmental issues, but the two are not tied together. You can stay at the resort without diving and you can stay elsewhere and dive with the Cousteau dive centre, as I am doing.
Set on a hillside, the Hot Springs is a conventional hotel with the best view in town. It is named for the volcanic springs that steam from the ravine alongside. I chill out on the terrace for an early-evening glass of the locally brewed Savusavu draught. Below, half the
town stretches along the waterfront, from commercial docks to yacht club, high street and church. Youths and children are playing touch rugby on the field immediately below. It looks like two separate games, but its hard to be sure.
For the next couple of days we do local dives. Outside the bay, Deep Blue is a buttress of coral separated from the reef wall by a short saddle. At 30m and slightly deeper, a forest of gorgonians and black corals clings to the slope. Shallower on the saddle, a team of butterflyfish tear chunks from an unfortunate jellyfish.
Alice in Wonderland is a large patch of reef inside the bay. The bay descends to 70m or more, so even patches of reef like this have steep slopes, or even walls. The name comes from a forest of mushroom-shaped coral heads.
Spotting some juvenile whitetip sharks hiding beneath one of the mushrooms, I regret having fitted a macro lens. I cant get my camera and myself lined up without touching the reef, so hold the camera at arms length and shoot blind with everything on automatic, hoping to capture a remora cleaning a sharks gills.
Golden Nuggets is a shallow dive just in from Lighthouse, a tour along the sandy slope past outcrops of coral ending in a pair of larger bommies. The life on these is more concentrated, with plenty of fish swarming over the coral heads.
In the evenings, I explore downtown Savusavu. The Fijians are friendly, genuinely helpful and not at all pushy, a refreshing change from the harassment tourists get in some countries.
Savusavu is a popular stop on the backpackers circuit, with plenty of clean and cheap places to eat. At the Copra Shed on the waterfront I get a medium pizza so large I take half of it away for the next two days breakfast. I hate to think how big a large one would have been - I suspect there wouldnt have been space in my rooms fridge. If you OD on pizza, there is no shortage of small curry houses.
My last dive is at Hole in the Wall, or not quite, as we drop in at the point just along the reef and the current is too strong to get us to the hole, so we swim to the point and turn back before it.
While swimming to the point, I make small diversions into grooves in the reef, some leading to bowls full of fish sheltering from the current.
Sharks patrol off the point, a few grey reefs and fully grown whitetips. Exciting from a diving point of view, but none of them was really close enough from a photographers point of view. Later one of the Fijian guides reports that another dive centre had spotted a tiger shark there yesterday.
Chilling out on the Hot Springs terrace with my now customary early evening Savusavu draught, I reflect that this part of the trip could have gone better. By all accounts the best diving is at Namena, but I hadnt got to see it. My dives had been good, but nothing that jumped out and shouted visit here for this special dive.
Maybe it was a matter of luck and timing. If I had been at Hole in the Wall a day earlier, I would have seen a tiger shark. Had I arrived a few hours earlier or stayed a day later, I may have been on the boat to Namena and blown my socks off.
After a day of hot and sweaty travel, a scheduled Sun Air flight from Savusavu back to Nadi, then Yasawa Island Resorts private charter, again with Sun Air, I arrive at Yasawa Island just in time for a dive before dinner.
I like diving late in the afternoon. The light is always so atmospheric and the fish more active. If only every last dive of the day could be a first dive rather than a filler.
Rainbow Reef is certainly of first dive quality. A wall from 6m to just past 30m leads to a point with detached pinnacles and canyons between, then an archway through the next point in the reef and a gradually shallowing drift along the wall and across the reef back to the starting point.
My bure (bungalow) is enormous and magnificent, with split-level open-plan lounge and bedroom, screened-off dressing- room, shower-room and outside shower. The lighting is complex enough for a rock concert, and all on dimmer switches.
I flit about turning switches on and off, trying to work out which connects to which. I am spoilt for choices. Do I use the left, right or outside shower Shave in the left or right basin Sleep in air conditioning or with windows open, screens closed and a fan Sort out my camera on the work surface in the dressing room, on the desk, on the sideboard, or on the coffee table by the sofa Open a can of regular or diet from the room bar
Chill out for 30 minutes on the veranda in front of the lounge or the one in front of the bedroom, or on my hammock on the beach And into which of the many sockets do I plug my battery chargers
The only easy choice is what to play on the sound system. I have only a blues collection CD bought in an airport shop. But this isnt just any sound system, its a Bose Wave system. Even that simple choice doesnt last long, as I learn that there is a free CD library at reception.
Dive instructor Marcel explains that all the best diving is off the north of the island, so that is where we head again next morning.
A fresh north-easterly wind over an outgoing tide puts a vicious tidal race over Magic, the first choice of dive site. So captain Atu takes us instead to Lovers Leap, a reef which is his own property, as he owns the small island of which it is part.
Harsh volcanic rocks rising 20m from the sea give way to another reef with excellent coral coverage. A marine biologist friend once told me that 50% live coral indicates a reef in good condition. Here its about 100%.
Where the reef meets the sand at 30m we encounter a resting whitetip, not the skinny juvenile you find under a rock but a chunky adult.
Over the next 15 minutes we meet several more. I have to make the regular photographers excuse - I could have obtained some nice pictures if not for the 14mm extreme wide-angle lens I have fitted for the dive.
North towards the point, the sloping reef builds into another impressive coral wall, the top being limited to tightly encrusting corals and sponges over jagged volcanic rocks. Its just too exposed for branching corals to hang on.
The tide has turned and we head back to Magic. Its just about diveable. I always jump in with my camera attached, and here it pays off. Atu positions the boat forward of the leading edge of the reef and I can immediately see the point rushing towards me.
I head straight for the bottom and a back eddy that keeps me in front of the action. I navigate by looking for clouds of anthias swimming in the opposite direction, a trick I picked up in the Philippines a couple of years ago.
Never has a dive site been named more appropriately. The leading edge of the reef rises from sand at 25m and is covered in soft corals and gorgonians. Fish are everywhere, not just the current-indicating anthias but all the bigger fish, from harlequin sweetlips to trevally and grouper.
Its a dive that has both wow and pow. To be on the safe side, I surface on my delayed SMB.
I always like to check out a house reef, and there are two beaches at the resort. Lovers Beach is in front of the honeymoon bure, in its own secluded bay and currently unoccupied. It isnt recommended as a dive site but I decide to try it anyway.
Without going into detail, its more of a snorkellers site than a dive site. Crawling up through the surf, everything I own is full of powdery sand.
Further north is a beach the locals call Vulawatu, which translates to eight months. Thats how long it takes to get the sand out of your stuff.
From the main beach of the resort, Front Porch is a craggy reef of black volcanic rock leading straight out to sea, dropping away before further rocks rise to provide some shelter to the boat moorings. Sam advises me to dive on the outside of the main reef and not to swim further out.
The volcanic rocks give way to coral sloping to sand at 12m. Its a respectable area of reef that would be a good dive anywhere, although I am mesmerised by a small table coral standing alone on the sand with its resident cloud of tiny black and white damselfish.
Returning to the north end of the island, just round the corner from Rainbow Reef, we dive Tuna Reef, though I see no tuna there. Everyone has a camera; even Fijian dive guide Sam has borrowed one for the day.
The highlight is a garden of cabbage-patch coral that dominates the point of the reef. Back on the boat, Atu spots a banded sea snake, swimming first into the surf, then wriggling onto the black rocks to sun itself.
I had been looking forward to Fan-Tastic, a site close to Magic, though reputed to feature more fans and less soft coral. The wind is picking up from the north-east and Atu takes the boat into a building sea.
It soon becomes an obvious decision to turn back and seek a more sheltered location. But cruising south at full throttle, disaster strikes. My tatty old sun hat is ripped off by the wind.
Atu turns the boat and we spend 10 minutes searching without success. A faded green hat with black oil stains from the car and splotches of emulsion from painting ceilings just doesnt show up in a tropical sea. It was my oldest piece of diving equipment.
The visibility off the north end of the island has been a good clear tropical 20 to 30m. A few miles south of the resort at Paradise Reef, it is more like lagoon visibility, though still an enjoyable dive.
We drop through a vertical cave full of sweepers that opens to a crack in the reef wall. The wall isnt in the same league as the north end of the island, but still has plenty of corals and a good spread of fish.
Its funny how a rare find at some places can be a regular occurrence at others. Sam gestures beneath a small coral head and it takes me a while to realise that he is pointing out a lionfish.
I had spotted it straight away, it was just that they are 10-a-penny in some locations, yet clearly rare enough to get excited about here. I suppose some of the fish Fijians take for granted would be rare elsewhere.
Its cocktail hour in the bar, time for a long G&T before dinner. I am introduced to yet another couple who have arrived for a romantic break with some diving. If you want to impress a girl with luxury, seclusion, a romantic location and thrilling diving, I cant think of a better place to go. But watch out for the sand.
|Titan triggerfish at Lighthouse |
|lizardfish at Alice in Wonderland |
|Damselfish at their table coral home at Front Porch |
|remora cleaning the gills of a juvenile whitetip shark at Golden Nuggets |
|spiny lobster at Paradise Reef |
|Loading up the boat at Cousteau Resort |
|turkey lionfish at Paradise Reef |
|everyone brings a camera to Lovers Leap |
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with Air New Zealand via Los Angeles to Nadi. www.airnewzealand.com. Domestic flight to Savusavu with Sun Air www.fiji.to. Private charter to Yasawa with Sun Air.
TRAVEL, DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Contact Dive Worldwide, 01794 389372, www.diveworldwide.com.
FOR NON-DIVERS : Local crafts and culture, beach and water sports, although both resorts are places to which you really go to get away from it all and chill out.
CURRENCY: Fiji dollar, at about $3.4 to£1. There is a cash machine near Arrivals at the airport.
WHEN TO GO: February and March are hurricane season. Water temperature stays in the 24-27°C range, so a 3mm wetsuit is plenty.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone from beginner and up, though not necessarily on the same sites.
COSTS: Flights, transfers and seven nights at Savusavu Hot Springs Hotel including breakfast, or at Taveuni Garden Island Resort with full board, costs from£1525. Ten-dive packages cost£250 and£240 respectively. Seven nights full board at Yasawa Island Resort costs from£2999, with 10 dives£300.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Cousteau resort, www.fijiresort.com. Savusavu, www.fiji-savusavu.com. Yasawa Island Resort, www.yasawa.com
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