STRADDLING THE 180° MERIDIAN, Fiji is conveniently 12 hours ahead of the UK. When its this morning in Fiji, its last night at home.
Also conveniently, Fiji is a group of islands sitting in the Pacific Ocean en route between New Zealand and Los Angeles, USA.
The second largest island is called Vanua Levu and the third largest, Taveuni. Look at a map and you will notice that the channel between them, known as Somosomo Strait, takes the shape of a funnel.
As the water flows back and forth at the mercy of ocean currents and the tides, it is squeezed so that it speeds up. This provides perfect conditions in which colourful soft corals (dendronephythia) flourish. The reef system that straddles the strait is called, predictably, Rainbow Reef.
Fiji is a lush tropical country and Taveuni is the land of fruit bats and the tallest Fijian coconut palms.
I stayed at the Maravu Plantation Resort in a luxurious bure (pronounced boo-ray), a traditional Fijian bungalow complete with its own private sundeck and water spa.
This was set on a hillside overlooking the strait, and surrounded by a dense tropical jungle. There were 77 sweat-drenching steps from there down to the beach.
Sweat or rain I am told that Fiji has no harmful creatures on land other than malaria-free mosquitoes, but this dense green landscape enjoys a copious supply of rain and that didnt spare me either, during my few days stay in February.
The people from the Swiss Fiji Divers centre based at Maravu take their fast aluminium boat to do two dives at Rainbow Reef each morning. Despite the deluge of rain we suffered, the water of the reef stayed relatively clear, because the run-off from the land is always well homogenised by the tidal flow with the water of the ocean.
Dive publications often call Fiji the Soft Coral Capital of the World, but in fact it is Rainbow Reef that has earned it this reputation. Its a huge area incorporating many different dive sites.
Soft corals have no calcareous skeleton, unlike their hard-coral counterparts. However, they come in as great a variety of forms. They can be like heads of multi-coloured broccoli, soft fans, whip-like, feathery or even bunches of reeds. What they all have in common is that if you shine a bright white light on them, they light up in an array of reds and oranges and pinks so bright as to be extraordinary.
I felt sorry for those who dived without such bright underwater lights. They could only look at an almost monochromatic scene with what looked like rocks covered in deep purple growth, a cluster of brown sticks here and there, and perhaps the odd white lump.
I was using my digital camera with powerful flashguns, and every time I made an exposure I was rewarded with a vividly coloured image on the LCD screen of my camera. In a way I used
my camera to see the dive.
While others in my party grew excited at the sighting of the odd lionfish, or enjoyed a fleeting glimpse of a turtle in rapidly diminishing perspective as it sped off, I relished almost every rocky outcrop of coral that was covered in growth.
Of course, there are other fish to look at. The occasional whitetip reef shark or bumphead wrasse turns up, and once we were closely buzzed by a grey reef shark, but most of the fish are small and the open blue water seems relatively empty. No, its the soft corals you come to see.
Their wide range of colours is that of the hibiscus - vibrant pinks, crimsons, golden yellows, orange and purples. Viewing the pictures, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking
at a vast array of pretty flowers, but of course soft corals are colonies of animals that feed on the tiniest forms of plankton passing by.
When there is an abundant food supply passing by in the water, the coral pumps itself up and extends its polyps to reach out and grab passing food. The effect is visually spectacular.
When the current flows, the corals become tumescent, and when it does not, they wilt flaccidly and shrink to a tiny fraction of their former glory.
If you want to photograph soft corals in flagrante, you need to dive in a prevailing current.
There is one dive site at Rainbow Reef called the Great White Wall. It is covered in a mass of white soft corals. Alas, opportunities to dive it are rare. The current that flows past it is not often diveable, so you must wait for the day when the neap tide and prevailing wind slows everything down to a manageable speed.
Luckily, there are plenty of other options. While the water is squeezed between the shores of Vanua Levu and Taveuni, it also speeds up to get round obstacles such as coral bommies and over saddles of the reef.
Its rather like the air flowing over the wing of a plane. It has to speed up as it passes over or round an obstacle, and there are eddies and counter-flows where this water meets the open ocean.
You jump from the boat and make your way down quickly as you are swept towards the reef. A bommie is what the Australians call a BFR, or big coral rock. The trick is to duck in behind
a bommie or overhang so that you find still water.
Then, when youre ready to go again, you let the current take you until you find another suitable spot to stop.
Sometimes you will be swept slowly along a reef wall and can browse at your leisure, expending very little energy.
In fact the water rarely moves faster than a couple of knots, but that is more than any man can successfully sustain an effective finning-action against.
So you go with the flow.
The guides choose a route that will eventually take you behind the saddle of reef, and then you find still water and need to start finning again to make progress.
Be careful, because you can be lulled into thinking that the current has stopped altogether, when in fact it is moving quite quickly in the shallow water far above your head.
You are in the lee of the reef. When its time to come shallower, its important to choose your route up carefully. Always make sure you have some topographical feature protecting you from the full force of the flow. In this way you can relax in patches of still water as you make your way up the reef.
I was amazed to watch a young dive-guide, newly arrived from Europe, take an inexperienced diver by the hand and attempt to swim with her head-on into the current above the reef, while I, and his Fijian counterpart, hovered effortlessly in the lee of a rock.
Its also a good idea to look up and see what your exhaled bubbles are doing. Are they going directly to the surface The water flowing over the reef can sometimes spill downwards.
You may see your bubbles whisked away in a current near the surface but you might also see them tumbling downwards again in the blue water.
This indicates a less than desirable place to make an ascent. Move along the reef and choose a point at which the flow above you is less disturbed.
Finding yourself tumbling downwards when you are attempting to make a 5m safety-stop or even that last few metres of ascent towards the surface can be a frightening experience for those who do not expect it. At best, it is uncomfortable.
You dont need to be superhuman.
I was in Fiji during massive spring tides but I never felt the need to deploy my current hook. Its just a question of understanding what the water is doing and acting accordingly.
I had more trouble climbing back up the steps to my bungalow! If you think that the steep hilly conditions of the Maravu Plantation will be too taxing for you in the tropical heat and humidity, you could always stay on the almost equally luxurious Matangi Island, a private resort popular with honeymoon couples. It is reached by fast resort boat from Taveuni. It has its own small dive centre and makes an ideal base for a group of friends.
Rainbow Reef is a little further from here but dedicated divers will appreciate the all-day trip with three dives included.
Otherwise they do two-tank dives each morning on the vertical reef walls of the Tasman Channel, including the aptly named Yellow Wall - a vast area adorned with golden soft corals.

Matangi
Matangi Island Resort.
Swiss
Swiss Fiji Divers dive boat.
The
The dive boat hovers above the reef.
The
The quality of coral on Rainbow Reef ranks with the best in the world.
Aerial
Aerial view of a Fijian Island.
Soft
Soft corals on the reef are vividly coloured.
Divernet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies to Fiji (Nadi) via Los Angeles from Heathrow. Use Sun Air or Air Fiji to reach Taveuni.
DIVING: Swiss Fiji Divers (www.swissfijidivers.com) or Matangi Island Activities Centre (www.matangiisland.com). To dive both morning and afternoon, confirm at the time of booking.
ACCOMMODATION: Maravu Plantation Resort, Taveuni (www.maravu.net) or Matangi Island Resort.
WHEN TO GO: Any time (rainy season is November to April)
LANGUAGE: English, Fijian & Hindi.
MONEY: Fiji Dollar (1 US $ = 1.75 Fiji $), Visa and Mastercard
PRICES: Inclusive diving holidays in Fiji can be arranged through Dive Worldwide (www.diveworldwide. com). Flights and transfers, seven nights B&B at Maravu Plantation Resort and five days diving would cost £1979, based on two sharing.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Fiji Visitors Bureau (www.BulaFiji.com)