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January 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Papoo Divers, Nananu-i-ra, Fiji

“boutique diving” away from the crowds

from the January, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

More than a decade ago, the American Dan Grenier opened a dive shop on Nananu-ira, a small isle on the north tip of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. While he served divers at the resort Wanavanu, on the main island, he also put together packages using the few private accommodations on the isle. Sadly, Dan and one of his charges disappeared while diving in 2005; he was so skilled a diver that no one else on the boat was concerned when he was late to return. By the time they started to search, it was too late and no trace of him was ever found.

At last, another operation is up and running on Nananu-i-ra, although it gets few visitors. Ten minutes by motorboat from Viti Levu, the isle is so tiny you can walk around it at low tide in an hour. Papoo Divers is the main shop there. Divers can stay at Papoo’s or at Betham’s Beach Cottages. You can get some terrific diving for under $1,000 a week, a bargain for the South Pacific.

Diving here is equivalent to Beqa, a popular -- and more populated -- island south of Viti Levu, but it’s far less rainy. And it’s also far more interesting than any Caribbean diving -- more animals, bigger sharks, better viz and fewer Americans. My dives averaged 60 to 90 feet, and sites are 5 to 20 minutes from shore. The two most notable are Pinnacles and Canyons, both with hard-coral pinnacles and canyons rising from 100-foot depths and draped with seafans. Maze and Dream Maker are some of the coral gardens and bommies swarming with anthias, triggerfish, Dascyllus, several species of butterflyfish, trevally, long-fin bannerfish and coral grouper. On some dives, I was surrounded by a few white-tip reef sharks or schools of yellow-stripe grunts and rainbow runners. It was fun to peek into the healthy multi-colored hard (brain, staghorn, Millepora, Acropora) and soft corals to find porcelain crabs, prawns, lionfish and stonefish. The ferry Ovalau (at 85 feet) and cargo ship Papuan Explorer (75 feet) can be explored inside with wreck reel and lights. Otherwise, I checked out heavy-duty transport trucks, tires, cables and coral-encrusted hulls from the outside. The strongest drift dive was at Cannibal Cove, where currents were less than two knots. Water temps go from 72 degrees in October to an 80-degree peak in February.

Papoo Divers is owned and operated by PADI instructor Papu Pangalau, who was formerly with the now defunct Kai Viti Divers and caters to small groups. His custom boat Rose of the Reef (O2, cell phone, marine radio, dry area and life vests but no head) holds up to 12 divers for two-tank dives, and he’ll contract another boat for additional divers. Papoo Divers, Nananu-i-ra, FijiPapoo Divers is a family business; Papu’s son and divemaster cousin drive the boat while snacks are pancakes made by his daughters and mangoes plucked from his trees. Papu gives thorough briefs in excellent English, and experienced divers can dive their own profiles if they stay within air and non-deco limits. I dived with Papoo last year and liked the crew’s personable feel and the boutique experience of just diving with a few other divers rather than a couple of dozen. I stayed at Betham’s last time but Papoo now has on-premises lodging, so for my March stay, I rented its airy twobedroom apartment with shower and toilet, a shared but fully-stocked kitchen, hot water, AC and electricity 24/7. Before I boarded the launch to the island, I bought groceries in Raki Raki, the nearest town on the mainland. Then I cooked my meals in the shared kitchen and ate them with Papu’s family and the other guests. One night, Papu’s family gave me a special nightlight treat, a Fiji lovo (pit cookery) courtesy of Mrs. Papu and her sisters, while their teenagers did traditional songs and dances.

A standard two-tank dive is US$80, or $45 if you’ve got three-plus divers in your group, and a five-dive package is US$175. Nanoo’s apartment is around US$65 a night. No Nitrox and no credit cards accepted but Papoo will shuttle you without charge to Raki Raki’s banks/ATMs to change money. Papoo Divers doesn’t have a Web site; e-mail them at papoodivers@mobileemail.vodafone.com.fj.

An alternative is Betham’s Beach Cottages, a self-catering mom-and-pop operation owned by an Aussie-Fijian retired couple. It’s not as spacious or new as Papoo’s but the fully-furnished cottage I stayed at last October was clean and freshly painted. No hot water or A/C, and electricity is available only from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Betham’s restaurant meals must be ordered before 3 p.m. I bought groceries at their kiosk and in Raki Raki, cooked on the two-burner stove and enjoyed sunset suppers on the beachfront porch. For two adults, it’s US$65 per night, and Betham’s takes Mastercard and Visa, travelers’ checks, and foreign currency (www.bethams.com.fj).

With advance notice, both Betham’s and Papu will arrange for the two-hour taxi ride (approximately US$60) from the Nadi airport to connect with their boats at Ellington Wharf. Betham’s charges around $17 for the round-trip boat transfer and Papoo does not charge (you may find yourself riding the boat with Papu’s kids coming home from school). For more information about the island, go to www.nananu-i-ra-fiji.com.

-- N.M.

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