As I’ve oft noted in my various dispatches from the ends of the earth, timing can be crucial to a good dive experience and especially so when it comes to the company you keep. But when a friend said they had someone they wanted me to meet I figured it was another well-meaning soul who wanted me to wax philosophically on the technical aspects of diving or to lament how determinism had faded recently from theoretical physics.
They had just returned from Truk where they had met this delightful lady they wanted to introduce me to: Lauren Hutton. Without a moments hesitation I volunteered to wax anything that she might need attended to. It’s fast thinking like that in tough situations that has kept me alive this long in a world filled with treachery and nuance.
A veteran of more than thirty movies and a stellar career as the first millionaire super model, Lauren Hutton is an icon of femininity and beauty with perhaps one of the most recognizable faces in the world. (Well, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky can be best regarded as mere blips on the current affairs radar.) But it seems that my friend had convinced her that we had a lot in common and should adjust our calendars to allow an arranged introduction. So what kind of idiot is going to pass on that offer? Okay, maybe Elton John or Liberace might not have viewed the liaison with such unbridled enthusiasm as I mustered, but I don’t think Ellen Degeneres would have passed it up.
So after months of phone tag and messages exchanged between our assistants, in January 1998 I found myself on the way to collect her at the airport in Portland, Maine right in the middle of the most horrendous ice storm to hit the northeast in a century. Hers was the last plane to land for three days as everything north of Washington D. C. shut down. She was unfazed at the six foot icicles hanging from the trees and the rapidly building snowdrifts. We talked about warmer subjects on the drive back to my house on Arrowsic Island. Lauren started diving back in 1965 and had used her modeling and movie location opportunities to dive Africa, Bora Bora, the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Micronesia over the ensuing years. She had recently gotten back in the sport seriously since finally becoming officially certified in 1996. Now diving was her passion and before the weekend was over she accepted my invitation to visit Fiji.
I had previously committed to an assignment to spend three weeks exploring Fiji aboard two state-of-the-art liveaboards that ply the islands. After an eleven hour flight from Los Angeles on Air Pacific, we stumbled out of the baggage area in Nadi into the welcome embrace of Rob Barrel and Cat Holloway, the charming couple who operate the 120 foot motor sailer Nai’a. The ship was completely rebuilt by Rob in 1993 and is one of the finest vessels anywhere in the south Pacific.
Nine private staterooms with ensuite baths and individually controlled air conditioning compliment the spacious salon and comfortable dive deck. A protected room forward of the salon allows photographers to spread out their assets with room to spare. Rob’s able Fijian crew got us underway within minutes and we were off to our first dive on the northwest coast of Viti Levu. Like many Pacific liveaboards that operate in areas of strong currents, Nai’a uses sturdy inflatables to whisk divers to the sites while the ship stays comfortably anchored nearby.
Lauren dropped in like a seasoned veteran and immediately became enthralled with the colorful soft corals that clung to the dropoff wall face. Scarlet anthias swarmed the tops of the coral bommies providing a magical pallet for me to work my camera. Fiji is a place of incredible beauty both above and below water and Rob’s explorations over the last five years have provided him an unending selection of superior sites. He has charted previously unknown pinnacles and sea mounts as well as orchestrating the optimum periods to visit the fringing reefs in concert with the crucial tide cycles to afford maximum marine life and impossibly clear visibility.
Although I would doubt that anyone could have less than a great experience visiting Fiji, there are distinct advantages to diving by liveaboard. Most of Rob’s itinerary that we visited that first week was beyond the reach of day boats and he consistently put us on virgin sites of sufficient variety and excellence that I burned through nearly forty rolls of film in six days. We covered over six hundred miles while cruising through the islands located between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
What he treated us to was as good as I’ve seen anywhere in that area of the Pacific with extra points for the extraordinary service provided by he, Cat and a magnificent passenger-friendly crew. Rob or Cat lead every dive and you’re welcome to follow or strike out on your own. I learned that it was a wise decision to always stay in sight of the pair since they had an uncanny ability to lead us into exactly the right position for unique marine life encounters and coral vistas.
Lauren learned the hard way about the toxicity of the crown of thorns starfish whom she regards as public enemy #1 for its voracious destruction of reef. In attempting to execute an offender with a fiberglass stick, she accidentally let her thumb contact the stinging spines of the organism. By nightfall her thumb had swollen to nearly four times its natural size giving her a rigid digit that would make Sissy Hankshaw of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” jealous. It made interesting dinner conversation as Lauren struggled through the evening in a perpetual state of “thumbs up” signals. Good thing she’s not a hand model.
One night Rob and Cat announced that we were invited to a Fijian kava ceremony. The natives of Fiji have been famous for hundreds of years principally for three things: being fierce warriors in battle, wonderful singers, along with a propensity, from the not too distant past, for actually eating their conquered foes. This latter reputation discouraged all but the most stalwart visitors from coming ashore for social exchange. A century ago when a Fiji native noted that someone was a “good fellow”, there were several ways you could take that. Let’s just say that the U.S.’s most famous cannibal practitioners, the Donner party, would have fit right in.
Kava, an exceedingly nasty potion that tastes roughly like a cross between dirty dishwater and baby laxative, is a cultural institution and the subject of great ceremony. It was an honor for us to be invited to participate, Rob explained, and we were expected to be appropriately attired in the colorful sarongs found in each cabin. It should be noted here for the record that Lauren Hutton is a profoundly better pick to be showcased in a sarong than most of the rest of us but we gamely settled in around the kava bowl to shouted greetings of “bula!” and much assorted loud hand clapping that heralded our participation.
For those who are not well versed in the quaffing of kava, you should understand that it is a mild narcotic and after enough is consumed a fairly nice buzz is achieved. Personally, I think that’s why Fijians sing so well. At least I thought so at the time. The crew had been at it for the better part of the evening and so they had a considerable head start on us.
But we had vanquished several bottles of a particularly compelling merlot washed down with ample measures of Grand Marnier so we were rapidly catching up when we took our places in the kava circle under the stars. Rob was vigorously shaking some sort of percussive “rain stick” that looked like it could easily double as a club and a general wild abandon of raucous singing in the lilting native dialect had pretty well overtaken our party. About six rounds of kava had gone around, when another guest named Scott asked what I supposed the lyrics to the song were. I fixed him with my best attempt at a professorial educated expression and volunteered that I couldn’t quite make out the verses but the chorus seemed to be, “soon we be eating whitey!” He snugged his sarong a bit tighter around his hip tried to look as formidable as he could at 128 pounds.
Being a veteran of a long litany of rituals from the late 1960′s that prepared me quite well for such mind-altering ceremony, I outlasted my compatriots while Lauren gave in to a “horizontal” attack that rendered her comatose on the deck. This posture was adopted shortly after she suggested that she would like to be called “white goddess” when a crew member inquired as to her entire name back home. All in all, a great time was had by all although Scott was careful to lock his cabin door after he noted several newly made friends in the kava circle eyeing him with what he interpreted as more than a passing fancy while brandishing barbeque sauce packets.
The next day found us visiting the jeweled island of Gnau surrounded by a turquoise lagoon inside a barrier reef. Cat briefed us on the upcoming dive at N’gali Pass. We would time our entry to that of maximum incoming tidal current to guarantee good viz and rich marine life. As usual, that was an understatement.
We rolled out of the inflatable and were quickly swept by the current into a narrow channel in the reef. Immediately we were surrounded by a giant school of jack and Pacific barracuda that performed an endless series of schooling acrobatics in the 200 foot plus visibility. A large hammerhead came by to check us out and three mantas hovered just overhead like jets stacked up over an airport.
The channel narrowed to barely a hundred feet across and Cat led us into an area she called “the bleachers” where we could crouch in wait for the promised main event. Taking our positions we were instantly greeted by several large groupers in the 100 to 200 pound range. Then the sharks began to arrive. Attracted by the incoming current, this is a legendary haven for a wide variety of sharks that feed in the tide. First a couple, then a half a dozen, and finally over thirty sharks swarmed through the area sometimes only inches away from our gaze.
All the while, the schools of barracuda and jack swam circles from the bottom at ninety feet to nearly the surface. Cat and Lauren floated in the menagerie while the sharks eyed them without malice for nearly half an hour. We were all mesmerized by the swirling scene of mixed species engaged in intense activity spread over the ocean floor and extending upwards the equivalent of a nine story building. Lauren said it reminded her of the New York club scene on a Saturday night.
As our air supply dwindled we allowed ourselves to drift over the most magnificent lettuce coral formations I’d ever seen on the way into the shallows. A banded sea snake serpentined his way to Lauren and offered his version of “do you come here often” before being rebuffed. Later in the day, Rob took us to a bommie where a cleaner shrimp had set up shop and would even clean people if you offered your open mouth. Cat helped Lauren apply a thin coat of Australia’s famed Vegamite to her lower teeth to give the hardworking crustacean some inspiration. The image of a cleaner shrimp swarming over the most famous gap-toothed smile in modeling history left Scott contemplating some dental skills of his own.
We bid a fond farewell to Nai’a in Suva to catch up with the newest addition to Live/Dive Pacific’s stable, the 120-foot diesel catamaran Fiji Aggressor. Managing Director Dan Ruth was hosting a special exploratory voyage to identify new dive sites and we were hustled on board.
The Fiji Aggressor is a modern marvel of marine construction. Dan and partner Joe Usibelli have pioneered these designs and ended up with some of the most lavishly appointed dive ships in the world. Eight double staterooms with private baths are located only steps from the dive deck. A custom 26 foot launch powered by twin jet drives speeds you to the most remote sites at over 30 knots. The main salon features a large screen TV console with a library of movies, a bar and massive dining room. On the back deck a hot tub beckons. A third deck level hosts a sun deck the size of a hockey rink. We’re talking large, Texas large.
An overnight run puts us into Wakaya, one of a string of seemingly endless perfect little islets that dot the Fiji region. One luxury resort sprawls over the verdant landscape and beckons anyone who can afford the $5000 a day rate to drop on in. This is where Bill Gates spent his honeymoon. I’ve got a hunch that he didn’t blanch at the tariff. There’s some fine diving nearby that we take in but this is just a jumping off point for more virgin exploration.
We discover some wonderful walls and soft coral jungles near Namena, a tiny key just west of Somosomo Strait that keeps us occupied for several days. Coral pinnacles that reach from the eighty foot bottom to within inches of the surface explode in fiery splendor of red, orange, violet and pink hues as the soft corals sway in the current. Thousands of colorful anthias school on the summits to cap a scene of such rich diversity that only a photo can convey the true majesty of the scene.
But our best discovery is found off the island of Koro to the south. This area had been restricted to visitation but Dan has negotiated diving rights from the local chiefs and we are privileged to be among the first to explore the underwater topography. We are treated to fabulous walls, clear water and a labyrinth of coral bommies adjacent the barrier reef that would take months to adequately explore. Finally, on our last day we sample what may be the best wall we’ve seen off Koro’s south point. Visibility is endless, every conceivable pelagic swims by and the coral formations are pristine.
Dan has us dropped off on the isolated beach under swaying palms while he pours full measures of Fijian rum that would fell an ox. Several oxen deaths later, Dan and I decide we have discovered the meaning of life… only we forgot to write it down. But it definitely had something to do with equal parts rum, palm trees, and Fiji sunsets. And Lauren Hutton in a sarong with a whimsical smile.