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June 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Paradise Taveuni, Taveuni Island, Fiji

coral and cultural paradise

from the June, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

I have a confession to make -- I've been late to the game in my appreciation for coral. But brothers and sisters, like Saul on the Biblical road to Damascus, I have seen the light, thanks to a recent pilgrimage to Fiji. There, in the Straits of Somosomo, off the island of Taveuni, in the nutrient-laden waters dispersed by hearty currents, the soft coral colors are so intense they appear to glow from within.

Ah yes, the words "Paradise Taveuni" took on a special meaning while I received a "welcome" foot massage from a demure Fijian woman named Beta after we arrived at the main building, which houses the bar, kitchen, open-air restaurant, and dive center. Beta's shy, friendly smile hinted nothing of Fiji's cannibal history (hand-carved souvenir brain forks and war clubs notwithstanding). The entire staff seemed to know all our first names from day one, greeting me with "bula" (hello) and always saying "thank you" (vinaka).

Paradise Princess dive boatOur vale at the beautifully manicured, flower-laden 16-unit Paradise Taveuni Resort sported a shady front porch looking out to Vanua Levu across the Straits. My air-conditioned main room, enclosed by screened opened windows and wooden jalousies, contained a firm king four-poster bed with mosquito netting, a couch, a coffee maker, a little refrigerator, and a separate bathroom. Tall walls of lava rock enclosed a large outdoor shower area with a small, lush garden, where I reveled in a hot shower while standing in a cool, pouring rain. The couch made do as my camera table, which I found more convenient than the five-station camera room in the dive center.

On the trip to our first dive on Rainbow Reef, dolphins played in our wake. The first day was not notable, except for occasional splashes of color here and there and a school of barracuda. On the second dive at Dolphin Bay, a bright-yellow fang blenny, a slender little fish with an erect dorsal, would come close to look me over, then retreat into a tiny hole. A juvenile yellowtail coris, red with white saddles outlined in black, stood out against the bottom. After a delicious lunch that included wahoo spicy coconut milk soup, our third dive was at Vuna Reef, just off a rocky shore. A disk-shaped dot and dash butterflyfish played hard-to-get. A brown-bodied geometric chromodoris crawled quickly across the bottom, its lumpy white tubercles and greenish gills and rhinophores standing out. A nudibranch ("Baba's phyllidia," named after renowned Japanese sea-slug researcher Kikutaro Baba), resembling a cross between a knobby dog's chew toy and a crazy yellow massager, was impossible to miss. At the end of the day, my only responsibility was to rinse my wetsuit, cameras and anything I wanted to keep handy. Otherwise, the crew took care of all my gear.

Each day the primitive beat of the log lali drum sounded breakfast. Starting with a white linen napkin laid in my lap, the rotating menu included eggs benedict, pancakes, omelets, muesli, fruit, and lamb sausage. Female staff wore pretty blue sarongs; males wore masculine brown. Most had flowers behind an ear: left ear noted married, right for unmarried. Lunch orders were taken at breakfast, dinner orders taken at lunch. My favorite lunches included a meaty lasagna, coconut milk chicken soup, and coconut-battered wahoo. The lamb shank for dinner was straight from New Zealand and done just right. While the lemongrass beef skewers were chewy, I had no complaints with a dinner menu that might begin with a course of coconut- and coriander-spiced fish balls with a sweet chili jam and end with a coconut pancake topped with grated sweetened coconut encased in a minted crepe and drizzled with rich chocolate sauce. The dishes, developed by the resort's co-owner, Australian chef Allan Gortan, left me with a big "Wow" written across my lips.

Our second day of diving was typical: Fish Factory gave me travel-poster-like wide angle shots as Moorish idols and long-nose butterflyfish swimming with schools of orange scalefin anthias over a backdrop of anemone, golden feather stars, and knobby, thick green tube coral. Our second dive was at Rainbow Gardens, a spectacular field of separate coral gardens, where yellow and red fan coral sitting on a field of red and pink soft coral looked arranged with a florist's eye.

That night, the log drum sounded happy hour at 5:30 p.m., when the dive crews and resort staff often played guitar and sang. After the sun set, one was cautioned to avoiding stepping on the ever-present poisonous cane toads.

After the first few days of diving, I wasn't disappointed by any means, but neither was I impressed by anything "over the top," especially on the sites we dove in the afternoons at Luna. One dive at Rainbow Reef was almost a waste, because the guides failed to brief us properly on the current and our expected behavior. Once we dropped to 90 feet, the regulator-tugging current was so strong that staying firm to take photographs was impossible. I gave up and just went with the flow, but couldn't enjoy the ride because beforehand we had not been told to do that, so I constantly tried to find a sheltered spot to wait for the group, which was hard work. The current tore a handheld camera from one of our divers, and that was the end of it.

But the diving got better and better as my 10-day stay flew by. About twothirds of our group rode aboard Lady Paradise, the resort's stable and spacious 15-meter twin-outboard, fiberglass twinhull that accommodates up to 22 divers. I was assigned to their 10-meter, twinoutboard, aluminum mono-hulled boat. Both were equipped with oxygen, life jackets, and cell phones. The stern-mounted boarding ladder on the Lady Paradise, which was squeezed between its two Yamahas, meant climbing aboard was tricky in the choppy seas that developed as a tropical depression approached. I preferred the side-mounted boarding ladders on our smaller boat, Paradise Princess.

Taveuni Island, Fiji - MapOne afternoon, our little craft pitched so roughly that I checked to see where the life vests were kept. It was November, the start of cyclone season (it runs through April). In 2016, Tropical Cyclone Winston had virtually wiped out the resort and its house reefs. Searching their souls and digging deep into their pocketbooks, the owners decided to rebuild. The thatched-roof bungalows had to have sheet metal roofs put on them after the reconstruction.

After making the 40-minute boat ride to Rainbow Reef or the 20-minute ride to Vuna Reef, the Fijian divemasters, George Taylor or Tina Riley, would draw a site chart, then brief us, adding that we should be back on the boat in 60 minutes. The morning dives could take us to 70-100 feet (21-30m). Without the benefit of nitrox -- the resort's new nitrox generator was not yet online -- many dives were 55 minutes or less. But as the dives were progressively shallower throughout the day, bottom times grew to 65 minutes, with tacit approval from the guides.

Visibility on most days was about 40 feet (12m), but while diving at The Stairs, I could see the backscatter in my longer shots, thanks to the plankton and other creatures that nourished the coral. One of my dive companions -- we dove as a very loose group -- hovered, staring in front of his mask at a translucent creature with white zigzag bands, a tiny tail, and an eye-like protrusion on one side.

No beach and a ten foot drop into the seaFor lunch, both boats met at a little island off Rainbow Reef for a beach picnic. That day my spouse snorkeled with a guide, while I dove Storm Warning, an enormous circular array of Staghorn coral. On the trip back, we cracked the cooler loaded with soft drinks, Fiji Gold and Fiji Bitters beer, and an occasional can of rum and cola, which kept spirits high.

Before the tropical depression brought overcast, there were occasional clouds but lots of sunshine, low 80F (26C) topside, fairly flat seas, with water ranging from 78F (25C) to a balmy 85F (29C). I was glad to be wearing my five mil and hooded vest, but one day, when I forgot to bring them(!), I dove in my skin and a loaner beanie. I dove in with six pounds (2.5kg), but picked up a hunk of dead coral to stay down, and George loaned me an extra three pounds. In the light gear, I felt refreshingly alive, enjoying the flexibility and light feeling without as much lead.

One morning, as we motored along, large ripples on the water turned out to be three manta rays scooping up plankton; we swam with them for 30 minutes, and I caught great video with my new waterproof Olympus TG-4. My dive mates were openly jealous that I'd brought a snorkel.

And then there was perhaps my most unusual dive ever: a couple in our dive shop group were married underwater, displaying their vows on laminated cards while kneeling in the center of a heart-shaped circle of white rocks. Guests banged tanks and held signs saying "HOORAY" as the couple removed their regulators and kissed. I used the rest of my tank to explore the house reef, which had taken a beating from Cyclone Winston. Nevertheless, I found a freckled hawkfish, whose white head spotted with red dots was joined to a shiny golden body. A reddish lightning flatworm, fringed in a black border punctuated by small white dots and dashes, undulated along, as a black spotted sea cucumber probed the rocks. That night, the bride and groom drank a champagne toast at dinner, sipped from closed heel fins. The kava flowed until almost 11 p.m., as our hosts entertained the bride and groom with Fijian dancing. The next morning, many of my dive mates struggled to recover.

Paradise Taveuni in Taveuni Island, Fiji - RatingToward week's end, we were in the water at 8:15 a.m. to synch with the tide at the spectacular Great White Wall, which looks white from a distance but is covered in icy blue soft coral. I enjoyed its dramatic swim-thrus, a resting white tip shark, and a pair of white banded anemone shrimp. Our next dive was at Jerry's Jelly, where I got shots of the weird long-snouted intermediate phase bird wrasse, leaf scorpionfish, blue ribbon eel, and black spotted puffer with a brilliant yellow belly, together with a so-called "undescribed" white-fringed brown flatworm with yellow spots. At lunch, we had to duck under an overhanging ledge as rain, blown by a chilly wind, dumped on us. On our last dive, at the aptly named Cabbage Patch, we ended our dive on an amazing field of green cabbage patch coral perhaps 30 yards across.

On my last dive day at the Zoo, I was glad to have my Nikon 105 lens to catch a dogtooth tuna cruising in from the blue and a squadron of pick handle barracuda. My most exciting find was a three-inch-long fish that caught my eye and drew me down to 103 feet (31m) due to its unusual coloration: an orange head and white polka-dotted midsection, with a longish black striped tail. Neither George nor Tina could identify it, nor could we find in the book, Tropical Pacific Reef Fish Identification.

Our last dive on Paradise Reef, at Annie's Bommie, was memorable. The bommies, huge columnar coral heads rising from the sandy bottom, were covered with bouquets of purple, pink, orange and red soft coral, punctuated by various species of hard coral, about which anthias, chromis and butterfly fish swam. Life on the bommie was rich: a black nudibranch with dark green gills (a gloomy tambja) inched across the sandy bottom, and a so-called glorious flatworm, black, with a tri-colored fringe, flew between bommies, like a magic carpet undulating in a breeze. After lunch, the drift dive at Orgasm was more of a tease than ecstatic, though I saw a giant clam, its shell perhaps a foot across, and a light purple nudibranch, whose body was topped with rows of orange-tipped cerata, like a fur coat whose hairs looked like thick, blubbery fingers (its name: "siboga cuthona.") Looking back, I would probably have requested that all my dives be on Rainbow Reef, and I would have asked the especially eagle-eyed Tina (Christine) to hunt up even more nudibranchs.

Typical 'vale' accommodationOn our group's last full day, we piled into an open-air bus for an island tour, shopping for souvenirs in the town of Somosomo and standing on a local monument marking the 180-degree meridian. The resort staff smiled, sang and danced in the back of our "magic bus" along the way, encouraging us to do the same. At Tavoro Falls, cool pools under the beautiful falls made for refreshing stops on the hiking trail. On our way back to the resort, we made a short trek to a local water slide: a series of steep, narrow chutes carved out by a stream flowing through the rock that made for one very exciting ride (bring water sandals).

After Taveuni, we flew to the main island and visited Pacific Harbor at the lovely, modern Pearl Resort to make a two-tank shark dive with Beqa Adventure Divers. Their briefings were thorough, and during the dives, they kept records of shark counts, types, male/female counts, and nicknames for the familiar ones they saw. With 40 bull sharks in the water, a high ratio of divemasters to divers kept some of the more "curious" bulls at a distance as we crouched on a ledge.

I think coral is the Rodney Dangerfield of the marine world: it don't get no respect. But after diving in Fiji, the "Soft Coral Capital of the World," I'm at a loss for words to describe the beauty. Even New World Publications, which publishes the renowned Humann and DeLoach series, has no title covering tropical Pacific reef coral. I just hope this missive has offered a taste of the variety of under- and above-water experiences you might find if you get a chance to make the trek.

-- S.P.

Our undercover diver's bio: S.P. says, "Learning to scuba (35 years ago), my beavertail neoprene wetsuit got me through my YMCA silver-level certification, even if I did freeze my bippy during 100-foot descents onto Great Lakes freighters. I've gradually earned all the main certifications, including Master Scuba Diver, and I have an SDI/TDI/ ERDI solo diving certification that comes in handy when I am sometimes left on my own on dives while taking photos. In between frequent dive trips, from the Caribbean to the Asia Pacific, I am a public safety diver and try to dive once a week year-round when our local lakes are not frozen over, and when they, are I'm ice diving."

Divers CompassDiver's Compass: My dive package for 10 nights in an ocean bungalow with eight days of three boat dives and all meals was $2947 for me as a diver and $2662 for my non-diving spouse, which included unlimited shore diving, 25% taxes, and airport transfers ... Nitrox goes for $10/tank ... Tipping was pooled; we gave about $400 ... Fruit smoothies/milkshakes: $4; Fiji Gold/Bitter: $4.25; mixed drink specials: $6.25 ... Credit cards were accepted for a 3% fee ... The dive shop had a large assortment of rental gear, plus safety sausages and reels, masks, snorkels, straps, and pointers ... From Nadi, the main airport, it's a puddle jumper to Taveuni, with baggage charges $1.50-$3/kg (ask your travel agent to get proper documentation that you are going to dive in Fiji, and the rate may be lower). Distilled spirits can cost up to $100/liter ... Get an Australian/New Zealand-style angled dual prong converter for the 220v current ... We liked the Tanoa International Hotel in Nadi and the Pearl Resort in Pacific Harbor ... I took a back-country river kayaking trip, where I learned how highland villagers shop for groceries: I watched Fijians who had gathered armloads of spinach swim across the river back to their village ... Rosie Tours handled our shore excursions around Nadi ... U.S. Dollars and credit cards were accepted. Websites: www.paradiseinfiji.com; http://fijisharkdive.com; http://www.riversfiji.com

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