Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Scuba Diving Trip Report : Fiji and the Bula Bowls

Author: Richard Salkin
Location: Fiji
Date: 5/27/2008 1:23:00 PM

Some concepts just elude me. Like the International Date Line. Sure, I can grasp its significance at some levels but still cant quite wrap my brain around it completely. If you look at a map, one thing is clear: the people who decided where the IDL should go wanted to give the island nation of Fiji a break. If not for a deliberate shift to the east and back again, parts of Fiji would be in the future while other parts would be in the past. Which still just blows my circuitry.

On June 27, with this conundrum weighing on my mind, I boarded a 56-minute flight from Jacksonville to Atlanta, the first leg on a 20,000-mile journey to Fiji and back...
Our grand arrival at Makogai
Our grand arrival at Makogai
Along the way there would be whole operas to listen to, whole books to read, whole bowls of kava to drink and underwater colors I hadn't seen since my psychedelic college days. On June 30, on the other side of the planet, with one day unaccounted for, after crossing both the IDL and the equator, I joined 8 of my bestest dive buddies plus a new guy who would quickly take his place among a pantheon of cool dive friends. We met up at the Tradewinds hotel just outside the capital city of Suva.

Our group: Angie and Chuck, Judy and Dave, Jamie and Robbie, Wendy and Mary, Mike (the new guy) ....and me, your humble narrator. When a mere ten people charter a liveaboard it feels a little more intimate than usual, the opposite of a cattleboat. Taking meals together in the salon felt like we were at the kids table and the imaginary adults were in the main dining room. Ten is a good number.

Our boat, the Fiji Aggressor III, (formerly Sere-Ni-Wai) was built for 10 divers and 5 crew and was docked next to the much larger FA2 (formerly Tahiti Aggressor), a lavishly appointed dual-hull that holds 18 and was idle that week. Our crew: Captain Ned, Captain/Instructor James, DM Mosese, Chef Deo and Engineer/Hottie Clinton. I'm not sure how many liveaboards I've done--between one and two dozen--and this particular crew ranks at the top. Excellent at what they do, attitude-free, beyond helpful and, let's face it, easy on the eyes.

After some refreshments at the Tradewinds, we boarded in mid-afternoon and off we steamed out of Suva, near the Southeast corner of Fijis biggest island, Viti Levu. Suva is protected by a reef so big it took us 90 minutes to get past it into open water. The crossing to Wakaya lasted about 6 hours in heavy seas that left us feeling a little tentative despite meds. Deos delicious roasted chicken dinner with baked pumpkin went largely unconsumed. By 10, we were in calm water and woke to sunshine in a place called Vatu Vai.

With only a few exceptions, the diving in Fiji is mostly of a single pattern. The water is not gin-clear, with viz averaging 40 to 60 feet, due to an abundance of nutrients which in turn make the sea life so prolific. Its a fair trade-off. Most sites are pinnacle coral Canadians call them bommies which are shaped like, well, like columns rising out of the sand. (Work with me, I'm trying to avoid gratuitous references that only a hack would use.) A few pinnacles were on or near a wall but most were in 70-90 fsw.

So generally you start at the bottom, work a slow leisurely spiral upward until you get to the top at about 20 fsw. And then something magical happens. At the top of each of these plateaus is a coral garden so vividly colorful, dancing in the sunlight with such exuberance, that you think you must be tripping. It's like you're diving inside a forgotten scene from Disney's Fantasia. It's like the moment in Wizard of Oz when it goes from b&w to color. The bommie tops are loaded with soft and hard corals, with anthias everywhere, expanding and contracting like a mechanical ball, and tiny orange and bright purple who-knows-whats scattering and schooling in every direction. Each site is a color tableau gone wild, pulsating to its own rhythm.

We saw all the tiny critters that make photographers go gaga and use their macro lenses. Did we mention nudibranchs? And countless varieties of microscopic crabs and ittybitty blennies? Not that you don't encounter all this life further down toward the base. You do. But up top where there's all that sunlight plus minimal light refraction it is hypnotic. Sometimes there would be one pinnacle with cool rubble off to the side, sometimes 2 or 3 in a single site.

At Wakaya we dove Vatu Vai and Blue Ribbon Eel before heading to Namena Marine Park for dives at Black Forest, Canses (Kansas), Chimneys, Keenans and Ned's Head. Then Makogai, home to Christines Place, Half Pipe, PNO and Rick's Rock. One of my favorites was Jim's Alley, off the island of Gao (pronounced now) and named for the late photographer Jim Church. This was really a miniature mountain range of 4 sharp mounds, one with a swim-through, in about 75 fsw.

Chuck and I were the only ones looking more for the big guys, and we weren't disappointed either. At one point I looked up to see Angie abandoning all pretense of self-control, pointing at a pair of mantas overhead. OMG. Other notable sightings during our week included a whole field of red anemone, plus banded sea snakes, blue ribbon eel, pygmy seahorse, napoleon wrasse, grey reef sharks and one ornery potato cod named Leroy. A potato cod is basically a jewfish, I learned.

Which brings us to the FA3's signature dive. Two signature dives in one, actually. The site is called North Save-a-Tack Passage, and for our group it was both a shark-feeding and a high-voltage current ride. The passage is a break in the outer wall of a huge bowl thats miles across. The bowl at one time was a volcanic mountain that collapsed in on itself over time, leaving the surrounding reef as an almost-levee. Since the reef rises to near the surface, it constricts the tidal flow without preventing it. Except in this one narrow passage, which is like a break in the levee. So with each tide the water flows either inward or outward through the passage with some degree of force. To dive it, timing is everything. Ned, Mo and James did this dive with us. Each had a plastic container with a huge fish head in it.

First we backrolled off a panga and made negative entries into the stiff current. Someones tank hit me in the head. Great. I'm on a shark feed and there's probably a gash in my head. But no worries, it was fine. We dropped down and aimed for a pre-established area in the side of the channel. Then we settled into the sand behind a large rock at about 65 fsw and waited for Ned, Mo or James to tie his fish head to the rock. The place was suddenly swarming with grey reef sharks, red vampire fish (now there's a charming thought) and the aforementioned Leroy. I think there was also a smaller unnamed potato cod cousin with him.

For most shark dives I've been on, the actual feeding lasted about 30 seconds, and then you could spend the rest of your dive admiring the animals. For this one, the feeding lasted an incredible 25 minutes. Camera shutters were a-clickin fast and furious as our bubbles blew sideways in the current. The guests feasted right in front of our noses, oblivious to us (and the current) but very mindful of the fish heads.

Finally we ran out of goodies, and at a sign from one of the DMs we rose up out of our crouched positions behind the rock and let the current grab us. As you glide through the channel, the bottom slopes gradually upward, increasing the current. It was definitely an E-ticket ride, especially when we found ourselves hanging onto a rock waiting for the dive leader to catch up. Even with my mask strap placed under my hood, I thought the mask was gonna blow off. Then Mo or James flew by and we followed. Definitely a thrill ride. Suddenly, the current just stopped, and when we surfaced we were drifting directly toward FA3 at a leisurely pace.

Even *I* had no trouble navigating my way back to the boat that time. Despite this success, I am sorry to report that my navigation skills have not improved much. Usually the boat would be anchored just off the edge of a pinnacle. But with viz at about 50 feet and the boat swinging on the down line, the ladder was usually just out of visual range. You could hear the engine and if you swam even close to the right direction, you would see the ladder before long. Big if. If current was involved, as it occasionally was, the chances of being blown off the reef and taking the ride o shame increased. If all those conditions were present and you were me, well, you can see where this is going. One time James pointed me toward the boat and then watched me unwittingly swim in a wide arc as if one of my fins was longer than the other. Actually I took only two rides o shame all week, but I prefer to call them rides of privilege.

I was, after all, a tribal chief. Say what? On Wednesday, the Fourth of July (at least on our side of the IDL), we visited a tribal village at Makogai. In a briefing the day before, we were told that our group was expected to elect its own tribal chief who would participate in the upcoming kava ceremony on the island. Despite trying to blend in with the wall, I was elected. Not emperor or queen, I was the chief. And the next day my subjects and I came bearing gifts: a bundle of kava, plus school supplies for the little school they run in the village. (Quick aside: we'd known for months that bringing school supplies was appreciated. I brought stickies and glitter pens.)

In the briefing, Ned asked us to observe a few rules. 1. Please wear a sulu. (Judy brought me a hot pink number she had lying around.) 2. No touching anyone on the head. Thats a major insult punishable by death. 3. And no making a nasty face when you drink the kava. (Another aside: Kava is a root that is aged, then mashed up and strained through a cloth to make a muddy-tasting liquid. Its active ingredient is a beta-blocker chemically related to blood pressure meds like Tenormin which makes your tongue a little numb. In sufficient quantities it gives you a buzz. I had strange dreams that night but cannot be sure they were from the kava.)

On the panga, dressed in my hot pink sulu and carrying the kava bundle like a torch, I tried to look like either the Statue of Liberty or Washington crossing the Delaware. No one thought this was funny. On the beach we were greeted with fragrant leis, coconut milk and singing and dancing. While our dinner was slow-cooked in an open-pit fire, we toured the village with Sophie, who runs the school. The village, which does limited aquaculture, is on the site of a former leper colony that closed in the late 1960s.

At sunset we gathered with the villagers in a community hall for the traditional kava ceremony with lots of ritual dancing by the villages two dozen kids. By doing these dances, the kids learn and pass down the collective history of Fiji and the village.

Every few minutes we would take a kava break. When handed the bowl, which is basically half a coconut shell, heres the ritual: 1. Clap your hands hollowly. 2. Shout Bula. 3. Drink the bowl dry. 4. Hand the bowl back. 5. Clap your hands again 3 times. After the first bowl, you can accept or decline more. If you want just a little, you ask for low tide. If you want a bigger portion, you ask for high tide, and if you want it full to the rim, you ask for a tsunami. I love being able to write this next sentence: I consumed several bowls that night.

The next night, after crossing to Gao, we were visited onboard by the chief of the village there, who brought his retinue and more kava with him. A few of us hung out on the back deck, doing bowls with the locals. One begins to notice certain parallels.

On Friday we did one more pinnacle dive at a site called Anthias and steamed back to Suva, where we spent the afternoon. While the countryside in Fiji is magnificent, Suva and Nadi, the two main cities, are not really very touristy. Still, the country serves as a playground for Australians and New Zealanders in the same way the Bahamas does for east-coast Americans. Fijis tourist-dependent economy is hurting after the latest in a series of political coups. As a result, salespeople in shops, more desperate than ever, are annoyingly pushy. Maybe if they did a few more bowls they might relax. Just before our trip, Fiji and New Zealand expelled each others ambassadors. Maybe they should do a few bowls, too, and settle their differences.

While the trip was one of the best I've ever done, I have to say FA3 could use an overhaul. The cabins were spacious but often lacked hot water. Some divers noticed a foul taste in their breathing gas nothing harmful but still unpleasant. The dive deck doubled as the dive platform, so it got a little crowded. Some things I especially liked: Tank fills were plentiful, averaging about 3000 psi, with mixtures reliably at about 31%. The cabins had individual climate controls. Food was good and fresh without attempting to be froufrou. Before your first dive you could pre-order a hot breakfast choice which would be waiting for you when you came back. This was after the toast, coffee, juice, cereal and fruit available before the first dive. The wines and beers were good.

The coffee onboard warrants a whole paragraph. It was simply outstanding and never ever ran out. Unlike the coffee machines built mostly for volume and convenience, FA3 uses a simple French press, and Deo managed to keep it filled 24/7. The franchisee also owns a coffee business, which probably accounts for the bricks of Fijian coffee waiting for each of us on our bunks. I haven't tasted mine yet but will be using my French press when I do.

The trip home took longer than the trip out because of scheduling problems with Air New Zealand. It took 37 hours from the time we left Suva to the time I walked in my front door. Thank goodness for my new monster iPod, those dumb-looking neck pillows and Halcyon. Still, it takes awhile to reset your internal clock after a trip like this. Maybe a few bowls would help.

Thanks and acknowledgements: First, to Angie for organizing the whole trip and keeping the dastardly airlines reservations people from running roughshod over us. Thats no easy feat. Some of their antics had us baffled and livid. Second, to the crew, who were a pleasure to dive with, hang with and have the hots for. Third to the gentle and genuine people of Fiji, who deserve a more stable government and a better economy. Last, to my cabin-mate, Mike, who despite being the last-minute addition, managed to endear himself to all of us immediately and effortlessly. I hope you'll be hearing a lot from him.


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