Date: 5/27/2008 1:21:00 PM
A 7 day trip on Nai'a to the best of Fiji's bligh waters. (a couple images and video)
[the still images are video captures so I apologize in advance]
Coming to Fiji from the west coast is pretty easy. Its ten hours but the flights leave at 11pm, and cross the dateline so you arrive two days later around 5 am. Coming home you arrive the afternoon prior to the evening you board.
Air Pacific from LAX to Nadi is your typical cattle call. This time made worse by the fact two flight attendants called in sick, so they closed an entire section re-seating everyone closer together. If that wasn't bad enough- next to my wife sits a guy who is hacking and wheezing, wiping his nose sounding like Elmer Fudd.... 'Sorry, my love try to hold you breath for the next ten hours.'
Arrival, customs, and immigration is painless and quick. As are the transfers to our day room at 'First Landing'. Which I totally recommend- nice clean, quiet. On the way over we quizzed our driver about the coup which had started a few days earlier. "Not much going on- Here in Nadi its all tourism, not like in Suva where its all politics. No worries." (Nadi is solid 3 hour drive around the island to the capital Suva)
Having been in Fiji for the coup in 2000 I suspected he was right- though we passed several check points on the main road- but all the guys were smiling and waving just like the Bula band at the airport.
After a couple hours of napping and a little snack- we were picked up by the Nai'a bus and shuttled to the ship in Lautoka. The crew made quick work of our bags, clothes down to the rooms, dive gear at stations on the deck and camera cases to the camera room. A little boat orientation and some introductions and then the magic words- "If you want to make the first dive we go in 30 minutes.
The first dive is pretty much a rubble adventure with nothing amazing to see, but its a great spot to get your weight dialed in with the camera, lights, etc- test any new toys you got for the trip and learn how they handle the diving on the Nai'a. This is my fourth trip so I had a pretty good idea what I was in for.
While on the Nai'a you dive from skiffs, big RIBs (rigid hulled inflatable boats). You actually get to do the backroll entry(which always makes me feel very Cousteau-esque) Its sounds kinda rough and tumble but in fact it works great. Once your gear is assembled initially the crew loads/unloads it on to the RIB for each dive. So you never schlep gear at all. When you finish the dive, one skiff ferrys you back to the boat while the other remains on station waiting for divers to surface. This practice keeps you from bobbing on the surface long or having to wait in the skiff for other divers.
If you are diving with a camera you set it out by the rinse tank before the dives and its waiting for you on the boat, and is brought back to the rinse tank for you.
It is important to note the skill and care the crew handles your gear with. First, in rolling seas these Fijian lads lift weight-integrated rigs the same way most divers pick up masks or fins. Then to make it even more impressive the care they take is better than I use to hold my baby nephew. My regulator has two hoseless computer transmitters on top of the first stage which looks the perfect handle to grab. Most places I am constantly asking DMs and others not to use these fragile transmitters as handles. Not the case here, not only did the guys know better they took the time to carefully tuck my drysuit hose away so it wouldn't dangle.
When it comes to camera care, the crew knows the difference between trays, handles, strobe arms and cables never once did I see anyones stuff get handled casually. Everyone was quick with lens covers. The one night we had a slightly bumpy crossing, I woke up to find my camera surrounded by mini wall of towels and positioned so it wouldn't roll on the table.
More boat stuff- Every trip we have had a different room and I liked them all. All the rooms have just gotten new carpet and brand new linens (towels, sheets, pillows etc). Ensuite heads have been recently renovated to be more spacious and have more light. There aren't any signs of the grounding in Tonga except the skiffs aren't in matching colors. Also new are the cruise directors- straight from the Solomons come Sonia and Grant. Both continue to hold up the tradition of excellence I have come to expect from Nai'a. Fun, kind, knowledgeable, and very nice people. Plenty of hot water, dry towels after every dive. Food was top notch- from veggie only to desserts, all very tasty and plenty of it. If you didn't like something just ask and they were happy to make my wife soup when she felt a cold looming.
It was a full boat but not crowded, all North Americans except for a lady kiwi. A good mix of people, some ex-pats living in Fiji, some east coasters, all super nice and very interesting.
Diving- Most days start with the sound of the anchor dropping about 7am. Its an early wait up and a quick snack/contintental breakfast then 7:30 am dive, followed by a hot breakfast, 11am dive, lunch (nap for me) 2pm dive, snack, then 5pm dive, dinner and then around 8pm night dive. Yeap that means over the course of the week you could do 29 dives (I only made 20)
Diving on the Nai'a is a model I would love to see spread through the world. They give you a great brief on the site including a detailed map, what animals to look for, key photo ops, tips to make it interesting and then put a guide in the water that spends the dive finding cool stuff for you not herding divers. When you hear a couple tank raps (speed and intensity give you a sense of how cool the find is) the guides have found something. If you want to scoot over fine if not they aren't going to insist. Each diver is expected to manage their deco profile and keep in mind you are a long way from the nearest chamber but nobody is going to flip if you slip into deco, or run over 60 minutes on a dive.
I dove nitrox the whole trip- the mixes didn't vary much 31-33%. Tank fills were always 3000 and cool. I dove with an aluminum 80 but at her request they set my wife up with a smaller cylinder.
The quality of the diving is stunning- soft coral and the amount of color in the biomass is hard describe accurately. One of the special things on this charter was we returned to E-6 a sea mount that had been off the list of dive sites following a bleaching incident several years ago. The site is healthy again, the unusual topography combined with soft corals, and color sea life make this probably one of the prettiest dive sites I have ever visited.
Wild life on this trip included sightings of: hammerheads, giant mantas, two separate blue ribbon eels and a juvenile one too. Lots of sharks at Nagali passage, don't know if its seasonal but I shot some great footage of octopi mating. The only bummer was the titan triggers were starting to nest, so in places you needed to pay attention. (Video is posted on my youtube page link at the bottom)
Another cool thing that is new- is rebreathers. The cruise director Grant has several units onboard both fully closed and semi. I took the opportunity to dive the fully closed system, 'Evolution' from AB Valves. Like a fully admitted gear slut years ago I jumped at the chance to dive the drager semi closed when it first came on the market. The experience was underwhelming- the technology felt very first generation. (the bcd was uncomfortable, it poked you, not a huge advantage) This single dive reversed my feelings. There are huge advantages to the fully closed system, and the technology has caught up enough that it works with you rather than forcing you to work with it. By the end of the dive I was already thinking about how to explain this purchase to my wife. Its not the end all for travel because the infrastructure isn't there but its a great tool to have for extending range, making you safer, increasing photo ops.
Dive details: water was pretty calm with vis that ranged from so so- 150' to 250'+, light currents kept the coral puffed up, and temps were steady 81 degrees top to bottom. Weather we had a low that hovered over us, so it was a little overcast and breezy but not unpleasant- just not the bight sun I was hoping for.
Dive sites included: Samu Reef, Wakaya, E-6, Mt. Mutiny, Maytag, North and South Save a Tack, Kansas, Nagali passage, Namena, Cat's Meow, Robs Knob, Humann Nature, Mellow Yellow, Howards Dinner, Vatu-i-Ra, School House, Thumbs 1 and 2, and Coral Corne.