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|Stephen Frink’s Web Log: Fiji aboard NAI'A,
November 06-13, 2004
Aboard the NAI'A, Stephen Frink captures the beauty of Fiji.
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink
I don't know why it had been so darn long since I visited Fiji. I've always enjoyed the diving, and the Fijian people are warm, friendly, and very hospitable. Yet, last time I was aboard NAI'A was 1996, therefore way past time to visit again. Especially since Fiji is so very close, at least relatively speaking in the exotic dive-travel scheme of things. Just an 11-hour plane ride from LAX, that's like right next door.
We traveled all night, and while I wouldn't say we arrived exactly refreshed, it wasn't particularly brutal either. We weren't scheduled to board NAI'A until 1:00 PM, so we made reservations for the morning at the Tokatoka Resort, only a kilometer from the airport. A shower, breakfast, and one last check of e-mail and it was off to the boat, about 30-minutes from the resort. So far, it was all very civilized. Seeing the boat once again reassured us as well, for she appeared in excellent shape, both structurally and cosmetically.
Even though we did not arrive at the boat until after 1:30, the crew was very organized. We were shown to our cabins, given a very basic boat briefing, and then we cast off, bound for the Bligh Waters region. While many boats are content to merely shove off at all on that first day, the NAI'A was eager to get us in the water, even if is was at one of their more marginal sites. Actually, Samu Reef did have some very nice macro critters, but admittedly this dive was more about getting our buoyancy in tune and making sure cameras worked. Our groups tend to be very intensely motivated in terms of UW photography, so having that first dive to work out bugs is always advantageous. Visibility was only about 50 feet, but we were treated to our first photo-ops for clownfish, starfish, and other common Pacific creatures. Knowing the best was yet to come was a comfort.
The NAI'A does all her diving from a pair of rigid hull inflatable boats. The group is divided in two, and typically each boat will dive a different bommie. This minimizes the crowd on any given dive site, and provides the diver an opportunity to do multiple dives on a site they particularly like. The briefings are so detailed and thorough it is pretty easy to see which option might be better for wide angle or macro for example, but the reality is that most of the bommies were good for no matter what lens you chose to dive. This day was a bit different though, as Humann Nature was extraordinary for macro creatures best captured with the 100mm macro lens. Which I guess would be expected from a site named for legendary fish ID guru Paul Humann. The second option was to Cat's Meow, and it was here we had our first glimpse of the soft corals which make Fiji a renowned wide angle Mecca.
Humann Nature is a relatively large pinnacle topping out at 10 - 15 feet from the surface, but most of the action, if you can call shrimp and goby combinations "action", is found along the rubble zone at the base of the pinnacle at about 55 feet. Actually, this was a terrifically productive dive, especially so if you dive it with one of the fish-spotter-extraordinaire dive guides aboard NAI'A. They'll spot creatures you can barely see, and which are stunningly beautiful when they pop into view on your groundglass at 1:1 magnification. I was still a bit jet- lagged so did not do the night dive this evening at Humann nature, but apparently I missed the best night dive of the trip. If you do only one night dive all week, make this the one!
Cat's Meow on the other hand is draped with soft corals of every pastel hue. There is a scenic swim-through bisecting the bommie near the bottom at 75 feet, and a horizontal bridge of soft corals that makes for a terrific foreground when working with dive models. I was fortunate to be multi-tasking on this trip, shooting some product illustrations for Aqua Lung, and the ship's hosts Liz Harlin and Josh Jensen were kind enough to model as their schedules allowed. This was a very productive site for lush soft coral that popped with amazing vibrancy when washed with strobe light.
There is a large region of spectacular diving generally encompassed by the appellation Vatu-I-Ra. This includes the three sites we did this day, Maytag, Mellow Yellow, and Charlie's Gardens; as well as those we visited on our final day of charter, including Whole Shebang and GoMo. To get a sense of the overview, here is another illustration, compliments of the photo and design team of Liz Harlin, Josh Jensen, Cat Holloway, Gerry Allen:
Our dinghy started the day at Maytag (most morning dives are launched at 7:30 after a light continental breakfast. Full breakfast is served after this dive. In fact, all meals and snacks are very much planned around the diving schedule, and the diving schedule is planned to coincide with optimal tides. This is, after all, very much a dedicated dive boat, with optimal diving as Priority One). This was a large pinnacle washed by 100-foot + visibility. From the 100 foot bottom all the way to the top of the bommie at 25-feet there were pockets of intense filter feeders ... crinoids, giant gorgonian fans, black coral, and of course massive soft coral trees. The diving is timed to hit enough current to engorge the soft corals, yet not so much as to be too hard to hold position for a shot.
A note about NAI'A diving - The first time I dived NAI'A was 1996, and it was a great trip. But truthfully there were some marginal dives interspersed with some world-class sites. The boat had only been in operation about 18-months at that time, and they were still learning the intricacies of site location, and particularly timing the dives to tides in order to assure optimal conditions in terms of water clarity, soft coral beauty, and diver safety. This time I had the sense this was a mature boat, in full control of her dive options and able to deliver the best that Fiji had to offer. The staff is tremendously experienced, and the itinerary greatly refined from those early days. Having experienced shooters on board over the years no doubt has helped, including Howard and Michele Hall who filmed their Coral Reef IMAX film aboard NAI'A. But I think it is mostly recognizing the difference between superb and average, and caring enough to deliver only the very best, is what distinguishes this boat and her crew.
Anyway, back to Maytag. I usually hate all dives called either "Washing Machine" or "Maytag" or "Whirlpool". There are plenty of them in the global scheme of things, and they usually mean heavy surge or nasty currents, most of which you can survive but few of which are much fun in so doing. This one was quite different, with a light current which brought large schools of blue-and-gold fusiliers near the bommie, and numerous ledges draped with soft coral and sea fans. Most of this diving is very "multi-level", not particularly deep to begin with, but with a lot of fascinating photo-ops in the shallows between 30 and 18 feet. The hard corals on the top of many of these pinnacle is particularly impressive, and the tiny dragonets, clownfish, and hawkfish hiding amid the antler corals makes for offgass time that is rarely boring, and often very productive.
At Mellow Yellow we were briefed on the possibility that there would be a large yellow frogfish to be found, and sure enough it was right where we were advised. Larger, and more colorful than most of her Caribbean cousins, this frogfish was nicely situated amid some red and yellow encrusting sponges. However, as nice as this one encounter was, the real marquee attraction of this dive is the yellow soft corals that adorn the main pinnacle, and the saddle adjoining it to a smaller, deeper nearby pinnacle. This is the dive for which Velvia was made ... gold anthias, yellow soft corals, crimson sea fans, and turquoise water. Having said all that, and being blown away on this dive, we did dive Mellow Yellow again later in the week at a time when the currents were not as propitious. No current whatsoever, and therefore totally a different dive. Good of course, but the right combination of current flow is what transforms the merely "good" into "amazing" in these waters.
This is the day for our shark dive, but for those accustomed to being swarmed by Caribbean reef sharks at Stuart Cove's, realize in advance that most of the shark passes will be more distant and typically more tentative. Nevertheless, this is a very cool dive, beginning with a drift dive down a long channel, complete with almost certain encounters with horseeye jacks and chevron barracuda. Like all NAI'A dives, this one will be thoroughly briefed, so divers know exactly what to expect where. While their drawings may not be quite as artistic as the rendering included here, the navigation marks are accurate and the predictions of marine life encounter spot on.
Once we got to the part of the dive they call "the bleachers" the bait is attached to a line on the bottom. Red sea bass swarm the bait, so much so actually that I think the gray reef sharks tend to stay off a bit. But the bait does bring them within camera range, so even though you may not get the definitive "bite" shot you should be in position for at least a fish ID photo. We probably had a dozen or so gray reefs come in, although I think about 5 feet was as close as any came. No doubt they do get more rowdy feeds some days, but the whole combination of the drift dive along the channel, the pelagic encounters with the jacks and barracuda, and of course the sharks, makes Nigali a very popular part of the itinerary. A large patch of lettuce coral found in very shallow water is very scenic as well, and makes for an interesting place to offgass at the end of a dive likely to have loaded most divers to saturation.
Nearly all NAI'A trips will include a visit to a local village, although it is rarely the same village. We went to Lovu village, and it had been maybe 6 months since the boat had visited previously. The NAI'A trip prep mentions it is a good idea to bring school supplies and things of that nature to leave with the village, and our group took it to heart, compiling a very generous goody bag; including several sets of snorkel gear courtesy Aqua Lung. We were shown all around the village, met the women and children (all of whom were very gracious models) and then joined the men in the meeting hall for a kava ceremony. Anyone who has visited Fiji will know the import of kava in the social scheme of things, and we were happy to share their hospitality. Although I doubt any of us will be holding kava parties at home, preferring most any alcoholic beverage to the dirt-colored, mildly anesthetic drink derived from the local kava root. But hey, when in Fiji ...
Two dives to Nigali Pass and a village trip would be a full day by most standards, but NAI'A offers another late afternoon dive and a night dive. I passed on the night dive, but Jim's Alley in the afternoon was a good muck hunt for critters. This is a pinnacle that no doubt offers good visibility at times, but we had to choose timing according to optimal conditions for the drift at Nigali, which meant Jim's suffered from an outgoing tide pulling turbid water from the flats. Still, it was productive for those with the right lens, and even more so for the shooters in the other dinghy who went to nearby Anthias Avenue specifically to shoot the Fiji icon, blue ribbon eels.
On this day we entered the Namena Marine Park, a marine wilderness certainly suitable for the protection of mooring buoys to prevent anchor damage and the other protocols typical of marine sanctuaries. The two skiffs headed to Teton I and Teton II for the 7:30 AM dive, and each was treated to stellar water clarity and pinnacles small enough to easily circumnavigate multiple times on a single dive. They are similar enough, and near enough to each other that it almost didn't matter which we dived, but there were slight topographical and marine life differences. For example, Teton II had a very cooperative octopus that showed up on most of our shooter's laptops in the evening review sessions, while Teton 1 had a very brazen lionfish in a serendipitous posture along a giant crimson gorgonian. I shot most of a roll with the Nikonos RS and 13mm lens on that set-up alone, knowing full well I had another 186 shots waiting for me on my 2 GB card in my Canon EOS1DMKII.
The afternoon dive was to Grand Central Station with a mid-water drop in the blue, with a descent to a sandy ledge at 100 feet to look for gray reef and hammerhead sharks (one hammerhead was sighted, well below our group at maybe 185 feet). Schools of barracuda and jack inhabit this region, and the prevailing current brought us to Kansas, or at least the site they call "Kansas". Named for the broad expanse of sinularia soft coral cloaking the top of the bommie, this site is well known for a fan and sea whip decorated coral window, just perfect for wide-angle diver shots. Current was a bit brisk on this dive, but again, that's what makes the soft corals so beautiful. So, a little extra effort finning was well rewarded.
That night aboard NAI'A we had our own little kava party, with local crew providing the musical accompaniment. Given their warm hospitality, this is probably a good opportunity to give a big thank you to Josh and Liz, our cruise directors, and entire NAI'A crew for a job exceptionally well done.
We remain in the Namena Marine Park for this day as well, visiting Two Thumbs Up, actually separate dive sites known as Thumb I and Thumb II.
Thumb II is a narrow pinnacle, rising from the sand bottom at 80 feet to less than 15 feet. There are some deeper ridges nearby, but the school of golden sweeper and crimson sea fan, as well as the soft coral draped ledges make this a wide angle delight, and give little reason to look beyond this one single pinnacle. Thumb I lacks the golden sweepers, but might be slightly the lusher of the two. Hard call though, as both are quite beautiful.
This is our last day of charter, and we return to the Vatu-I-Ra region to try a couple of new spots, Whole Shebang and GoMo, as well as enjoy the opportunity to revisit an old favorite, Mellow Yellow.
Whole Shebang is a giant reef structure with one side bottoming out near 70 feet, but offering a dramatic wall we saw only in passing while the current whipped us along. What we did see was quite impressive however, with (no surprise here) lots of soft corals, anthias, and gorgonian. Interestingly, once past the drift portion of the dive the reef then opens onto a wide hard coral plateau with very pristine boulder and antler corals.
Perhaps you've heard of the coral bleaching episode that hammered Fiji a few years back? Well, it is testament to the resiliency of the coral reef, and particularly the water quality here, that these corals have come back so well, so fast. The whole time we were out on charter I saw only one crown of thorns sea star, and no blatant effects of coral bleaching. I don't doubt that damaged reefs are still there somewhere, but NAI'A chooses to accentuate the positive, and apparently there is plenty of that to accentuate! What we saw was in excellent shape, and really much improved over the itinerary presented last time I visited these islands. Part of it no doubt has to do with the cruise refinement mentioned earlier, but I think much also has to do with the sheer quality of the Fiji underwater environment. There is an interesting part of the NAI'A website that addresses the phenomena of why the diving tends to be so good in the Bligh Water section. See http://www.naia.com.fj/diving/index.html
GoMo is a huge pinnacle with vertical walls a kaleidoscope riot of pastel soft coral and anthias. The current qualified as "ripping" this dive, leaving us content to ride along until we arrived in the lee of the bommie where finally we could stop to take photos. In the dive briefing Josh mentioned that the top of the reef was mauled by a storm in April '04, but again there was substantial hard coral regeneration in just seven months time. Quite amazing really.
Our afternoon consisted of some over/under photo ops on a coral plateau rising to within 5 feet of the surface, and a return to Mellow Yellow, sadly absent the yellow frogfish and the Viagra-ed soft corals. Still, the abundance of anthias and gorgonian made for strong wide angle scenics. The most memorable dive of the day however had to be the last dive at GoMo, for if the current was ripping before, this was ripping on steroids. I did manage to shoot one roll of wide angle, but holding position to try for a quality fish shot was an exercise in futility. At the end of the dive all any of us could do was hold on tenaciously to purge ourselves of nitrogen on this last dive of the trip, and then cut loose for a "spirited" blue water safety stop. Being the inventor of the SOS safety sausage devise (http://www.stephenfrink.com/sf-sos.php) I was very happy to have one to deploy at the end of this particular dive! Being far from the dinghy in choppy seas and failing light, it was a certain comfort to know I had a visual locator easily at hand. Having said that, the NAI'A crew had been very good all week about being right there with the chase boat when we finished our dives, but it can't hurt to give them a helping hand when the conditions prove tenuous.
At the end of the week we enjoyed a great slideshow of digital images from our guests, and sadly said goodbye to our new NAI'A friends. Of course, they had just 5 hours to clean the boat and get ready for the next batch of divers, so maybe they were a little happier to see us go than we were to go. But nevertheless, it was a great week of diving. Better than I expected for sure, and having been to Fiji several times in the past, I expected a lot. But then delivering a live-aboard experience beyond expectations is what NAI'A seems to do for a living.
Trip Prep for NAI'A
NAI'A has accommodation for 18 passengers in 9 staterooms, 8 with private ensuite facilities. Four staterooms have queen-size beds, three have both a queen-size bed and a twin-size bunk above, and two have twin bunk beds. All the staterooms are larger than those on most dive vessels, with plenty of stowage for gear, and they are tastefully decorated in a muted Fijian motif. While strobe charging is best done in the camera room, each room has both 110 and 220-volt power to run whatever electrical goodies you have.
The camera room is located immediately adjacent to the dive deck and has storage and workspace for more than a dozen photographers, their gear and storage of cases.
Both 110 and 220 volt charging strips are available. There are more than enough for everyone! NAI'A features elaborate provisions for professional and amateur photographers: E-6 processing, camera and video rentals, a multisystem VCR and television able to play miniDV in NTSC format and VHS in both NTSC and PAL formats, slide projector and light box, and a dedicated camera room.
After each dive you can rinse your camera gear in our two large fresh water dip tanks. Compressed air is at your fingertips in the camera room for cleaning and drying parts.
Just between the salon and the camera room is our spacious dive deck. The dive deck on NAI'A is unconventional in several respects. First, it is huge; bridging the entire 30ft beam of the ship, and it is located amidships away from the clutter of the working deck aft. During the charter, the crew takes care of filling the tanks and loading gear into the skiffs from the aft dive platform, while divers have the uncluttered dive deck forward in which to suit up and listen to the very thorough dive briefings.
Only masks, fins, and camera gear are stored forward, while the heavy and unwieldy tanks and BCs remain aft. Divers returning to the dive deck are treated to hot deck showers and clean dry towels at the end of every dive. NAI'A has a small laundry aboard where towels and tablecloths are washed daily.
Travel & Rendezvous Information: Arrival in Nadi
To clear customs and immigration in Fiji you must show your valid passport and return ticket.
As a tourist, you do not need a visa for stays less than 120 days.
Before departing the airport, change some money at the bank in the international terminal (which opens to correspond with flight arrivals).
For purchases on NAI'A, US dollars, traveler's checks, Amex, Visa and MasterCard are OK.
Transfer to NAI'A
Your cruise aboard NAI'A begins at the Lautoka Wharf at 2:00 PM on Saturday. We will provide transport from Nadi-area hotels and the airport at about 1:00 PM.
If you plan to arrive in Fiji one or more days prior to the charter, you should book Friday night in a Nadi hotel or arrive at the Nadi airport from the outer islands by noon on Saturday.
If you arrive in Fiji Saturday morning, you will probably want to book a day room in Nadi in which to rest until pick-up time at 1:00pm.
Please make sure to notify our office of your pick-up location well in advance.
On-board you will receive an orientation while your luggage is taken to your stateroom. Light snacks will be served as we make our way to the afternoon's dive site.
NAI'A's precise itinerary is weather dependent, however the first location will provide ideal check-out dive conditions - relatively shallow and calm, but still spectacular.
No major crossing is made until after the first day - there's plenty of time to get your sea legs.
Three dives are scheduled for the final full day, as well as time to wash and dry diving gear.
Disembarking & Departure
Flight confirmations and day room bookings are made during the trip via radio to our office.
On the day the charter ends, continental breakfast will be served before we bid you farewell.
Air-conditioned vehicles will transfer you to your hotel in Nadi or to the airport.
If your flight home departs in the evening, we recommend you book a day room where you can store your luggage while you tour for the day and relax and shower before the flight.
What to Bring
Pack a warm sweater and pants - life at sea is cooler than in shore-based resorts, especially after multiple dives each day. We want you to enjoy the starry night sky and the fresh air! For more information on air temperature see our website www.naia.com.fj/research/weather.html
Most NAI'A divers require at least a 3mm wetsuit or Polartec in our summer months (November-March). We recommend either a one-piece 5mm suit for winter, or the addition of a hood or hooded vest to your 3mm suit. Warm divers stay under longer so don't skimp on protection. For more information on Fiji temperature please see our website www.naia.com.fj/research/water.html. Note that winter months may require a 5/7mm wetsuit. The addition of a hooded vest is a good idea for Fiji at any time.
Feel free to bring your choice of music, books or videos for your entertainment. NAI'A has a limited collected of CDs, tapes, paperbacks and movies that you are welcome to use.
Don't forget your diving certification card!
Our crew would greatly appreciate current news, science, or other magazines, as they are hard to come by here.
During your cruise we will visit a Fijian village on a remote island. If you would like to bring a gift to the village, we would suggest children's school supplies as an appropriate gift.
Here are a few factoids from www.scubadiving.com that will better help you prepare for your Fiji Adventure.
LOCATION: Fiji lies in the southwestern Pacific, 1,750 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. The 333 islands of the archipelago are arranged over 80,000 square miles of ocean. The islands of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and Taveuni make up 90 percent of the nation's landmass and are home to 85 percent of the nation's population of 750,000. Many of the flight schedules from LAX seem to take around 11 hours.
DOCUMENTS: U.S. and Canadian citizens will need a passport valid for more than three months from their date of entry and return ticket. You will have to pay a F$20 departure tax.
CURRENCY: Live mid-market rates as of 2004.10.08 12:40:16 GMT. 1.00 USD United States Dollars = 1.73883 FJD Fiji Dollars. 1 FJD = 0.575100 USD. Credit cards are accepted at larger hotels and resorts. There are banks in all the towns, but it might not be possible to exchange traveler's checks on remote outer islands.
TIPPING: Tipping is not expected and is, in fact, discouraged in some resorts. That is the stated policy. You may find porters will appreciate a tip, especially in resort settings where they do seem to expect it. Divemasters and live-aboard crew will very much appreciate a gratuity as well.
CULTURE: Fijians are a modest people, and outside the resorts, you should avoid wearing anything that shows too much leg. When visiting a village or attending a church service, women must wear long pants and men are often encouraged to follow suit.
HEALTH CONCERNS: Fiji is free of most tropical diseases. However, travelers may want to exercise caution in outlying areas. Tap water is generally safe to drink in all cities, resorts and urban areas. There is a hospital and recompression chamber.
TIME: Fiji is 20 hours ahead of Los Angeles, 17 hours ahead of New York.
ELECTRICITY: 240 volts, with three-pronged Australian-type outlets. Some resorts and live-aboards supply 110 voltage or provide converters.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Fiji Visitors Bureau at (800) YEA-FIJI or visit its web site at www.bulafiji.com.
NAI'A Says (About the Diving)
Central Fiji has the best diving, no doubt about it. This "NAI'A Triangle" of Lomaiviti, Bligh Water and Namena is the focus of our regular itineraries, covering about 500 nautical miles. NAI'A has journeyed throughout Fiji, in all directions and to every corner of the country's boundaries -- and beyond. We've found beautiful sites and dramatic attractions in every region and we still explore new places. But the central region has proved the most consistent in the quality and health of terrains, animals and conditions. Lomaiviti's coral reefs and islands are Fiji's most dynamic and varied: voracious sharks to vibrant soft corals.
Fiji's coral reef system is a complex web of barrier reefs surrounding large lagoons and islands. Coral growth and fish action is most robust on those outer barrier reefs. Marine life is especially concentrated within the reef passages and channels that link the lagoons with the deep ocean. But the barrier reefs are remote and vast - a long way from shore bases - so only the best-equipped live-aboard diving vessels can access these locations. Much of the area remains uncharted and the dive sites untouched. All this makes NAI'A dive sites in the NAI'A Triangle of Lomaiviti, Namena and Bligh Water largely exclusive. You are extremely unlikely to encounter another dive boat during a NAI'A trip -- it will feel like your own private pristine Fiji.
Our normal itinerary for both seven and ten-day charters starts and ends in Lautoka, just north of Nadi, where the international airport is located. After an initial "checkout" dive on the afternoon of boarding, NAI'A heads north and east around the flank of the main island of Viti Levu to reach Bligh Water. Several different divesites in Bligh Water are available, including E6, Mt. Mutiny, Cat's Meow and Ravai's Wives, depending on localized weather conditions. From there we choose our sites according to weather, tides, and our passengers' inclinations. But generally we visit the islands and barrier reefs of Namena, Wakaya, and Gau.
We have dived Fiji's finest reefs for nine years now, under every imaginable set of circumstances. Importantly, we've kept good records. Many sites are current-dependent and detailed local knowledge is critical in order to maximize the number of good dives in the best spots. For that reason we don't offer a fixed itinerary -- "if it's Tuesday, it must be Wakaya". Instead we tailor each voyage to the tides and weather that week.
Why is Central Fiji the Best?
A common misconception is that the further you travel the better the diving. We also desire to explore remote locales and "get away from it all". But ecologically and globally speaking, coral reefs don't always share our goals for isolation and solitude.
Related Link: Fiji Water Temperature Chart
It is true, however, that offshore diving (away from the populated towns and cities) is generally better -- more prolific pristine life, clearer water, and a higher chance of exciting pelagic fish encounters. Look at the Fiji Islands as a whole; you will see that the area in the center of the country between the two main landmasses is still a long way from developed or populated areas.
So why are the reefs here so significant? Well, there are five key ingredients in the perfect coral reef recipe -- all of them found in central Fiji region:
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