Fiji: In the pursuit of happiness (& dogtooth tuna)

By Clarke Gayford.

They call this place ‘the home of happiness’, which is a broad statement, because as we all know, one person’s ‘happiness’ might be another’s idea of ‘hell’.

They call this place ‘the home of happiness’, which is a broad statement, because as we all know, one person’s ‘happiness’ might be another’s idea of ‘hell’.

And spearfishing is a funny old acquired taste like that. I mean, drifting in strong currents along coral drop-offs in hundreds of metres of water with never less than 4–5 sharks for company is not exactly, say, my girlfriend’s idea of happiness. Or how about having a tank dive the day before with Beqa Adventure Divers and coming face to face with 15 Pacific bull sharks, some pushing 300kg with not a cage in sight? Again, not exactly everyone’s cup of happiness tea. But as they also say, you make your own happiness, don’t you?

Not a cage in sight.

Not a cage in sight.

Fiji, an archipelago of 330 islands, and over 500 islets all ringed by coral reef, spread over 18,000 km2. If you stop and think about it, it’s a staggering amount of diving potential.

So, where to go? Well, for this trip the target was supposed to be my nemesis dogtooth tuna, a fish that has not only once near-drowned me, but is fast becoming my spearing kryptonite. Would this trip be any different?

With Jaga from Freedive Fiji as my guide for a day and his track record of pulling some exceptional doggies out of the waters off southern Fiji, I started out with pretty high hopes.

As always, diving for my TV show Fish of the Day brings with it the added pressure to deliver. Something I was feeling keenly as I slipped into the 23°C water and finned over to the coral wall, which disappeared down into the abyss below. What a first spot. Several hundred metres long and acting as a passage for a large body of water moving between an island and coral reef, this was the perfect pinch-point for transitioning marine life.

The result of the day's catch.

The result of the day’s catch.

Drifting down we deployed flashers in the clear azure waters and were approached almost immediately by a curious turtle. This was followed by a small cownose ray, both drawn to the sparkling lures hanging beneath our chicken float.
Then came the sharks. Blacktips up high, whitetips and whalers down below, and we even had a silvertip race in and grab the flasher after a speared Spanish mackerel proved too much excitement for it.

Being totally focused on landing my first doggie, I let multiple Spanish mackerel, schools of barracuda, and large rainbow runners swim by without harassing them. These fish were all in reasonable depths, between 15–25m down.
But the frustration started to slowly creep in, especially after spotting said doggie target just out of reach at 35m, which was to be the shallowest we would see them all day. Time for a change of plan.

With the sharks well used to us by now, the idea was to chum up some fish to see what else we could bring in, but the sharks clearly had other ideas, roaring in and demolishing a barracuda I had shot to do this.

After this, the general rule of thumb was that the sharks tended to leave the bigger speared fish alone, but smaller fish became fair game. Something I learnt after shooting a large bluefin trevally, which a toothy pack attack took apart in less than 10 seconds.

It’s really easy to get overly comfortable with the smaller reef sharks in this environment, but the reality is, these are the ones you do need to watch. Like that small mate you’ve got who suffers from short-man syndrome, smaller sharks are extremely territorial – you are in their patch, and often it’s the only patch they’ve got.

So it’s important not to follow them too closely or to act overly aggressive, as they are known to turn and nip. However they will usually give you a bit of a heads up that your relationship is about to sour.

When agitated they start swimming in a really pronounced ‘S’ shape, typically while heading away from you. Inexperienced divers are often attracted to this odd behaviour, as it looks so unusual, which is the WORST thing you can do.

Freediving with manta rays at Mataray Resort.

Freediving with manta rays at Mataray Resort.

This is the shark sending out a massive warning signal, essentially winding themselves up like a spring, before attacking. Your best bet in this scenario is to retreat. Put your arms out, and make big shapes in the water, while physically backing away but not turning your back. While an attack is rare, they do happen, and have happened here, so it’s good to be aware of the signals.

Again due to filming constraints I didn’t have nearly enough time in this tropical playland, but the variety of fish, with incredible hard and soft corals and clear water, made it a fascinating trip that helped distract me from missing out once again on my tuna. At one stage we were even joined by several large manta rays and huge mesmerising schools of juvenile barracuda shimmering in the Pacific sunlight.

With visits from locals like this, and being in such a warm tropical environment, I felt like I had definitely received some of the happiness that has made this place its home.

We stayed at the Mantaray Island Resort in the Yasawa Islands. Mantaray Island Resort has recently become Fiji’s first accredited SSI Freediving operator. Guests have the opportunity to learn the art of freediving over a two to three day period while exploring the pristine waters of the Yasawa Islands. During the manta ray season (May–October) guests will also have the opportunity to use their new skills to freedive with manta ray.