by Daver Abbott (unless otherwise credited)
I almost had to pinch myself; was I really onboard a luxurious 54m dive-cruise ship with my own air conditioned cabin and three days of awesome diving ahead of me in the beautiful Yasawa Islands of Fiji? Did I really belong here? One thing I did know; I was going to make the most of it in case I woke up!
Diving from a cruise ship (you couldnât really classify âThe Blue Lagoon Cruisesâ Yasawa Princess as a âboatâ!) was to be a new experience for me and I was a bit uncertain as to how a luxurious cruise would cater to a dive-aholic, however my reservations were soon laid to rest; this is one cool way to dive! Imagine for a minute gearing up on a large teak deck then walking down a ladder (with a teak handrail) straight onboard a dedicated 11m hardtop RIB where your gear is already setup and waiting, then being whisked right to your dive site. Picture surfacing after a great dive to a platter of fresh fruit and drinks, then being ferried back to your ship, strolling back up the ladder to be met with a fluffy towel and a hot shower closely followed by a buffet lunch that would keep a rugby team happy! Decadent maybe, but a nice change from your mateâs 14ft tinny and squashed vegemite sandwiches! Sunset cocktails and another huge smorgasbord round off the day nicely after your two afternoon dives, then it is back to your air-conditioned cabin and a soft bed. I liked it. A lot.
What about the diving?
How can you not enjoy diving in a 3mm suit and 2kg belt in water not much less than body temperature with 30m+ visibility and abundant fish life?! Fiji has some great dives, and certainly the sites we explored around the Yasawas with the friendly Westside Watersports dive guides were excellent. The guys had lined up some great spots for us, beginning with a mellow âcheck outâ dive at North Vunabua Pass – prolific small fish life, nice coral outcrops, and the occasional mantis shrimp roaming the bottom like colourful little tractors.
The diving really kicked off on day two with an impressive dive at Yawini Cliffs, a site offering spectacular terrain with many small canyons, good hard corals and beautiful soft corals on the walls, large crinoids and fans, colourful fish life, and one small whitetip shark. Our next site, Leopards Den, was noted for its small caves and guts where leopard sharks are often seen; we missed them on this particular dive but did see a couple of large Napoleon wrasse and a large green turtle resting on the reef and posing obligingly for our cameras. The myriad of small fish living in, on and just above the reef at this site provided a constant shifting pattern of incredible colour, what they lacked in size being made up for by their spectacular patterns and improbable combination of primary colours âtotally unlike the more subtle fish of our temperate waters.
Another dive further along same reef was equally as good, and as we neared the end of this one I got a kick out of getting our Fijian dive guides to blow perfect bubble rings for me while we hung in the blue beneath the boat, a skill I have yet to master!
The diving on day three was even better than the previous day; we began with an early morning dive on Petes reef, a deeper dive on a rubbly reef with a nice drop off on one side. Although the light wasnât great due to the low angle of the early morning sun, this dive produced the goods including several sharks, both whitetips and grey reef sharks, evil-looking barracuda, and a couple of big and impressive wahoo mackerel.
Whiskeys was another good reef dive, but it was the last dive of the trip at a site called the Cabbage Patch that I rated as my best dive of our tour. This was an awesome (and massive) cabbage coral formation which is apparently one of the biggest in the world; this intricate and convoluted structure was surrounded by a concentrated mass of fish life, from schools of bright yellow goatfish and large striped sweetlips to various wrasse and parrotfish, solitary lizardfish in the sand around its base and even exquisite hawkfish perched on some of the fans on the adjacent reef. Numerous soft corals, crinoids colourful nudibranchs and small invertebrate life completed the picture – an awesome dive to finish off our cruise!
By the way, if boats arenât your thing (and donât confuse staying on these âshipsâ with an afternoon of throwing up in your mateâs 14ft tinny) then there is no shortage of resorts to choose from in Fiji; -ranging from comfortable and affordable to luxurious and downright decadent! The Yasawa Island Resort is a good example of a top Fijian resort; you would be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful place to spend a few days anywhere in the world.
Other Fiji dive locations and dive resorts:
Being on such a big vessel there was ample opportunity for socialising and meeting varied and interesting divers from diverse backgrounds and countries, one of the aspects of diving I really enjoy. As well, on this particular dive cruise we were lucky to have a number of operators from various dive resorts around Fiji who were more than happy to give us a run down on the diving potential in their own part of the country. Reviewing all the dive locations and operators in Fiji would take all day, but suffice to say they all seem to aspire to the same high standard that I had experienced on this and other visits to Fiji, with enthusiasm and professionalism being the common denominator!
There are a few dive resorts I have to mention however: Castaway Island have a PADI 5-star dive operation run by Geoff and Trudy Loe; great people passionate about their diving and consummate dive professionals….the last time I bumped into them was in Yap where they were running unforgettable dive experiences with the manta rays found there. Here in Fiji they guide people on sites with names like Gotham City, Supermarket, Magic Island and Ika Bazaar to see Maori wrasse, moray eels, turtles, hard and soft corals, eagle rays and of course sharks. Nearby Subsurface Fiji out of Musket Cove Resort is also a PADI 5-star dive operation and shares some of the same divesites as well as others like the Namotu Reef where this is a chance of seeing manta rays, hammerheads and other pelagics.
Sonaisali is another beautiful waterfront resort offering great diving around the Mamanuca Island group, and if you plan to visit the Pacific Harbour area then Beqa Divers offer some stunning dives in the famous Beqa Lagoon, a location renowned for its soft corals. Aquatrek Taveuni are also a highly regarded dive operation running trips in a part of Fiji renowned for its underwater life; everything from spectacular corals and fish life to sharks and manta rays. (Aquatrek also run a shark-feed dive in Beqa Lagoon -a truly awesome experience and one you wonât forget in a hurry).
One thing that makes Fiji an exciting diving destination to me is that despite the level of professionalism, investment and effort that has been put into their dive scene, they are really only just scratching the surface in regards to potential dive sites. There are miles of undived, unexplored reef around Fijiâs islands, and many promising-looking outer reefs and bommies still to put âon the mapâ as more âseriousâ and experienced divers find their way to this great South Pacific diving destination.
Fiji is also a beautiful country, and between that and the warm clear water, rich and diverse marine life and dive sites and pleasantly relaxing âisland paceâ of life and genuine Fijian friendliness (they will remember your name from the first moment you arrive) it is hard not to come under its spell.
Dive tourism in Fiji is also maturing and the Fijian operators are very good at catering to divers of different abilities and nationalities; they put a lot of effort into their dive businesses, excel at service, have genuine enthusiasm and their dive âindustryâ is surprisingly sophisticated – I was blown away by their level of professionalism and enthusiasm and took back some valuable lessons to try and apply to our own liveaboard dive operation in New Zealand. (For a start Iâm hoping to add another 40m onto the Norseman, import a Fijian chef and get one of those big buffet tables happening!) They are also very good at working together and pooling their marketing resources, something the New Zealand dive tourism industry could learn from. Literally everyone I met on this trip from resort managers to dive operators totally impressed me with their genuine passion for giving visitors to Fiji the best diving/holiday experience possible so book your ticket, put away your 7mm, escape the winter and take a dive trip to the Friendly Islands!