By Keith Gordon
Savai’i – rising over 1,800m, the big island of Samoa, like the Bali Hai of Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, beckons you to venture away from the main island Upolu and the hectic modern day life of fast growing Apia to search for a laid back traditional way of life from an era past.
A trip to Savai’i can be an escapist experience where you can sleep on the lagoon shore in a traditional open fale with the sound of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the barrier reef and the rustle of overhead palms to lull you to sleep. Or for the more demanding who require modern tourist facilities with air conditioning, comfortable beds, ensuite, gourmet meals and cocktails at sunset, this is also available.
Crossing the Apolima Straits from Upolu to Savai’i requires a transit of just over an hour on car ferries. Numerous rental car companies in Samoa offer a convenient means of travelling around the islands and for the trip to Savai’i. The drive from Apia to Mulifanu Wharf where the ferry departs takes around an hour but allow plenty of time as road traffic can be a hectic. Pre-booking your car ferry passage from the Apia office is necessary – ask to travel on the big boat.
On arrival at the Savai’i port of Salelologa, most tourists head for Fagamalo and Manase which have a range of accommodation from the low-price basic fale units to more upmarket facilities. The drive along the western coast is on an excellent road passing through picturesque villages, tropical forest and across a lava field to Fagamalo.
Dive Savaii, situated across the road from the Le Lagoto and Savai’i Lagoon resorts in Fagamalo, is a PADI, Gold Palm dive facility offering scuba dive courses, gear rental, snorkeling and scuba diving trips. Owned and operated by Olaf Weinhold and Tina Kaestner, a two-dive boat trip with all equipment costs Tala 280, PADI Open Water Course T1200, and Advanced Scuba Course T1000. Steel tanks are fitted with DIN valves, ScubaPro regulators and BCs. If you have your own equipment, prices are less. The dive trips are often booked out and it is best to make a booking before your visit.
A two-dive trip on Lelepa Bay includes a boat dive on the Coral Gardens, a nearby lagoon reef formation, followed by an interesting dive on the wreck of the old iron sailing ship Juno. Water temperature is comfortable all year round requiring only shorty wetsuits; August was 27°C at 20m depth. Although the lagoon diving is not high-voltage open water diving such as found outside the outer reef, there is plenty of life around the lagoon reefs to keep a diver engrossed. Tina has good knowledge and an eye for finding many of the reef inhabitants, including the location of numerous approachable turtles. Among the proliferation of life that attracts closer observation by inquisitive divers are the snow-white anemone sanctuaries for colourful clownfish, mantis shrimps hiding in burrows waiting to rapidly strike at unwary prey and venomous lionfish with their extended showy pectoral fins hovering under ledges. Samoa has over 200 species of coral, more than half of all the coral species known in the entire Indo-Pacific region. In addition there are approximately 915 nearshore fish species in the Samoan waters, compared with only 460 nearshore fish species in Hawai’i. The dive follows the reef wall, under arches and swim-through tunnels, and across sand expanses where sting rays hide partially buried in sand; with such an abundance of marine life around you, a one-hour dive can pass quickly.
The site of the Juno wreck is only a five-minute boat ride to where the remains of the old three- masted missionary sailing ship, sunk in 1881, are spread down a coral slope. The stern structure, complete with steering mechanism, sits tilted to port in the shallower depth with coral encrusted hull mid sections leading divers down to the towering iron mass of the bow in 25-metres. Underwater for over 130 years and with much of the remains now part of the surrounding coral formations, many of the old ship’s components are still recognisable. Davits, rigging eyes, masts, hatch openings and structural members support coral growth and the colourful tropical marine ecosystem. Tubeworms display their brilliant feather duster appendages, resident turtles swim lazily across the wreck, butterfly fish flit amongst the beams and shoals of juvenile fish shelter in the wreckage. Exploring the wreck site can occupy an entire dive, however a swim over the adjourning reef can be rewarded with turtles feeding and sleeping in caves.
Another nearby dive site is ‘Tiapillis Heaven’, consisting of pinnacles, many swim-throughs and canyons to explore down to 25m.
The dives are most suitable for novice divers wanting a first-time experience diving tropical waters or to gain their open water certification in a relaxed Pacific Island atmosphere. The more experienced diver will also find plenty of interest and be kept fully occupied observing and photographing the variety of marine life. Relaxing at the edge of the lagoon sipping a cold drink at the end of the day, while taking in the magnificent sunset, is a great way to end a day’s diving.
Savai’i is an experience not only for divers but also for all the family, and one not to be missed when visiting Samoa.