Searching for the Fijian in Vanuatu

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By Anne Simmons, images by Anne and Eric Simmons.

Early this morning sailing into the anchorage at Lenakel, we had noticed several interesting obviously man-made objects on the side-scan sonar and we were eager to get the opportunity to explore. We knew the wreck of the Fijian lay somewhere close by, sunk here after a storm back in the 1800s. With only vague marks of where the wreckage may have been we wondered if perhaps we had been fortunate enough to locate the wreck straight away.

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Everything remains exactly as it was when Jean Percy sank and visibility is amazing.

It soon became apparent this was not the Fijian, but something much more recent and much larger – we were on a large chunk of a square-shaped wreckage with bollards and large arms. Various-sized pieces could be seen across the smooth black sand, silhouetted against the vivid blue background (due to the volcanic black sand at this depth the visibility was amazing). The debris now formed a raft of artificial reefs, encrusted with small colourful hard corals and home to a variety of feather stars, sponges and a multitude of lively invertebrates and fish life. Overhead we could easily see the sun shining, a stark contrast to the black sand below. No worries about losing your buddy here!

Having eliminated this as a possibility for the Fijian we surfaced, safe in the knowledge we could come back to explore further at any stage and clambered back into our dinghy to head over to the black cliffs where we could see a protruding object from the water. Confident this was also not the Fijian we suspected she was actually the Jean Percy, an island trader that sunk a few years ago. Being slightly more exposed and the rocks only metres away, we elected for an exploratory dive while one of us remained in the dinghy. Being fortunate to win the toss I was quick to roll over the side and find out what lay below us.

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Tanna barge – looking from the surface, the barge stands out as an oasis haven on the sand.

Sure enough this was the Jean Percy, lying in only 10 metres with the cliff face only a couple of metres off her starboard side. She sits completely upright and totally intact with portholes, engines and deck gear. Being only a few years old, doors and portholes still swung while old canvas and wires floated eerily in the slight swell. Regardless of this she was already well-encrusted and full of a variety of life. A quick swim around and I was heading back up to fill my buddy in on the details so we could return for a proper dive later.

By now we had attracted some interest from the locals fishing from the rocks, obviously wondering what these strange white fellas were doing, so we motored over to ask if they knew the location of the Fijian. The three young men who had waved to us didn’t, but one of them ran off to check with an older fisherman further along the rocks. He happily joined us in the dinghy to direct us to the next bay where he said she lay just off the beach. Immediately we could see the rolling surf was going to be a hindrance visibility-wise as what remained of the Fijian was obviously in very shallow water. But we had found what was left of her, mainly just one of her boilers and some indistinguishable metal debris. A quick sortie didn’t take very long and there wasn’t much in the way of photographic opportunity – maybe later when the waves died down.

A totally unplundered wreck, Jean Percy, complete with portholes!

A totally unplundered wreck, Jean Percy, complete with portholes!

So we took the helpful fisherman back to his fishing spot and headed to our boat to grab a bite and some new tanks before returning to the Jean Percy for a better look. Knowing how she lay, I took a line down to tie us off to the bow rail. Camera in one hand and rope in the other all I could do was hover motionless mid-water as a turtle lifted off the deck and slowly swum past me. In the background a pair of lionfish loitered around the anchor windlass. My buddy joined me just in time to snap a couple of shots, while I quietly fumed at the lack of justice with both my hands fully occupied and such a great photo opportunity missed. Tying us off I left the deck and swum down over the side to be enthralled by the number of nudibranchs to be found in the short weed that covered the portside. There was so much life here from a variety of shellfish, including cowries and crabs to Chromodoris nudis and the multitude of fascinating Chinese dragons.

Ever-conscious of the hanging wires and canvas, we explored the top deck and cockpit and peered down into the open bowels of this island trader where schools of trevally circled. Nothing has been removed from this wreckage so it was quite cool just taking our time investigating what we could find. Looking at the way things remained intact I had to wonder what had been going through the minds of the last people who had been on this deck. Fortunately no lives had been lost due to the quick thinking of the locals who had paddled out in their outrigger canoes when they realised the ship was going down.

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Various species of opportunist shrimps have made themselves at home throughout the wreck.

All in all it had been quite a rewarding day, we had found the Fijian, the Jean Percy, plus the scattered wreckage of what we were informed by the local policeman was the remains of a French barge from New Caledonia that was scuttled in the deeper water outside the anchorage at Lenakel.

With several more days ahead of us here we knew we would be able to get a few more dives in though we also had plenty to explore on land. Mt Yasur one of the world’s most accessible volcanoes, where you can literally stand on the crater’s edge and be witness to an amazing pyrotechnic display throughout the day and into the night or explore National Geographic-worthy Kastom villages where you can experience a unique and colourful culture still adhered to today.

The options in Tanna are unrivalled: black magic, hot springs, jungle waterfalls, volcanic plains all coupled with the most diverse and unique traditions, like the John Frum culture with their cargo beliefs or the village who totally believes Prince Phillip hails from their village and will return. The market in Lenakel, the capital of Tanna, is a lively place where the diversity of the organic crops need to be seen to be believed, while just down the road at Tafutuna you can get a taste of life in the not-so-far island of Futuna where yet another amazing culture flourishes.

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The smiling pikinini are a highlight of any Vanuatu experience.

Looking for amazing diving? For stunning natural wonders? Diverse and colourful tradition? All hosted by some of the friendliest people in the world? Try Vanuatu and discover what matters – you won’t be disappointed.

Mt Yasur always puts on an amazing display, here you can stand on the edge of a live volcano and feel the percussion.

Mt Yasur always puts on an amazing display, here you can stand on the edge of a live volcano and feel the percussion.

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