The best of Fiji… may be farther out?

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By Gilbert Peterson, Managing editor, Dive Pacific

(I travelled to Fiji in mid-March courtesy of Tourism Fiji for a week long fiesta of highly memorable diving and meeting up with dive operators. Our international group stayed at four resorts each uniformly excellent while catering to different markets and budgets.)

Taveuni and Vanua Levu islands in Fiji – yes they’re very much about the superb diving, but there are so many other things to see and do too.

Just the flight getting to Taveuni and/or Vanua Levu from Nadi is an adventure, at gawping height, only just above the mountains of Viti Levu, across the emerald straits. The 20 seater Twin Otters are new as well.

Australians Dirk and Claudia Werner-Lutrop, me, our dive guides and Jackie, a travel editor from China, heading out to the Great White Wall.

There’s the natural water slide up a track over the road from Garden Island Resort at Waitavala. I thought I’d see how others took this on before giving it a go. I wanted to see how banged up and bruised they got. What a super adrenalin trigger that was! The stream rushes you down in a tearing hurry, on a turning rock surface as smooth as moss. No body parts bashed at all. Just a flush of water up the nose.

The natural water slide at Waitavala

On Sunday I attend a church service at 7 am at the Wairiki mission church. The acoustics of this historic 128 year old church echo the pleasure of the 300 voice congregation singing. Fine French architecture. No pews. Everyone cross legged on the floor. A mahogany ceiling. Stained glass reflecting across the bay to distant neighbor islands.

Blue Ribbon Eel at Jerry’s Jelly

Then there’s Bauma Falls in the Tavora National Park, three of them, ranked in the top 100 falls around the world, a rating bestowed I imagine for the sheer presence of the drop, and the setting. The walk up to the first one was very easy and very pretty, a contrast to the bouncing ride along the last bit of the road getting there. Past a pineapple plantation, and an offshore island, Laucala, owned by the Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, co-owner of Red Bull. Taveuni is unimaginably fertile. Children spend the end of the day leaping off a bridge, swimming… its an idyllic spot. And on the island there’s other falls and day walks, hiking up higher, bird watching, plenty of snorkeling spots and lots of other things to see and do.

Rainbow Reef magic

Aptly named Rainbow Reef

Now we’re into two dives on Day One. Hosted by the very capable team at Garden Island Resort (www.gardenislandresort.com), Nuku Reef and the Cabbage Patch are just two of the 25 or so dive sites of the Rainbow Reef, a 28 km wonder stretching between Taveuni and Vanua Levu islands. (Fiji’s second and third biggest).

Rainbow Reef simply lives up to its name, a must do magnet for divers of all capabilities. Here, there’s also work afoot to protect more of the reef which it demands due to its sheer diversity and value otherwise.

By virtue of its location in the strait with tidal currents ‘cleaning’ them out every day, the reef is host to wildly diverse soft and hard healthy corals side by side. Look in any direction for more colour. While Cyclone Winstone in 2016 is still fresh in locals’ minds, damage was limited to corals within a metre or two of the surface, and recovery of those is rapidly underway. Not so fortunate was Garden Island Resort. A two year old jetty was swept away and waves pounded in the windows of first floor apartments. The resort is pristine again now, reasonably priced, and generous with both hospitality and providing festivities such as lovo dining (meals cooked on hot stones) and cultural performances.

Cabbage Patch

Prehistoric

Cabbage Patch features – you guessed it – an area of large green, vegetable like corals hosting clouds of fusiliers and many other multi coloured fish. The light or something down here makes the atmosphere redolent of pre-historic times when these corals were first alive, when dinosaurs inhabited the planet. It’s not so much spooky as meditative. Without consciously thinking about it we swim with respect above and around them.

From Taveuni Dive Resort, which would have to be one of Fiji’s most organized, professional and conscientious resorts for divers, (www.taveunidiveresort.com) we head out next day to the Great White Wall. For me this was the dive of the trip. The guides tell us this is the one place where Fiji Time does not apply! Diving the Wall is totally time and tide dependent. If the currents are not right you see a great brown wall; if they’re too fierce you don’t get to dive. (Check Taveuni Dive’s website for when dives will be possible).

Great White Wall

Frisson

We were lucky. The weather was great, scarcely a breeze. To start we went down to about 12 metres. A white tip headed away. We entered a swim through ‘cave’ going down to 22 metres. A frisson of excitement. Another few metres and here is the wall. A vertical rock face blanketed with soft white coral blooming, down as far as the eye can see.

We drift along the white face. Time disappears. One minute I have 100 bar of air, next minute just 50. Its time to head up. But the currents here are deceptive, and strong. They force us to stay low, swim hard, using up air much faster. We work around some rock mounds, under a ledge, then with a touch of relief, up to five metres for the safety stop. At the surface for the first time my gauge reads zero.

Bauma Falls

Jerry’s Jelly

Then we get a bonus at Jerry’s Jelly where the reef’s biodiversity comes into its own, two pinnacles and a ledge, with soft white corals underneath, though hard corals tend to predominate. Here we met a patch of shy garden eels and nearby, the scorching bright blue ribbon eel, plus lots of schooling fish including snapper, sweetlips, pipefish and fusiliers, all at no more than 18 metres depth.

We make the journey to Vanua Levu from Taveuni by fast dive boat across Somosomo Strait’s glassy seas – so easy – to meet up with others of our party coming from the opposite direction. By coach for an hour and a half we travel to Savusavu for a night’s stay at the Koro Sun Resort & Rainforest Spa (https://korosunresort. com) before heading to the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort (www. fijiresort.com) where we enjoy a final dive and a last night. But what happened on this part of the journey will have to wait til the next issue.

Info Tips

Getting there: Fiji Airways operates twice daily flights to Taveuni Island and more to Vanua Levu, either to Savusavu, or Labasa which can be at less cost and an hour and half by road from Savusavu.

Garden Island Resort, Taveuni Dive and Paradise Taveuni (www. paradiseinfiji.com) are well-equipped to cater for divers and snorkelers as well as plenty of other excursion options. Talk to them.


Cataloguing coral

Marine scientist Helen Sykes says the corals in Fiji are the healthiest in the world. “Fiji is an oasis for resilient corals,” she says. From an event like Cyclone Winstone which hit in 2016, she says, the corals are recovering really fast, within five years. She adds if climate change happened to reverse in future, Fiji could act as a nursery for the world to restock reefs elsewhere. Lately Helen has been working in the Rainbow Reef area cataloguing the soft and hard corals that abound here. The aim is to underscore how ecologically valuable the Somosomo Strait area is in general, and the Rainbow Reef in particular, both for the health of Fijian oceans and for dive tourism. A goal is to raise the protection of important reef sites.

Some of the Rainbow Reef’s critters

While the traditional Qoliqolis owners whereby local villages’ have fishing rights in the seas related to their lands, the sea bed below high tide is vested in the government. This can lead to complex conservation and management issues. In the Somosomo strait area there are over 20 Qoliqolis. One of them may agree to a tabu on fishing an area but it often takes government involvement to enforce protection from those outside the community. If the villages and dive operators agree which sites are to be protected they can put a powerful case to the government. In Fiji there have been five main ways used to create Marine Conservation Areas (MCAs):

  1. Informal, where subsistence fishing is mainly done by the land owning unit
  2. Verbal or documented Tabu where the heads
  3. fishing rigths owning clans ( matagai) can declare and are ‘no- take’ or tabu.
  4. Exclusion from Commercial Fishing. Traditional tabu areas may become part of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas (FLMMA) network to aid community based management.
  5. Foreshore lease or licence whereby the ownership of the foreshore is vested in the government and can be developed eg for aquaculture.
  6. Statutory ‘Gazetted’ Reserves for which the Minister of Fisheries may declare areas protected reserves either for a species, or entirely, and which applies to both traditional fishing resources and any others including commercial fishers.

At present MCAs rely heavily on traditional verbal or documented tabu areas and therefore on traditional ownership rights and management of fisheries. Tourism operators including dive operators are currently evenly split with 51% content with their current MCA arrangements and 49% wanting more formal agreements.

www.marineecologyfiji.com/news

Some of the Rainbow Reef’s critters

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