Imagine your perfect dive holiday: a genie has popped up in front of you and said Okay, you can have anything you want! Where would you start? Wonderful dive sites and plenty of them. Sharks, rays, schools of fish and barracuda. Awesome little creatures. Fantastic coral formations – soft and hard. Unlimited diving, no bottom time restrictions, four dives a day. Hardly any other divers in the water. A great boat, great food, like-minded people. Impossible? Well, think again.
Anticipation was running high as we arrived in Fiji to board Naia, Fijis premier diving liveaboard. We were filled with hype passed on by previous Naia passengers and were feeling particularly fortunate that Darryl had won this trip in the 1998 Kodak Oceanz photographic competition.
Lautoka is the departure point for most of Naias seven and ten day cruises, and is located conveniently close to Nadi airport. Arriving at the boat, our luggage was whisked below by a hardy and plentiful Fijian crew. There were more crew than passengers, making us immediately aware of the level of service provided. Naia started life as a swinging singles cruise ship in the Caribbean, and by the time current owners Rob Barrel and Alexx and Todd Edwards met her she was looking pretty weary. After a complete rebuild she is now fully designed for the ease and comfort of up to 18 passengers.
The needs of underwater photographers and videographers have been particularly catered for, with a dedicated camera room for preparing and repairing gear. Moments after settling into our air-conditioned stateroom, we were under way. The afternoon was spent unpacking, comparing dive gear and getting ourselves accustomed to how the ship works. Actually, its the crew that work. After your first assemblage, you never have to touch your dive gear again – they will handle it and change tanks for the rest of the trip.
The 125 foot mother ship has two rubber ducks (skiffs) which they use to ferry divers back and forth to dive sites. You simply walk to the back deck, step into the skiff, and sit down beside your already placed dive gear. After the dive, you leave your gear in the skiff and miraculously it appears for your next dive back in position with a full tank of air. Amazing. Once they have established your ability and safety, you can pretty much do what you like. You name your dive time, and the skiff drivers will look out for you and pick you up wherever you surface. This flexibility was a unique experience for us, unfortunately accustomed to the strict regulations of other operators.
Once underwater, each dive was simply magical. We had never before seen so much colour and diversity in a short space of time. Most of the diving is situated in and around Bligh Water, which runs between the two main islands of Fiji. The area is subject to pretty strong currents, but they use this to great advantage, diving with the currents for drift dives or timing it for the best visibility. Every pinnacle and wall we dived was covered in brilliant soft corals in every colour imaginable, some places literally dripping in bright pink, red, orange and yellow. Nearly every pinnacle top was a seething mass of colourful schools of purple and orange anthias.
There was never a dull moment underwater. Looking closely at the reef, there was so much to see. During the trip we saw over 30 species that were new to us; some we had seen in pictures, and others caused serious discussion around the dinner table afterwards. Fortunately there were so many digital video cameras on board that each night we were able to review the dives after dinner. From tiny fringed nudibranchs to giant pleurobranchs, leaf fish, razor fish and funny little spider crabs, the underwater life kept us searching through books from Naias library.
One of the highlights of the trip were the night dives. We never missed one, they were so rich and full of life. Large basketstars came out at night time, uncurling their lacy arms like a hollow globe. Just where do they hide during the day? Dozens of crustaceans emerged from their hiding places. Brilliant red crabs and tiny brittle spider crabs clung to gorgonian fans, swinging like orangutans at the zoo.
On a single night dive, our dive leader found two pairs of mating nudibranchs within a couple of metres of one another. Even the one night when they accidentally dropped us on a sandy bottom some distance from the reef, we found plenty to get excited about. Our torchlight showed large tun shells crawling across the sand, their mottled brown and white mantles spread parallel to the sea floor. On the edge of the light beam, a slight movement revealed the presence of a green turtle. Swimming over, we disturbed a blue spotted ray resting on the sand. It was difficult to know where to look most of the time.
On a particularly wonderful dive in Nigali Passage, after dropping into the water amidst a school of two dozen barracuda we drifted through a school of bigeye trevally. Then we sat out of the current behind a large golden gorgonian fan, and watched mesmerised as a dozen grey reef sharks circled before our eyes. Then a couple of four foot long flowery cod swam past, and red snapper darted in amongst all the activity, looking for food.
Letting go of the wall, the drift continued over a bed of shy garden eels, through a canyon of colourful bommies covered in soft corals to a patch of yellow cabbage coral as large as a tennis court and then to a lagoon edge fringed with red gorgonian fans. All along the way, multitudes of fish accompanied us, and on the temporary stops lots of little critters were observed: tiny pipefish, blennies, gobies and shrimp.
Naia was really a dream-come-true dive trip. It was everything we had imagined and been told it would be, and more. But wait, I hear you ponder, Isnt it really, really expensive? Well, yes. But when you consider the total package – accommodation, great food, wonderful service and awesome and plentiful diving – it would be hard to find a better trip in terms of value. Not a single dive was a disappointment. Everyone surfaced with something to rave about, and encountered new and weird species on each dive. And we all disembarked wishing we could stay longer, and vowing to return. What more could you ask for in a dream dive trip?