By Tony and Jenny Enderby
The colours of the fishes and corals glow against the black lava rocks, Patrick describes his favourite dive site . Behind us the sea was cobalt blue, turning to near purple in the depths below. At 35 metres a spindly black coral colony stood. At 40 metres the waves above us were still clear but below there was no sign of the sea floor.
Patrick, co-owner and instructor for Dive and Fly Samoa had brought us to his favourite dive site – the lava fields. It had something no other dive site had – he couldnt explain it – maybe it was the way the fish and corals glowed against the jet black boulders.
As we moved up, a boulder seemed to move. Then it took fright and swam away rapidly. We had disturbed a turtle resting on the boulders.The fish didnt worry and continued to cruise around us. A big, bright angel fish watched from under a boulder and tiny yellow and blue fishes darted into the corals.
Diving around Savaii is comparatively new. The island with a name that rhymes with Hawaii, has a lot in common with its north Pacific neighbour. Savaii, Samoas largest island has 450 volcanic craters, but those forces are currently dormant. Its Polynesian history dates back 3000 years but the origins of stone mounds like that at Pulemelei, 50 by 60 metres and 12 metres high, have still not been explained. These ancient mounds would have been a safe place to stand and watch any molten lava flow past.
The most recent eruption from Mt Matavanu, 10km to the south of lava fields, spewed molten lava between 1905 and 1911. The lava oozed down its slopes to the sea, destroying everything in its path, including forests and villages.
Now 100 years later, parts of the lava field are just black patterned rock, but trees and shrubs are beginning to grow through gaps and cracks.
At Saleaula we walked through the ruins of the London Missionary Service Church with a guide from the local village. The lava had flowed alongside the walls then oozed in through the front door to a depth of two metres. A few pieces of rusty metal showed where the corrugated iron roof fell onto the molten lava.
Further along the track the Virgins Grave is in a depression surrounded by lava. Everything else in the cemetery is two metres under the lava. Legend has it that this grave of a chiefs daughter was protected, due to her purity.
That same lava flow rolled across the bay, destroying the fringing reefs and creating the lava fields dive site. On Hawaiis big island the same thing is happening today as the lava meets the sea in clouds of steam and mini eruptions.
Once the volcanic activity on Savaii ceased the corals began to colonise the lava rock. We tried to imagine what the dive site would have looked like 100 years ago.
At 15 metres we reached a ledge where the lava stopped. A boulder-strewn platform extended 30 metres to the cliffs where the swells created a foamy backwash with masses of little fish. Occasionally something bigger darted through, the largest a solitary barracuda, intent on a feed of small fish. But the barracuda was forgotten as a turtle sculled out towards us. Everyone stopped and watched. The turtle was inquisitive and its shape identified it as a green. No one dared move and it kept coming until only metres away. It circled us then cruised off – but not before we caught some of its grace and beauty on film.
We surfaced and clambered onto the boat. Good dive? Lomi, our boatman grinned. He knew it was before we answered.
Over coffee we found out more about Savaiis dive sites. Patrick, Dirk and Sandra who run the dive operation, came to Savaii, found that no one had done much diving there and decided to check it out. After each dive they became more convinced they had found a magic spot. Manase was the perfect location for the dive shop as the villagers were already involved in numerous accommodation ventures.
This was definitely paradise. Our accommodation at Janes Beach Fales was a thatched open hut, right on the beach. Moored 20 metres away was the dive boat.
Breakfast and dinner were communal events and one night a week the villagers put on a fiafia. This is traditional singing and dancing with everyone invited to get involved and share in the ava drinking. After a good meal and a few Vailimas, the local beer, we found out more about the local dive sites.
One diver mentioned a wreck not far from the beach. Its the remains of a missionary ship, he said. The bay was like a harbour and the ship was washed onto the reef and wrecked during a cyclone in the 1840s. Shipwreck – now thats a word to get any diver interested. The following morning, Patrick verified what the diver had told us, See what you think when you dive it. Its a steel ship so maybe its more recent.
Ten minutes after leaving the beach and winding through the coral gardens lining the shore we stopped. The top of the wreck is just below us at eight metres, Patrick went through the dive briefing. It drops at about 45 degrees to the sand at 25 metres. Some of the wreck is still on the reef. He pointed to a jumble of metal amongst the corals behind us.
The water temperature is 28oC but visibility is only about 25 metres. Patricks disappointment with the visibility wasnt shared by the rest of us.
Below us the twisted steel remains of the ship plunged down into the blue. Corals and sponges covered most of it and fish hovered around or under the plates. A dozen blue-lined snapper glowed yellow above the remains of the deck as we headed down.
Christmas tree worms in yellow, red, blue and mixed colours protruded from one of the large brain corals. Any shadow over them and they retracted in the flash of an eye.
We tried to guess which way round the ship was lying. Both her stern and bow were virtually unrecognisable. Two steel poles, maybe masts or derricks, lay alongside amongst the corals. A shell nearby moved and then another. Each had a pair of eyes peering from underneath. The ship was home to dozens of hermit crabs. Patricks torch lit the bright red patterns of a small seastar and we found several more around the corals and the steel girders.
Up towards a coral tower we stopped to admire the pure white anemones and their resident clown fish. Several more coral towers, reminiscent of fairy castles from a Disney movie grew nearby. Crawling amongst the girders was a beautiful nudibranch. Its blue, black and yellow contrasted with the dull brown steel. A swirl of sand distracted us from the nudibranch as something big lifted off from the wreck. A turtle had declined our company and sculled away into the blue.
Along the edge of the wreck were shapes that may give a clue to her identity. Large circular fittings could have been for rigging. Another shape with a covering of coral suggested a winch, definitely post-1840s.
Two large blue trevally cruised along the rails. The smaller fish immediately dived into the safety of the wreck. Whatever the ships identity she was now a part of the Savaii coral reefs and home to a myriad of life.
Patricks thumbs-up signal probably meant it was time to surface – our thumbs up response meant Wow, what an awesome dive!
Jenny and Tony Enderby travelled with the assistance of Polynesian Airlines and the Samoa Tourism Authority. They dived with Dive and Fly Samoa and stayed at Janes Beach Fales.