Fabulous Fiji: Sept-Oct 2016 (Part 2: On the Nai’a)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

After 3 great days of sharks, sharks, and more sharks, it was time to transfer to the Nai’a,  the premier live-aboard dive boat based in Fiji.  Transit days are never much fun, just necessary.  When we do a road trip (mainly back and forth to Arizona), I always try to incorporate one fun activity, maybe lunch with friends, a short hike or a quick museum stop, so that the whole day isn’t given over to travel.

Steve tried to roll over and go back to sleep when the get-up-for-sunrise alarm went off at 5:25 am, but after peeking out the black-out curtains and seeing hints of more color than on prior mornings, I prevailed.  Armed with tripod and camera (me) and drone and phone (Steve), we headed to the beach.

A perfect spot for launching the drone, the jetty at The Pearl South Pacific

A perfect spot for launching the drone, the jetty at The Pearl South Pacific

It was a very vibrant sunrise, the best yet.  A few feet away, a small flattened banded sea snake was somehow lifeless on the grass.  Later, when I headed back with a longer lens, hoping to shoot a lovely white egret foraging on the jetty, I saw a staff member disposing of a larger sea snake in the surf, held away from him using a kayak paddle blade.  I still remember vividly seeing my first sea snakes on that long ago Tavarua trip, first on the beach, partially concealed by ground cover, and later, sinuous stripes  in the water.

A sunrise worth getting up early for, at The Pearl South Pacific, southern Viti Levu, Fiji

A crazy-colored  sunrise worth rising early for, at The Pearl South Pacific, southern Viti Levu, Fiji

Packing was easy, since we didn’t have to break down our underwater cameras.  Burt had arranged a separate vehicle to transport the delicate rigs, even procuring electrical cord the day before to bind the unwieldy metal beasts to the seats in case a short stop was necessary.

We had 2 sets of cruise directors on board, Amanda and Joshua, on their final cruise of a 3 year contract, and incoming and in training, Chad and Vanessa.  The Nai’a is a well run outfit.  The name means dolphin in Hawaiian.  Within minutes, we had been photographed and our pictures were posted to help the staff learn our names.

A full complement of nice companions accompanied us on this tropical Fijian adventure on the Nai'a

A full complement of nice companions accompanied us on this tropical Fijian adventure on the Nai’a

By the first boat briefing, Joshua had learned ours.  There was a flurry of activity on the dive deck, hanging up wetsuits, stowing gear in bins beneath the benches, putting weights into BCD pockets, with a limited window for a late afternoon check out dive at Samu Reef , on which Steve and I passed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 (Vuya Reef)
(Stacey’s birthday)

My first Nai’a dive started with intense eye stinging.  I didn’t realize their mask defog needed to be completely rinsed out; my eye was tearing so much I could barely appreciate that my mask didn’t fog!.  Sixteen pounds of lead made for a  nice slow descent in my very buoyant 7 mm Henderson Aqua-Lock suit, with hood, gloves and booties.

Dive #1 for our starboard group, with Sly in Mighty Righty, was indeed the Cat’s Meow.  The site is named for the owner Rob’s wife.  Vanessa pointed out an undulating flatworm, motoring energetically through the water.  A triggerfish crunched so loudly, it was readily audible, busily turning the reef into sand.  Joshua found 2 pygmy seahorses in a black coral bush on the bottom, formerly occupied by 5 ghost pipefish two months before.  Like many of our sites on this trip, there was a swim through on the bottom, clouds of orange anthias everywhere and large anemones up in the shallows.

One of my favorite features of Fiji's underwater landscape was the many very sculptural and colorful seastacks, loaded with anthias

One of my favorite features of Fiji’s underwater landscape was the many very sculptural and colorful sea stacks, loaded with anthias (Vuya Reef)

After breakfast , Joshua began the first of a daily series of environmental presentations on the local marine life.  He thoroughly scared Stacey with his description of the lethality of cone shells, and encouraged visual colonoscopy of the anuses of sea cucumbers, where tiny commensal crustaceans can reside.

Joshua: “That’s not weird, that’s biology!”

Lionfish featured prominently in my first day's photographic take in Bligh Waters of Fiji

Lionfish featured prominently in my first day’s photographic take in the Bligh Waters of Fiji

Our second dive was to Vatu Vonu, and after lunch, Blueberry Hill.

A lionfish peers out of a coral bowl at Vuya Reef in Fiji

A lionfish peers out of a coral bowl at Vuya Reef in Fiji

We skipped the 4th dive, conserving our energy for the 1st (and reputedly best) of 3 night dive opportunities, to UndeNAI’Able Wall.  The group was polled and we were glad everyone agreed to organize the forthcoming days as 4 dives/ day and not the frenetic 5/day pace of the boat’s norm.

We did our first drone launch from a boat, successfully avoiding the rigging, into a lovely sunset.

The Nai'a near Vuya Reef in Fiji, on a Homerically wine-dark sea

The Nai’a near Vuya Reef in Fiji, on a Homerically wine-dark sea

A group of 7 intrepid night divers set out on an extremely dark and featureless night: no land in sight, no moon, no stars.

The night dive opened with a strange large pleurobranch with an appropriate scientific name  (Pleurobranchus grandis).

Even by pleurobranch standards, this is an exceptionally large and strange one (Pleurobranchis grandis)

Even by pleurobranch standards, this is an exceptionally large and strange one (Pleurobranchis grandis)

The usual assortment of red-eyed shrimps, including the splendidly striped and spotted Saron shrimp, crabs large and small, and sleeping parrotfish ensconced in their protective mucous bubbles, were out for the night.

The most splendidly adorned shrimp in the sea (Saron sp.), Vanu Reef, Fiji

The most sartorially splendid shrimp in the sea (Saron sp.), Vuya Reef, Fiji

Rounding at the lionfish theme of my first day at Vanu Reef in Fiji, a baby lionfish at night on UndeNai'Able Wall

Rounding out the lionfish theme of my first day at Vuya Reef in Fiji, a baby lionfish at night on UndeNai’Able Wall

A fish that wears spotted pajamas to sleep! A rabbitfish changes patterns at night, Vanu Reef, Fiji

A fish that wears spotted pajamas to bed! A rabbitfish can dramatically change patterns at night (Vuya Reef, Fiji (Siganus sp.))

A pair of forktail rabbitfish in night coloring variation (Siganus argenteus)

More than one way to evade predation: a pair of forktail rabbitfish in night coloring variation (Siganus argenteus), UndeNAI’Able Wall, Vuya Reef, Fiji

Steve and I started out with the group, but soon were lagging behind.  We locked arms to stay together on the surface as the rest of the group was picked up in fathomless inky darkness.

Thursday, September 29, 2016 was Steve’s 59th birthday, at least on this side of the International Dateline, as well as Joyce’s birthday, as well as purser Suli’s.  Steve always makes me promise not to publicize it, acknowledge it or throw him any parties to mark it, but is willing to have the occasion used as an excuse to plan trips we want to take anyway.   On board, birthdays were marked with the crew singing and candle-lit chocolate cake.

201609 Drone Fiji Se 9

Steve’s birthday present, put to good use: aerial view of the Nai’a, Fiji, and its two skiffs.

Nai'a live-aboard dive boat in Fiji, aerial view

Our entire dive trip was planned around today’s site, Nigali Passage, near Gau Island, which must be timed to the tides and current; the Aggressor boat was anchored nearby.

The Mighty Righty skiff, driven by Sly on the starboard side, went after the portside Lucky Lefty, led by Big Mo, easily recognized underwater by his beefy frame and no wetsuit.

A drift dive led us into schools of barracuda, past sharks circling down below; we held up at the “bleachers”, a ring-side “seat” from which to take in the action.

Barracudas in pyramid formation, in the current in Nigali Passage near Gau Island in Fiji

Barracudas in pyramid formation, in the current in Nigali Passage near Gau Island in Fiji

For a snippet of video and better sense of the size of this school of barracudas, here’s a link: https://vimeo.com/188494529

From there, we ended in coral shallows, including a lovely “cabbage patch” of yellow lettuce leaf coral.

Beautiful lettuce corals in the "cabbage patch" at Nigali Passage near Gau Island in Fiji

Beautiful lettuce corals in the “cabbage patch” at Nigali Passage near Gau Island in Fiji

Our after breakfast environmental lecture by Joshua began today focusing on Cnidaria, a class of radially symmetric invertebrates with a  larval stage, which includes medusa (Joshua’s preferred term for jellyfish: “This is 2016, folks, they are not fish!”), and anemones.

He also discussed the role of zooxanthellae within corals, processing energy from the sun through photosynthesis.   Black coral, often found at depth, is an exception, which does not incorporate zooxanthellae.  The presence of sharks was mentioned as an indicator of overall reef health.

Dive #2 on Nigali Passage found us deep in the channel at 80 feet, again surrounded by schooling barracudas.

Schooling barracudas in Nigali Passage, near Gau Island, Fiji

Schooling barracudas in Nigali Passage, near Gau Island, Fiji

We spent so long in the channel we didn’t really spend any time in the bleachers, but headed behind into a beautiful coral garden, with plentiful  soft corals in a rainbow of colors.  At the end, I found myself again in the cabbage patch, with 2 large Napoleon wrasses circling, tantalizingly close, but ultimately uncooperative.

Soft coral clad pillars at Nigali Passage, near Gau Island, Fiji

Soft coral clad pillars at Nigali Passage, near Gau Island, Fiji

Our day was rounded out with a visit to the village of Somosomo.  To prepare for the village visit, we put our new Nai’a provided sulus on (dress code is knees and shoulders covered) and were instructed to leave hats and sunglasses behind, lest we appear too self-important.

Approaching the village os Somosomo, in Fiji

Approaching the village of Somosomo, in Fiji, a small cluster of houses, a church, and a meeting house on the edge of a densely vegetated, sparsely inhabited island

Several women from the village took us on a tour, including the church and the kindergarten.

Low-tech construction and high-tech solar panels for power in Somosomo village in Fiji

Low-tech construction and high-tech solar panels for power in Somosomo village in Fiji

Inside this structure, a gong in sounded to convene events in the village of Somosomo, Fiji

Inside this structure, a gong is sounded to convene events in the village of Somosomo, Fiji

Inside Somosomo village kindergarden: Fijians learn English as well as Fijian at school

Inside Somosomo village kindergarden: Fijians learn English as well as Fijian at school

Only young children are schooled in the village, and they danced around the visitors excitedly, especially taking to Liam and Cate, who were quickly adopted.  School age children attend boarding school on an adjacent island during the week and return home on weekends.

For cruise directors Joshua and Amanda, this village visit was also farewell; over their 3 year post, they had seen these children grow up

For cruise directors Joshua and Amanda, this village visit was also farewell; over their 3 year post, they had seen these children grow up

Buzzing overhead was Steve’s drone, which quickly attracted the attention of the village’s men, who were drawn from their houses by the noise and then took turns flying it, checking out their neighbor’s houses and drawing them out in turn, leading them to take a turn flying it themselves.

Cate and Somosomo village girls look on as Steve flies the drone overhead, as Amanda and Chad look on behind

Cate and Somosomo village girls look on as Steve flies the drone overhead, as Amanda and Chad look on behind

2016 Mt Fiji Somosomo Meeting House

At the meeting house in Somosomo village, Fiji

2016 Mt Fiji Somosomo Meeting House2

In case you were wondering whose little finger was seen in the preceding picture (in Fiji in Somosomo Village meeting house)

Over in the meeting house, we were introduced to sevusevu, a ceremonial presentation by visitors to the village elders of a sheaf of unpounded kava. Big Mo did the honors on our behalf, presenting a sheaf of kava root, as well as medical supplies, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other offerings brought by the guests, to the village chief, and receiving in return an identical newspaper-wrapped bundle of kava root.

Kava, the root at the center of Fijian culture, drying in the sun; the root is the strongest component

Kava, the root at the center of Fijian culture, drying in the sun; the root (background) is the strongest component

Then coconut cups were passed all around.  After you chug your portion (low tide, high tide or tsunami sized), you clap 3 times with cupped hands.

And then the dancing and singing began, opening with a greeting song and closing with a farewell song, Isa Lei.  We women were drawn into the dancing.

201609 Mt Fiji Somosomo Dance Girls

The Fijians are known for their choral talents, and the dances of the Somosomo villagers were a treat to see

201609 Mt Fiji Somosomo Dance Men

As adorable as the little girls’ dance was during our Somosomo village visit, my favorite was the high energy men’s dance, performed entirely seated.

For a flavor of the energy, here’s a video clip of the men’s dance: https://vimeo.com/188495667

Our eventful day was capped off by a Nai’a style kava ceremony, on the dive deck, now covered with mats, with the carved wooden kava bowl leveled with weights.  Big Mo, in addition to being an awesome dive guide and nice guy, proved to be quite a crooner and guitarist as well.  He was ably accompanied by Captain Keni on vocals, with virtually the entire crew joining in.  Their version of “Old MacDonald” was hilarious, sometimes requiring artistic license on the part of the nominated guest to come up with sounds for animals, both farmyard and esoteric.

2016 Mt Fiji Naia Kava Big Mo Guitar

Captain Keni and dive guide Big Mo were a dynamic musical duo on the dive deck of the Nai’a

2016 Mt Fiji Naia Kava Ceremony

The crew in song gathered around the kava bowl (in background) on the dive deck of the Nai’a

The appreciative audience on the Nai'a's dive deck included chef Pascal and hand thearapist Sharon from Florida

The appreciative audience on the Nai’a’s dive deck, including chef Pascal and hand therapist Sharon from Florida

Friday, September 30, 2016 (Wakaya Island)

The starboard group was into the “Lion’s Den” with Amanda for dive #1, even before breakfast.  Despite the name, the theme for this day seemed to be not lionfish, but leaf scorpionfish, including on our follow-up dives on Vatu Vai and Blue Ridge with Big Mo.  2016 Mt Fiji Naia Big Fan

The risk of burying one's head behind a very wide angle lens, missing great small critters right in front of your nose-there is a leaf scorpionfish in the green coral just below the red fan, which I completely missed until it was pointed out.

The risk of burying one’s head behind a very wide angle lens is missing great small critters right in front of you-there is a leaf scorpionfish in the green coral just below the red fan, which I completely missed until it was pointed out (see image below).

2016 Mt Fiji Naia Wa Leaf Scorpionfish 1x1

Uh oh, beautiful leaf scorpionfish on great substrate, but down with a very wide angle lens (Tokina 10-17 mm), what to do? Get close!

At least one of us managed to have a macro rig on when all of these leaf scorpionfishes were being sighted; in addition to varying in coloration, they are very thin, and rock side-to-side, mimicking a leaf's motion

At least one of us managed to have a macro rig on when all of these leaf scorpionfishes were being sighted; in addition to varying in coloration, they are very thin, and rock side-to-side, mimicking a leaf’s motion

2016 Mt Fiji Naia Wa Hard Coral

Underwater landscape on Wakaya Island reef in Fiji

Our night dive back at Lion’s Den with Big Mo was pleasant enough, but the real excitement of the evening was the “octoporn” show Roseann, John and Joshua saw on their dive.  They had initially missed the site after being dropped off, and after kicking against current, eventually aborted the dive and were redropped.  Pascal and Sharon aborted, but the others were rewarded for their perseverance with a prolonged session of octopus mating.

No octoporn for me at Lion's Den, only a chaste game of hide and seek with a shy octopus

No octoporn for me at Lion’s Den, only a chaste game of hide and seek with a shy octopus

A crocodilefish blends in with the sand on a night dive at Lion's Den on Wakaya Island, Fiji

A crocodilefish blends in with the sand on a night dive at Lion’s Den on Wakaya Island, Fiji

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Two Thumbs Up!
We had a fabulous morning doing 2 dives in Namena Marine Preserve at Two Thumbs.  Led by Big Mo, we alternated between Inside and Outside. It is a beautiful wide angle site, with 2 obelisk like pinnacles, covered in clouds of anthias.  Having been concentrating so hard this trip on fine-tuning my wide angle strobe positioning, I had barely shot any macro up to this point, so I went down with a 60 mm lens.  I saw Joyce in the sand channel with a resting reef shark, and was pleasantly surprised how close it let me approach.  The garden eels were also unusually cooperative.

Unusually tolerant whitetip reef shark and garden eels in a sand channel at Two Thumbs, Wakaya, Fiji

Unusually tolerant whitetip reef shark with garden eels behind in a sand channel at Two Thumbs, Namena, Fiji

Our morning environmental presentation featured the little hole-dwelling creatures which I was shooting: blennies, Christmas tree worms and coral hermit crabs.

2016 Mt Fiji Naia Brown Blenny

2016 Mt Fiji Naia Blenny

Pseudoanthias squamipinnis

Pseudoanthias squamipinnis (male scalefin anthias)

Ostorhinchus aureus

Ostorhinchus aureus (ringtailed cardinalfish)

201610 Mt Fiji Anemonefish 201609 Mt Fiji Blenny

 

Our 3rd dive was to Schoolhouse; talk of potential for strong currents led Liam to bail in the skiff.  Meanwhile, crew member Moseese finished his certification on this dive.  There was a strong current on the entry.  We were dropped up current and warned to stay with reef to the left after the current split.  There was a gorgeous array of corals, but it was tough to stabilize.  Many sharks were cruising, with tuna patrolling.

Crazy color and profusion of anthias on Fijian reefs (

Crazy color and profusion of anthias on Fijian reefs (Namena, Fiji)

Back on the boat, Liam finished his Nitrox certification under Amanda’s tutelage.

Steve and I sat out the dusk dive, being too tired, even struggling to stay awake for Hergen’s after lunch presentation on Indonesian dive areas.

Sunday, October 2, 2016, our last full diving day, was in Somosomo Strait, between Taveuni Island and Vanua Levu, the 3rd and 2cd largest of the Fijian Islands, respectively.

Dive #1, Rainbow’s End, was quite a ride.  I had dropped the extra 2 pounds in my pocket, bringing my overall weight down to 14#, but almost wasn’t able to descend fast enough to catch the rest of the group.  At least this slowed descent rate was no longer faster than my increasingly noisy ears could equalize.  From there, it was a swift trip, making photography, wide angle or macro, almost impossible without damaging coral.  I managed only a few quick “grab & go” shots, there being no time to study results or make adjustments.

Fijian reefscape

Despite its name, dive #2, on Freeway,  was leisurely by comparison. It was especially peaceful in the shallows, with clouds in the sky and bright sun, great for practicing wide angle lighting.

Fijian wide angle reef scene

Beautiful shallow hard coral garden in Fiji

Dive #3, was truly spectacular, to a site celebrated for an unusual proliferation of soft corals.  The Great White Wall is named for the numerous glacial blue soft corals found at depth, most profusely at depths of 70-110 feet.  The trick is to dive it after current has dropped off, while the soft corals are still puffed up.  Even the approach was astounding, an elevator like shaft in the wall, taking us from 30 feet on the entry to 70 feet at the exit onto the wall.

Famed Fijian dive site, the Great White Wall, in the Somosomo Strait

Famed Fijian dive site, the Great White Wall, in the Somosomo Strait

Steve sat out the dusk into night dive, led by Amanda, to Vatadamu Point, but it was a highly productive dive for me.

Anemonefish tucked into anemone in Fiji

A large eel occupies the penthouse in a bommie condominium in Somosomo Strait in Fiji

A large eel occupies the penthouse in a bommie condominium in Somosomo Strait in Fiji

A colorful denizen of the night, Somosomo Strait, Fiji

A colorful denizen of the night, Somosomo Strait, Fiji

A hermit crab with a flair for picking shells, night dive, Somosomo Strait in Fiji

A hermit crab with a flair for picking shells, night dive, Somosomo Strait in Fiji

My favorite find of my last night dive in Fiji's Somosomo Strait, a flatworm on a tunicate

My favorite find of my last night dive in Fiji’s Somosomo Strait, a flatworm on a tunicate

Amanda found this treasure at Vatadamu Point (Somosomo Strait, Fiji): a whip coral shrimp

Amanda found this treasure at Vatadamu Point (Somosomo Strait, Fiji): a whip coral shrimp

 

Our evening’s entertainment included a video about the Nai’a’s resurrection as a dive boat 20 years before, from a derelict, dysentery -inducing (sewage pipe contents leaching into drinking water lines), Caribbean booze cruiser.  The one-year long complete overhaul just barely finished in time for the first scheduled charter, which was problematic enough that all of the guests were offered a free return trip, but only half returned.  The owner’s vision was amusingly accompanied by a peculiarly appropriate soundtrack, beginning with

“I’ve got my eye set on you,
I’ve got my eye set on you.
But it’s gonna take money,
a whole lot of spending money,
It’s gonna take patience and time,
To do it, to do it right”

Monday, October 3, 2016
Last Nai’a diving day on Vatu-i-Ra Reef

On our first dive of the day, to Coral Corner, with Joshua, Steve and I lagged behind the group, hopscotching along from one group of partially balled up anemones to another, delaying our arrival at the colorfully festooned coral corner and wall.

A cluster of anemones at Coral Corner, Bligh Waters of Fiji

A cluster of anemones at Coral Corner, Bligh Waters of Fiji

 

On Dive #2 at Maytag, I startled out of a safety stop revery when Amanda rang a bell, as a turtle booked right past me.

Coral Corner in Fiji's Bligh Waters

Coral Corner in Fiji’s Bligh Waters

Coral Corner? Try Color Corner, Bligh Waters, Fiji

Coral Corner? Try Color Corner (my name for this scenic site), Bligh Waters, Fiji

Our final dive of this trip, in the afternoon, was at Mellow Yellow, named for the abundant yellow soft corals forming a luminous field of gold;  one, happily, we would have a chance to revisit, on our Wananavu extension, the subject on an eventual Part 3 of this narrative.

Walls were covered with yellow "blossoms" of soft coral at Mellow Yellow; the name sounds like a nitrogen-induced dream

Walls were covered with yellow “blossoms” of soft coral at Mellow Yellow in Fiji’s Bligh Waters; the name sounds like a nitrogen-induced dream

The rest of the day was devoted to gathering up equipment and clothing scattered to all corners of the boat.  Most were heading home, so were confronting the onerous task of breaking down underwater camera systems and fitting them back into airline regulation cases.  There was last minute image processing to do as well, to be represented in the evening’s entertainment, the guest slide show, always a highlight of a photography-intensive trip.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016:  It was time to take leave of our dive companions.  We were off the boat by 8 am, accompanied by a chorus of goodbyes.  This is the end of Amanda and Joshua’s 3 year tenure, and owner Rob is coming aboard for the next trip to further train incoming cruise directors Vanessa and Chad. Lucky Lynn and Dave are staying on for an equivalent charter, as are group leaders Hergen and Burt, who will all do our trip again, in reserve. Their new group will be collected from the airport as our disperses.  As for us, our return to civilization is still a few days away.  We are on our way to a resort at the northernmost point of Viti Levu, Wananavu, recommended by our friend Skip, who was on the Nai’a a year before.  We had an idyllic stay there, subject of Part 3 of this blog…eventually!

-Marie

201610 Mt Fiji Coral Crinoid Reefscene

No end of color combinations and fantastic reefscapes in Fiji!

201609 Mt Fiji 23

Anemonefish hover above their home, as anthias hold position in the current above (Fiji)

201609 Mt Fiji 22

Beautiful hard coral gardens in Fijian shallows

 

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4 thoughts on “Fabulous Fiji: Sept-Oct 2016 (Part 2: On the Nai’a)

  1. Steve and Marie,

    Very nice! I visited Fiji in 2007. I love the drone shots. I bought a drone this year too but I have been to nervous to travel with it. You motivated me to start!

    We had a fantastic time with the local Fijians in Viti Levu and Taveiuni and it appears you did too.

    I’m curious if you have been to Cocos. I’m starting to look at trips for 2018.

    • Hi Mark, We went to Cocos once, quite a while ago, perhaps 15 years ago? We enjoyed ourselves, but felt at times as though we were at the edge of our dive comfort level (some wicked downcurrents). While I’d love to go back, a return to Galapagos is a higher priority for me (and we’ve been twice)-have you been there?
      -Marie

      • Not yet. I had to cancel Fred’s Galapagos trip a few years ago. Galapagos and Cocos are the top 2 destinations on my list. I’m getting more interest in photographing large animals.

  2. “…sartorially splendid…”!
    That shrimp was dressed in that garb by The Master Tailor! The Fabricator and Sustainer of all!
    All glory to Him for revealing Himself through your stunning images!
    It is hard for me to adequately express my gratitude to you both for sharing your crafts, Marie and Steve.
    Thank you.

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