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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!”
Our second dive was to Vatu Vonu, and after lunch, Blueberry Hill.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several women from the village took us on a tour, including the church and the kindergarten.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our morning environmental presentation featured the little hole-dwelling creatures which I was shooting: blennies, Christmas tree worms and coral hermit crabs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Steve sat out the dusk into night dive, led by Amanda, to Vatadamu Point, but it was a highly productive dive for me.
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.
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.
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.
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 reverse. 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 here.