A quote widely (but apparently inaccurately) attributed to Mark Twain describes the “coldest winter” as “summer in San Francisco”. I think we can safely subvert that now, having just spent two surprisingly cold weeks diving the tropical waters of Fiji in the South Pacific. Our summer is their winter, but who knew air and water temperatures ranging from 78-80 degrees F could feel so cold? Add prolonged rain, gray and overcast skies to blustery winds and subtract the warmth of a densely cloaked sun and you have a recipe for the coldest tropical summer vacation we can remember.
We still had a great time, divided between a week’s stay at a land-based dive resort, Waidroka and another week on the Nai’a, the live-aboard vessel we so enjoyed in 2016. That prior trip also was preceded by a land-based stay in southern Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, near Pacific Harbour, focused on diving with bull sharks. Our stay at Waidroka would give us a chance to see a wider slice of diving off of Viti Levu’s Coral Coast and the Beqa Lagoon, as well allow us to revisit the bull sharks and river raft, an excursion we had passed on the prior trip.
This trip was organized by Lynn Morton back in 2021 in the depths of the pandemic, when vaccinations were starting to make planning international dive travel viable again. She led our most recent Baja dive trip in the fall of 2022.
Thursday, July 20-Saturday, July 22, 2023
Our outlook on the outbound trip perked up considerably a few days before departure. We had free economy air tickets ($1400 value per person), thanks to cashing in equivalent Chase Sapphire credit card points. The business class premium was outrageous at 5X (over $9000 per person) and I just hadn’t been able to justify the expense for an 11 hour flight. A few days before departure, an email came with an invitation to bid for an upgrade. I looked up the plane type to confirm that this upgrade was to a fully reclining seat, the number of seats in Fiji Air’s business class (33) and how many seats were left. I bid $1265 per person and hoped for the best. This bid was graded in the red, the lowest zone of the bid range, so I wasn’t optimistic. The “Hooray-You’ve been upgraded” email a few days before departure was a pleasant surprise. I had to place a higher minimum bid on the return, still in the red zone of the grading pie, maybe because at that point the return was two weeks out. Altogether we ended up flying both ways in business for about 30% of the rack rate. Greg lost out bidding on the outgoing flight, but made up for it on the return.
This gained us entrance to the comfortable One World Alliance lounge, where we chatted with a nice couple from Vegas, on their way to do volunteer dentistry in Vietnam. This was after we were kicked out (at 10 pm!) of the closing Centurion Lounge, which wasn’t nearly as nice as the one in Miami.
As we get older, it is easier to justify flying business class on long haul flights. The “Health and Safety” clause can be readily invoked-upgrading as prevention of deep venous thrombosis, anyone? Even putting that argument aside, there is no question that we arrive with a jump on jetlag, thanks to the 4-6 hours of sleep possible when fully reclining.
No long plane trip is complete without screening a film. On this leg, I enjoyed It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a 2010 comic drama based on a 2006 novel by the same name, written by Nick Vizzini. The author struggled with depression and based the book on his experiences being admitted to an adult psychiatric ward. Keir Gilchrist plays Craig, a depressed high school student overwhelmed by the stresses of competing in his academically elite school, who checks himself into the hospital psych ward. He meets and befriends fellow patients, including Bobby, played by Zach Galifianakis. Mental health is generally no laughing matter but this treatment was surprisingly touching and funny. Reading up on this material afterwards, I was saddened to learn that book author Nick Vizzini went on to die by suicide at the age of 32. He also was the author of Be More Chill, a musical adaption of which I considered investing in but ultimately declined. More Broadway investing adventures can be found here.
Over this week, we managed 13 dives. I say managed because although we usually do 3 dives a day, after freezing the first few days, we dropped down to 2 dives per day. The water temperature was 26 degrees C or 79 degrees F. This doesn’t sound cold. I wore a 5 mm full wetsuit with a hood. The dives themselves were not the issue, but our surface intervals on the boat. The sun was a no-show for much of the week, and rain and wind were our near constant companions. This is the down side of diving from a land-based resort, as opposed to a live-aboard dive boat-there was no hot shower and changing to a dry bathing suit between dives (at least not easily, Lynn did manage it on the bathroom-less boat with considerable creativity)-we were out for the day, for up to 3 dives depending on the distance from the resort, which varied from 45 minutes to 1.25 hours away.
Our group totaled 21 in all. We met most at the airport, where we immediately tested ourselves en masse for Covid, as we were to do throughout this trip, every 3 days. (This stringent policy was an outgrowth of Lynn’s experience with two Indonesia dive trips adversely affected by Covid.) We knew Matt and Joyce, as well as Laura, from our Baja trip in the fall with Lynn and Mike. Several family groups were represented, with Mike’s sisters, Sandy and Terri along, as well as Sandy’s partner Mark. Mike was a well represented name, with Mike K from Florida along with his girlfriend Kellie and her teenage daughter Sailor. The 3rd Mike was Mike S, with his wife Jenny. David, a self described anarchist, rounded out the divers, as well as Brad, who joined us for the bull shark dives, but kept his not-yet-certified girlfriend Krista company on snorkeling and other excursions during this first week. David and Lisa joined us later in the week for a shorter stay at Waidroka.
Our superior deluxe ocean-front bure provided plenty of room for our camera bags, charging station and bulky camera systems, with a large living room and a separate bedroom, as well as a front porch with a suspended hammock chair.
Orchids bloomed on the grounds and as night fell, a touch of light from a phone was needed to avoid squishing cane toads underfoot, which populated the walkways whenever it rained (which was frequent on this trip).
61 minutes, 43 feet
63 minutes, 73 feet
62 minutes, 62 feet
Steve, Greg and I were matched up with Lynn and Mike with Ciara as our divemaster, with Laura, Terri, Sandy and Mark paired with Simi as divemaster. Jim captained our boat. We spent all day at Frigates Walls, which was a good 45 minutes ride from the resort. The site had interesting swim-throughs and crevices, but a dearth of fish, at least compared to what the following week would bring.
Long white antennae gave away the hidey-holes of several lobsters. We found a few large anemones and had fleeting glimpses of rays and sharks.
65 minutes, 80 feet
64 minutes, 48 feet
63 minutes, 68 feet
This was the best dive site we sampled on the Coral Coast, with stunning hard corals. It was also the furthest away, a cold and long, one hour+ trip by boat to a rarely dived deep water coral atoll called Cakau Leka Leka. We were the first group the Waidroka divemasters (Ciara and Gary from Ireland, and Debz and Rod from South Africa) took to this pristine site. We all thoroughly enjoyed our 3-tank sampling, despite the long boat rides and the penetrating cold, without any relief from sun on our surface intervals. Mike K, Kellie and Sailor appeared so cozy in their matching Scubapro neoprene after-dive jackets that we were eyeing them enviously. By the week’s end, I was to purchase one of the jackets and Sandy another, saving Kellie and Sailor from lugging them home to Florida.
Another highlight of this segment of the trip was river rafting the Upper Navua River with Rivers Fiji, which took us through steep stone canyon walls and lush verdant jungle.
We had passed on this excursion on our prior trip, in favor of an extra bull shark diving morning, so I was happy to have another chance to experience the “South Pacific’s Grand Canyon”. We were outfitted with yellow helmets, life jackets and paddles before setting out in inflatable rafts.
We managed not to take a swim as we maneuvered around rocks and rapids past waterfalls on a thoroughly enjoyable excursion.
Weirdly, both Steve and I sustained potentially trip-ending flesh wounds on this journey, the same day: me slipping while disembarking from the raft for the lunch stop, gashing my shin on a rock, resulting in a 1.5 inch long slash which bleed profusely. I made liberal use of the alcohol gel provided to clean hands for lunch to clean the wound and hoped this wasn’t the end of my diving. I could hear in my head the instructions I’ve given to countless patients on whom I have performed breast biopsies (through a 1/8th of an inch long incision) not to submerge the wound in a pool, jacuzzi or ocean for at least a week.
Meanwhile, Steve returned home with a mysterious itchy hard spot on his chin, which over the next day blew up rapidly to scary proportions.
This led us to seek medical consultations (120 USD) with Dr. Mili in Pacific Harbour, who prescribed antibiotics (a version of penicillin), to which Steve’s unilateral mump-like swelling and redness thankfully responded. Her office was quite basic but we figured being in the tropics with strange bugs and heading on a boat into an even more remote part of Fiji within a few days warranted local knowledge.
Steve was thrilled Dr. Mili thought there was no reason he shouldn’t carry on diving. I sought her advice on what to clean my wound with but didn’t ask specifically about continuing or not to dive.
40 minutes, 63 feet
44 minutes, 60 feet
62 minutes, 62 feet
Bull sharks are impressive animals. We had spent 3 mornings on our prior trip doing shark attraction dives with 2 different operators and looked forward to repeating the experience. This time, although there was a profusion of activity, with multiple different shark species, I found it frustrating to be limited by Aqua-Trek Beqa Divers to 20 minutes at the stone wall, behind which a huge trash can with fish guts was swung through the water.
It did create a swirl of activity but the swim-bys were swift and unpredictable and not the most satisfying experience photographically.
Our afternoon dive was to a lovely site called Golden Arches, named for the abundant yellow soft coral wreathing the underwater arches. Our GoPro Hero 9, on loan to Matt, went for an unfortunate swim on this dive.
63 minutes, 59 feet (Golden Arches)
64 minutes, 66 feet (Seven Sisters)
It isn’t like us to skip dives but the persistent drizzle, overcast, wind and resulting cold led us to opt for a 2-tank morning dive rather than an out-all-day 3 -tank excursion. Our return to Golden Arches enabled divemaster Simi to recover the Gopro lost to the depths the prior day. Unfortunately, without a housing, it was flooded but the card was recovered with some images. Matt made arrangements for a replacement (actually, an upgrade, an 11) to come from LA with Jay, joining us for the Nai’a segment of the trip. This was not the only piece of equipment needing replacement mid-trip: Lynn lost a light on the same dive and Mike had a lens failure, rescued by a loaner Fedexed by Howard in San Diego to another incoming diver joining us from LA, John.
I switched my camera set-up to macro to shoot a few fish portraits and smaller critters.
Taking the afternoon off gave me a chance to have a massage.
63 minutes, 64 feet (Fantasy)
62 minutes, 44 feet (Side Street)
We’d originally thought we’d like a second day of bull shark diving, but found the restrictions we encountered frustrating and the other operator we had experience with was already booked.
Our final night at Waidroka was capped by a Kava ceremony, dancing, and singing. Clad in colorful floral sulus given to us by the resort, we sat on the floor of the dining room, now covered with woven mats, as the crew sang and kava was passed around, repeatedly. Some dances took place on the floor with hands clapped energetically and alternately on the floor and in the air, speeding up with each refrain. As always, the final song was the traditional Fijian farewell song with the haunting melody, Isa Lei.
It was farewell to the lovely staff at Waidroka, but for us, it was on to the pearl of the South Pacific, the Nai’a, for a week of Fiji’s most stunning diving.
Here’s a small preview of the even more lovely sights awaiting us: