Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Taking a Dive - Fiji Style


Morning Light on Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Taking a Dive - Fiji Style

Wednesday, August 23, 2001
7:00 AM – Brrriing.  Is that the sound of the alarm clock?  No, because we did not pack one.  It is our friendly myna birds squawking away outside.  When the windows are open all night and it is quiet, the contrast of morning in Fiji will wake you up in a hurry.
7:15 AM – Our usual breakfast of fresh fruit, orange juice and baked goods arrives, just as the coffee pot finishes brewing.  Weather normal – beautiful.  They did not tear down our movie set overnight and cart it away to the prop shop.  The palm trees are all in their proper places and Natewa Bay forms its usual serene backdrop.  Only today, we are in a hurry.
8:15 AM – We drag our dive gear down the wooden walkway to the ever-faithful Suzuki Jimny.  We rattle away down the local road, only to find that the construction crew had added some fresh fill-dirt in certain places.  The only problem is that the “dirt” that was used has rocks the size of grapefruits strewn throughout.  We make it out to the Hibiscus Highway and “floor it” down the correct (left) side of the road.  That lasts about a half a minute until I get to the blind curves and the three-tracks, often shared by two oncoming vehicles.
8:30 AM – We slow down to go through our favorite local village.  It is aYoung residents of a local village on Vanua Levu, Fiji, August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) settlement that is about two hundred-fifty yards long, and has houses of varying quality and age on each side of the road.  The sign says, “Slow through Village” as many road signs say throughout Fiji.  We smile, wave and shout-out our usual “Bula” to the village folk.  They smile, wave back and give us the “Bula, Bula” (or was that an old college song?) in return.
Over the next four or five days, they would watch us roar off to go diving in the morning and roar back through on our way home for lunch.  They must have wondered what we were doing with that little car each day that kept us roaring back and forth.
8:50 AM  - After negotiating both the old part of the road and the ever-shifting detours of the new road, we almost sped right past the Koro Sun Resort, which is a bucolic hotel with bures for rooms and a coconut plantation for grounds.  Later, one local Fijian told us that if you stayed there, you got “free golf”, for just the price of the room.  What they do not tell you is that it is a “mountain course”, with more uphill and downhill than any championship course in the world.  Since a driving iron would send the ball straight into the nearest grassy knoll, it was a “wedges-only” course.
We pulled in to the hotel grounds and asked the native Fijian woman who was using a palm frond to sweep the driveway where the dive shop was.  Finally, she gave us discernable directions, or perhaps we just stumbled upon the dive shop.  It was the little freestanding storefront on the “beach side” of the highway.  Beaches, in the Caribbean sense of the word are very rare in Fiji.  At that time, some of the promotional materials from the Koro Sun showed sunbathers on wide, sandy beaches.  There is about six to twelve feet of sand at the edge of the lagoon, but so much for truth in advertising. 
The dive shop looked like saloon from the Old West.  It had a false front The Cousteau Dive Shop, Viewed from the Lagoon, Vanua Levu, Fiji, August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)that made it look like it was two stories high, although it was not.  When we arrived, it was as deserted as a ghost town.  Of course, we forgot that we were on “island time”, which runs on a clock of its own.  Despite our anxiety over possibly “missing the boat”, since we were the only divers registered that day, the boat would not have left with out us.  We also discovered that this satellite location of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort was open only on demand. 
A previous dive company had built the rock jetty on which the dive shop sat, as well as building and outfitting the building.  They then carved a channel out of the coral to get the dive boat out to the deeper water of the lagoon.  In 2000, when everything was completed, the “Coup Plotters” tried to take over the Parliament Building on Viti Levu and put a total stop to all tourism in Fiji for months.  Needles to say, the dive shop went out of business before it really had a chance.
When we visited, in August of 2001, tourism was making a comeback throughout Fiji and the Cousteau people decided to “make another go” of the location.  We were among the first of the intrepid divers to try out these dive sites since Cousteau brought diving back to the east end of the island.  Since the unanticipated consequences of the 911 attacks in America were less than a month away, we were probably also among the last to dive these sites for some time to come.
Sam, the Dive Master, loading the Cousteau dive boat, Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)9:00 AM – We placed our gear on the boat and our lead weights in the weight-pockets in our buoyancy control devices (BCD’s), so that we would sink properly once we were in the water.  Sam, the boat driver and sometimes dive master was ready to go. 
9:15 AM – Gary, a New Zealander who runs the main Cousteau Resort dive shop arrived and we took off.  He had come over to check us out and be sure that his satellite operation was adequate.  He made sure that he did not interfere with our diving, but it was nice to know that there was the safety and security of another set of eyes to make sure that everything was OK.  That morning, Leonard was our dive master.  He was the only Fijian that we met during our entire stay who seemed a little standoffish.  He was a rich kid, by their standards and wanted our undivided attention, even when we were not quite ready to give it to him.  Sam, on the other hand was a big bear of a man, and as kind and generous as could be.
9:30 AM – We arrived at the Fanfare Site, just a mile or two out of the alt="Exiting the lagoon, on the way to our dive site, Vanua Levu, Fiji, August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)" />lagoon and around the point.  So there we were, ready to dive the fabled waters of Fiji.  Having dived the Kona Coast, Maui, Cozumel, Belize, Bonaire and Curacao, to name a few, we had high expectations for Fiji.  Once we were under the water, however, it all seemed a little ordinary.  The colors were drab and there were very few extraordinary sights.  The trip out in the boat was as interesting as the two dives. 
As the week went on, we discovered why the diving was not great.  Vanua Levu is mountainous and a lot of silt had washed down the streams, smothering the reefs in many areas.  Based on the large number of logging trucks we met on the roads, I can only imagine what is really happening in the highlands.  My gut tells me that they are taking too much timber.  With the land deforested, the silt is sweeping down the streams and into the lagoons, where there the lack of circulation allows it to settle near shore. 
During our dives along that coast, we found whole coconuts rolling along the bottom and lots of coconut fronds and smaller pieces of plant life strewn about.  Since the area is not dived that much, there is a lot of undisturbed material along the bottom.  I found a large, dead clam that still had both halves attached at its hinge.  It was almost one foot across at its widest point.  The fact that such a large and relatively sensitive animal could have thrived there recently told a tale that I did not want to consider.  It is sad to say that much of the siltation damage had probably happened during the very recent past.
Mini-islands, off the shore of Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)11:00 AM – Our second dive was at a site called The Thumb, where you could dive around and through a volcanic reef formation.  It was interesting, but not spectacular.  Still, it was great to be out on, in and under the ocean that morning, even if we were learning a lesson in forest and reef management that we had not expected.  When we returned to the dock, we found that I had not secured one of my weight pouches to my BCD and a weight pouch was now missing.  I did not look forward to finding out what the replacement pouch would cost.
12:00 PM – We motored slowly back through the narrow channel to the dive shop.  It was so shallow at low tide that Sam had to use the hydraulic lift on the two outboard motors to keep them from scrapping bottom.  When we got back, Sam found an old brown and dried coconut and cut it open for us.  He told us that the big green ones are for drinking and the little brown ones, which have shed most of their husky skin, are for eating.  The meat of the coconut is copra, which they pronounce “KOP-ruh”, but we Americans tend to pronounce “COPE-ruh”.  Sam seemed amused that we thought it was a bit of a delicacy.  The coconuts lay around like so much trash on the ground over much of the island.  Each day that we dived, thereafter, Sam took a machete and opened another coconut for our refreshment.
12:30 PM – We were on the road back to Lomalagi Resort again, retracing what would soon become familiar territory.  We no longer turned at the wrong places or wondered where we were.  Like an old horse returning to its stable, the Jimny could practically find its own way home.
1:15 PM – Collin waited lunch for us, which was nice.
3:30 PM – 6:00 PM – It was time to plan the balance of our stay in Fiji, including our various side trips, and to do nothing at all (worth mentioning) for a few hours.
6:00 PM – A beautiful tropical sunset awaited us on our Lanai.Sunset, over Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
7:05 PM – Dinner, with time afterward to gaze at the crescent moon going down and to see the Milky Way light up as the sky rapidly darkened.  Looking up at the Southern Cross and the stars of the southern sky, one could get a sore neck craning to see the new and wonderful sights.  Fittingly, to end our evening, a meteor streaked across the sky.
9:45 PM – A few minutes after we returned to the room each night, the walkway lights would go out.  With the Moon down, darkness was all around.  The only human made lights emanated from our bure and a couple of fishing lanterns, down on Natewa Bay.  As the moon grew larger each night, fewer fishing families would appear, until the last few nights, when we saw none.
This is Chapter Eight of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.