Aug 302011

By Denise Mattia

D-bumphead-wrasse-3-6937-1024x682It ‘s the dive destination that gets a diver’s  attention no matter where they’re from. For me it   was on my bucket list and I was glad to be able to put a check by it. It was late afternoon and the long journey was tiring however when I arrived, I was eager to experience as much of Fiji as my ten days would allow.


I narrowed my destination selection down to three resorts renowned for their dive operations;  L’Aventure Jean-Michel Cousteau at the Jean Michel Cousteau Island Resort Fij, Diveaway Fiji at the Hideaway Resort & Spa and Beqa Adventure Divers at the Beqa Lagoon Resort. I settled on beginning at the L’Adventure which overlooks the Savusavu Bay on Vanua Levu, one of the two main islands in Fiji. (the other is Viti Levu)

Once we were settled and ready to hit the water, Johnny Sing, Marine biologist, naturalist and dive master at the L’Aventure, asked visitors when they wanted to start learning about the diving and the resort.  He smiled when “now” exploded from our small group.  Sing was patient and accommodating – it is, after all, the Fijian way.  We sat in the dining lounge facing the sea and he told us there are 28 endemic species of fish in Fiji’s waters.  “Five species of turtles are found off the 320-odd islands comprising Fiji.  We have Hawksbill turtles nesting on the resort’s reserve,” Sing explained.

A cool breeze wafted across the room and we looked out to sea.  Sudden wave action caught my attention.  Spinner dolphins were leaping out of the water.  “Pilot, Minkey and Humpback whales appear here too,” Sing said.  Some of the others asked questions about sharks and we learned there’s an ancestral law protecting them. Legend has it the shark god, Dakuwaqa (pronounced
Dak-u-wanga), was spared from being killed by a great octopus when he promised to safeguard the islanders.  Fijian chiefs reciprocated, declaring sharks protected. Today, local fishermen continue to offer yaqona (pronounced yangona, the drink from the kava plant) to their guardian when they go to sea.

The following day, a small group of divers accompanied divemasters Mary and Johnny to the site called Alice in Wonderland, a 10-minute ride by boat away.  Almost immediately I was mask to nose with an adult Hawksbill turtle. The turtle swam with us before finning away casually. My attention was divided next among a Humphead Wrasse, a Spanish Dancer, Devil Damselfish and bi-color Blennies.

Despite a recent typhoon, which reportedly had caused some damage, our group dove both Mystery Reef and Chimneys and noticed plenty of healthy spaghetti and hard corals on the reefs.  The walls called Grand Central Station and Canyons near the Namena Marine Reserve are spectacular; it is here you find the soft corals for which Fiji is world famous.  They drape the coral surfaces in every color of the rainbow.  White tip sharks, Humphead Wrasses and groupers swam slowly among spires that sprout from the bottom.  The beauty and expanse of the site was so seductive I was tempted to follow the fish into the depths.

L’Aventure Jean-Michel Cousteau at the Jean Michel Cousteau Island Resort lived up to its five-star reputation.  We were sorry to have to leave, but a conference on the Coral Coast beckoned.  We flew to Nadi and Rosie’s Holiday Transfer trundled us to the Hideaway Resort on Viti Levu’s Coral Coast. Thanks to assistance from marine biologist and engineer friends, the PADI Association and village chiefs, Alex and Alice Hill, owners of Diveaway were able to sink six permanent moorings into the pristine reefs.

Once at Diveaway we were able to dive a site called Kasbah where, for the next 66 minutes, I found a giant clam, Blennies and nudibranchs.  There were swim throughs, overhangs and a pot-pourri of small fish at the other sites we experienced called Bordello and Sundance.  Sunlight pierced the cutouts in the hard coral structures and made for dramatic scenes.  At Purple Haze a Hawksbill turtle made a wide arc around me as I swam past the multi-hued Gorgonian fans.  All of the dive sites offered amazing life.

After a great experience at Diveaway and haunted by the melancholy strains of “Isalaya,” Fiji’s ceremonial song of good-bye, I and six colleagues were delivered the following day to Pacific Harbor where we were transferred by boat and dingy to Beqa Island Resort.  I picked my way in the sand to the lodge, an open-air building facing the sea, where Nigel Double, the new GM, met us.  In addition to the dive briefing, Nigel told us of future plans for a greenhouse, wind turbines and a resort hospitality program for the island’s teenagers. Once settled, we met with the dive shop managers, Delana and Seru, and prepared our gear. We visited sites called Pearl Rock and Soft Coral Plateau.  Our divemasters, Ned and Koli, pointed out more nudibranchs than I’d ever seen before.  I found Bubble coral, Anemone fish, a lionfish and a flatworm.  The back-to-back dives were long and leisurely. I reported 75 and 65 minutes, respectively, and I could see spending a week diving the reefs here.

A 45-minute ride the following morning to the aptly named site, Bistro, and a plastic dumpster of chum was lowered into the water; every nurse and reef shark and reef fish made for it.  I shot wildly from my kneeling position, petted a nurse shark as it passed and then felt something – probably a reef shark – bump against my shoulder.  I was oblivious to mayhem taking place.  On the second dive, I was invited again into the “inner sanctum” for the feeding frenzy.  They came:  three, four, five Bull sharks. The encounter was quick and, sadly, over too soon. Afterwards we cruised upward from 67 ft. along a sunken vessel. On cue, two enormous Moray eels appeared from under the steel hull, expecting to be photographed. It was amazing.

I emerged after 53 minutes, chilled despite the 80-degree water and very, very happy.  This dive, like all of our others, was orchestrated and organized beautifully. I have to say my experience diving Fiji is one I intend to repeat as many times as possible. The Fijian people were warm and amazingly accommodating and the diving was world class. Our stays at the various resorts and our participation in the various dive programs were equally intense and everyone who led us along the way made the trip that much better. So if Fiji is on your bucket list, move it to the number one spot and take that leap towards the equator. I promise you, it will be a trip you will never forget.

Where to Stay:

Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort

This is a full service, eco-friendly, kid-friendly resort.  One honeymoon suite (with a/c) is available and the 25 no a/c thatched bures (bungalows) are simple yet smartly designed to maximize light and ocean breezes.  Much of the produce is grown on the 17-acre site and poultry is raised there as well.  The children’s programs are designed around Fijian culture and an appreciation of the environment.  The programs also allow for parents time alone.

Fiji Hideaway Resort & Spa

This place could do no wrong.  Numerous accommodation options include romantic deluxe ocean view bures to family beachfront villas.  The couples and honeymoon deluxe ocean view bures have been refurbished.  General Manager John McFadden plans to continue updating the bures. Guests can take a free three-hour scuba lesson in the resort’s pool.

The Beqa Lagoon Resort

This resort has a total of 25 stunning, deluxe, private air-conditioned bures located along the northeast coast of Beqa.  Twelve spacious beachfront bures have a private courtyard, large sundeck and plunge pool.  One bure is designated for honeymooners (or romantic couples) with outdoor shower.  The two-bedroom bures are ideal for families.  Dining here is table-dote, offering Fijian style cuisine.  On the southwestern side of the island the Frigate Passage offers ideal conditions for surfers.  Line fishing expeditions are available.

Denise Mattia

About Denise Mattia

A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.

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