“Bali Ha’i will whisper
In the wind of the sea
Here am I, your special island
Come to me, come to me!”
(lyrics from the musical, South Pacific)
Fire gobies danced teasingly in front of my underwater camera housing’s lens port as I nudged closer to their flickering beauty. Difficult to approach, I had squandered nearly 20 minutes lying motionless on the sandy sea floor trying to photograph these mesmerizing fish. Just when it seemed my patience was about to be rewarded, my body jerked when something yanked my fin. In the blink of an eye, the skittish fire gobies lunged into their sandy burrows.
My dive buddy had yanked my fin to get my attention and they were now excitedly gurgling through their regulator. Judging from their unintelligible hand signals and bug-eyed expression, I surmised they must have found something interesting. But, what? Before I could decipher their frantic gestures, my dive buddy turned and motioned for me to follow. Tucking my camera housing under my arm, I followed their streaming bubbles thinking, whatever this is… it better be good!
By the time I caught up to my dive buddy, they were circling above an immense coral garden and frantically looking everywhere. For a moment, I contemplated returning to the fire gobies when an urgent finger pointed at something hovering over the reef. I still couldn’t see anything. That is until I glimpsed a shimmer of rippling iridescence pulsating near a purple branch of hydrocoral. It was the seas reigning monarch of camouflage, a cuttlefish.
Raising my camera, I quickly positioned my strobes and began shooting this bizarre-looking cephalopod. Peering into my viewfinder, I soon discovered there were more luminescent shadows lurking in the background. There were 10 cuttlefish in close proximity to one another. In all my tropical diving experience, I had never seen such a concentration of cuttlefish in one place. It was with great excitement that we made several more dives with the horde of cuttlefish we encountered off the eastern edge of Malekula Island. Just one fine example of the underwater surprises that await divers in this far-flung South Pacific paradise called Vanuatu.
Tell anyone that you’ve been diving in Vanuatu and their vague response is likely to be something along the lines “ Sounds fantastic! Ahhh… where in the world is Van-a-what-tu?” If I’ve heard this once I’ve heard it one hundred times or more. Even experienced travel agents are sometimes stymied when it comes to pinpointing Vanuatu’s geographic whereabouts. I myself first became aware of Vanuatu’s existence only after some friends told me they had done some diving there.
Vanuatu’s idyllic “Y” shaped cluster of 83 islands caress the edge of the Coral Sea, along the southern reaches of the Melanesian archipelago. These palm-fringed shores lie approximately 1800 km (1,100 miles) east of Australia, 800 km (500 miles) west of Fiji, and span nearly 720km (450 miles) of crystal clear cerulean blue water. Forged from coral and ash, Vanuatu’s volcanic islands rim a vast region known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, as evidenced by this island nations nine active volcanoes.
Discovered in 1606 by Spanish navigator Pedro Ferdinand de Quiros while searching for the legendary “Southern Continent” (Australia); the islands were later christened New Hebrides by famed British explorer, Captain James Cook, who surveyed and mapped the group in 1774. Colonization by both Britain and France began in 1860. Despite almost waging war over the islands, Britain and France formed a joint Anglo-French colony (the Condominium) in 1906 to thwart Germany’s growing threat of expansionism in he South Pacific. An agreement that was later ridiculed for being the “Pandemonium” government, after it paved the way for two distinct public service system to evolve such as police forces, schools, law courts, etc. During the Second World War, New Hebrides escaped occupation by the Imperial Japanese forces and served principally as a military staging area for the Allied campaigns in the Pacific. On July 30, 1980, the fledgling Republic of Vanuatu was born when New Hebrides was granted independence, with membership in the British Commonwealth. Today, Vanuatu’s government is a parliamentary system, complemented by the National Council of Chiefs who decides matters pertaining to tradition and customary law.
Vanuatu, which translates as “Land Eternal,” is a cultural oasis surrounded by a modern desert of rapid change. It’s recognized as being one of the most culturally diverse countries n the world, having more than 105 distinctly different cultures and dialects. While the country’s main centers possess all the requisite tourist amenities, three quarters of the Ni-Vanuatu still live off the land as they have for centuries. Many still cling to a tribal system where pigs remain a symbol of wealth and are used to purchase brides or determine social status.
One of Vanuatu’s most dramatic custom rituals occurs between April and May of each year. In this ceremonial, men wearing only traditional nambas (or penis sheaths) must climb a 30 metre bamboo tower and prove their courage by lashing vines around their ankles, then in a strict established order, topple forward from atop the tower in a ritual that is akin to bungee jumping. Ideally, the vines will stop the divers descent inches before hitting the terra firma. Known as the Pentecost Jump, it is believed this ceremony brings a good yam harvest.
Scuba diving here revolves around the two largest communities, Port Vila on Efate Island and Santo on Vanuatu’s largest island, Espiritu Santo. There are numerous land-based dive operations in both Port Vila and Santo. Just about all of them offer reef excursions in either their own vessels or through charter boat operators. The scope of dive sites is enormous and features shallow coral gardens, dizzying drop offs, caves, tunnels, bommies, along with a large number of shipwrecks and remnants from wartime.
Some of the world’s most fascinating and beautiful sea creatures inhabit these waters. Aside from harbouring most of the fish species to be found in the Indo-Pacific region, wild encounters with sea turtles, sharks, eagle rays, banded sea snakes and manta rays are not uncommon. Marine invertebrates include colorful nudibranchs, anemones, porcelain crabs, several species of shrimp and more. The Pacific dugong, a distant relative of the Florida manatee, is a rare and endangered species that is seen quite often in and around these islands. After making two different trips here I can testify that large pelagic fish and other predators seem relatively scarce. Although, I have been regailed with stories that some divers have seen the occasional tiger shark.
A stretch of exposed rocks mark the position of a spectacular wall dive located just offshore of Tongoa Island. Of all the exotic undersea delights to choose from in Vanuatu, Tongoa Wall is my absolute favourite. Accessible only by boat, Tongoa’s sheer vertical drop-off plummets into the depths with immense, tangerine and scarlet colored gorgonians branching outward from the wall’s steep face. These sea fans are magnificently large and dominate the deep cuts and fissures of Tongoa’s submerged volcanic ridge. Splendid multi-colored arrangements of feathery crinoids and lush soft corals, accented with dazzling hues of ochre, pink, and raspberry, punctuate Tongoa Wall’s jagged cliffs rivaling the pyrotechnic brilliance of fireworks. At the wall’s summit, were fish such as fire gobies, peacock flounders, orange anthias, clown triggerfish, Moorish idols and schools of butterfly fish. Without question, this singular exposed offshore dive site is the jewel in Vanuatu’s diving crown.
Some people may be surprised to learn that Vanuatu is the archetype tropical paradise that inspired James A. Michener’s classic novel, Tales of the South Pacific. During his war experience at Espiritu Santo, Michener was charmed by Vanuatu’s utopian ambiance and nearby Ambae Island was purportedly his fictitious “Bali Ha’i”. While I may never write an epic novel, I do hope one day to return to Vanuatu in order to plum the gorgonian depths of Tongoa Wall. Far off the beaten path, Vanuatu’s remote whereabouts in the South Pacific may remain a mystery to some, but to others this Bali Ha’i in the South Pacific offers diving opportunities that are overflowing with the stuff that diving dreams are made of.
Vanuatu Quick Facts
Diving Season: Year round
Water Temperatures: 23 to 26 degrees Celsius
Time Zone: GMT +11.
Weather: Subtropical climate. Trade winds occur from May to October. Warm, humid and wet between November and April. Rain is moderate. Cyclones are possible between December and April.
Languages: The three official languages of Vanuatu are English, French and Bislama (a pidgin language). A further 113 indigenous languages are used by local people in the islands.
Electricity: 240 volts AC. Australian three-pin plugs are in use.
Currency: Vatu (VT). Australian Dollars are widely accepted in Port Vila. Exchange facilities are readily available at banks and kiosks in Port Vila. Banking services are sophisticated and major credit and debit cards, as well as travelers cheques, are widely accepted in Port Vila and Luganville, but cash is required in the countryside away from tourist resort areas.
Accommodations: Conventional hotel-style accommodations as well as self-contained studio apartments, bungalows, guest houses and lodges are available in all resorts.