DESCEND INTO THE SOFT CORAL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
Paradise, Fiji style. Long hailed by scuba divers as being the “Soft Coral Capital of the World”, Fiji offers tantalizing diving opportunities that will mesmerize even the most jaded dive traveler. Straddling the International Date Line, Fiji is comprised of roughly 300 islands and atolls sprinkled across 200,000 square miles of the South Pacific Ocean. Fiji’s rainbow reefs are renowned for their wonderfully pristine flowery soft corals, large branching fan corals, schooling pelagics, dazzling tropical fish, towering coral bommies, barrier reefs, precipitous drop-offs and offshore pinnacles. A vast number of these incredibly exotic reefs still remain largely unexplored. When compared to other exotic dive destinations, another of Fiji’s great virtues is that it only takes 12 hours to get there from North America’s West Coast.
Historians believe these verdant volcanic islands have been inhabited for more than 3,000 years. As recently as 100 years ago they were fearfully known as the “Cannibal Isles”. A grisly epithet that alludes to the ferocious Fijian warriors appetite for eating the brains of their captured enemies. But it was the famed “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1789 that made this far off tropic isle widely known. When the HMS Bounty mutineers put Captain William Bligh and 19 men who were loyal to him in an overladen, 23-foot open longboat, with only enough rations to reach a nearby island. Instead, Bligh and his crew set sail and traveled across 3600 miles of largely uncharted ocean and reached Timor, a remarkable 47-day open boat journey that still ranks as one of the most courageous feats of seamanship in history.
Today, Fiji ranks as being one of the most welcoming and friendliest places on earth for scuba divers. With approximately 60 diving operators scattered throughout the island chain, it is remarkably easy to experience more than one resort or dive operator during a visit. Warm turquoise waters, fantastic visibility, rainbow gardens of soft corals teaming with kaleidoscopic arrays of multicolored reef ﬁsh, turtles, manta rays, sharks and other large pelagics combine to make this by any measure an undersea paradise.
FIJI”S NORTHERN REGION
Fiji’s archipelago is roughly divided into four dive regions. Geographically isolated from the mainland, Fiji’s Northern region is notable for its abundance of soft corals in the current-swept Somosomo Straits that lie between Vanua Levu and Taveuni. Vanua Levu has fewer soft corals but a stunning mix of pristine hard corals. Amid the rugged labyrinth of islands, straits and atolls in Fiji’s North are some of the nation’s top dive sites, all within the reach of several diving resorts and a few adventure diving liveaboards.
One famous dive site is situated near the secluded island of Namena. Named for the flurry of fish activity in the converging currents that takes place there, “Grand Central Station” is one place that seemingly has it all. Dramatic underwater scenery, brilliant soft corals, fiery red whip corals, feathery crinoids, a steep wall, countless reef tropicals, large pelagics, whitetip sharks, and if the Fijian gods are smiling one might even encounter a whale shark. Night diving here was no less spectacular. A giant green sea turtle literally bumped into me during my first nocturnal foray and tiny cowries, smaller than your baby fingernail, are sometimes seen on red soft coral branches.
FIJI”S WESTERN REGION
Sprinkled like jewels just offshore, the Mamanuca and Yasawa island chains make up Fiji’s Western region. Just a short ferry ride from Nadi, about a ten-minute drive from Fiji’s main International airport, the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands are dotted with swaying palm trees and inviting sugar white sandy beaches. The local waters here feature tranquil inner reefs that are ideally suited for novice divers and dive training whereas more experienced aquanauts can still satisfy their thirst for adventure exploring the nearby ocean passages and fringing barrier reefs.
FIJI”S CENTRAL REGION
Bordered by Fiji’s three largest islands, the Koro Sea together with Bligh Water are situated in the heart of Fiji and more or less divide the northern region from the south. This Central Region is frequented mainly by diving liveaboards owing to its large expanse. The seas here wash the reefs and walls with nutrient-rich currents that support the lush proliferation of vivid soft corals.
In the Koro Sea off Wakaya Island, we dived “Cathy’s Arch.” Here we descended into a large cave with a gaping window that opened out onto a steep wall. I came across a sleeping zebra shark on a ledge at 90 feet. I only had time to squeeze off one quick exposure before the shark lifted off the bottom and vanished over the drop-off. Wakaya Wall also offered up some manta rays, blue ribbon eels, black coral trees, dogtooth tuna and decorated gobies.
Bligh Water is the fabulous stretch of ocean that separates Fiji’s two main islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. Named after the famous Captain Bligh, this narrow waterway marks the place where, after being set adrift by the crew of the Bounty, cannibals in war canoes chased Bligh and his crew away. One of Bligh Water’s premier dive sites is a huge seamount rising up from its approximate 3,000-foot ocean depths to come three feet of the surface. Known simply as E-6, this pinnacle provides a fertile substrate for a spectacular marine ecosystem.
Gorgonian coral fans, soft corals and sponges festoon the walls. Pelagic fish seem to be magnetically drawn to this seamount. It was here that I made eye-to-eye contact with a hammerhead shark. Large silvery clouds of jacks, snappers, schooling barracuda and eagle rays are plentiful. There is also a cavernous swim through here where sunlight filters down from above creating some visually striking wide-angle photo opportunities. On the seafloor, I found a geographic cone shell and foraging in the coral rubble.
FIJI”S SOUTHERN REGION
Fiji’s great southern region extends from mid-way along Viti Levu’s Coral Coast to the eastern extreme of the Fijian archipelago and all the southern islands. Beqa Lagoon is just a one hour-boat ride from Paciﬁc Harbour. An immensely popular diving area that alone is worthy of Fiji’s claim to fame as being the “Soft Coral Capital of the World,” Beqa’s legend has grown even more due to the expansion of a thrilling shark dive that features bull sharks and tiger sharks. Famed shark divers, Ron & Valerie Taylor have endorsed this shark encounter as being the “Worlds No.1 shark dive.” Lionfish and other exotic tropical fish were seen on just about every other coral head in Beqa. Clownfish with their requisite anemones were plentiful, as were the swirling clouds of orange and purple fairy basslets.
Above water, there is much to see and do in Fiji. If one happens to be staying near Pacific Harbour I would highly recommend visiting the Arts Village Center. Formerly known as the Pacific Harbour Cultural Centre, here one can step back in time for a few hours and observe how Ancient Fijians went about their traditional village lives. Entertainment includes a traditional canoe tour and daily performances by the legendary Beqa firewalkers, singing, lavish Fijian ‘meke’ (dancing), making fire and pottery making demonstrations, mock warrior battles, storytelling and legends. Local tour operators also feature a host of other tour packages such as windsurﬁng, parasailing, deep-sea fishing, sailing, trekking, horseback riding, golf, wildlife watching, jungle zip tours and river trips. Fiji’s capital, Suva, is a short car ride from Paciﬁc Harbour and offers a host of great shopping venues.
DRUMS OF THE ISLANDS
During our first visit to Fiji, Jett was invited after a fabulous day of diving to imbibe some Kava, an intoxicating social beverage and Fijian ritual drink, and strum a guitar with the Fijian dive guides who were relaxing and winding down after work. They began playing a song called, Bula Malaya. Although he could not decipher the lyrics they were singing, he instantly recognized the melody. “I knew the song as Drums of the Islands, a song that Elvis Presley had performed in his movie, Paradise, Hawaiian Style. As my fellow guitarists gave me the nod to sing the next chorus, I crooned the English version of the lyrics known to me… “If I should journey across the deep blue sea. I’ll never forget these coral shores. Drums of the islands, I hear you calling me. And I’ll return forever yours…”
FIJI DIVE OPERATOR LINKS