Fiji has always been that dream place that I never quite reach. Which you might think strange since I lived there for 4 months and have returned to visit. But I feel I have barely scratched the surface of this wonderful place.
Fiji is famous for its incredible coral, the mantas of the Yasawas, the Archipelago reef in the south, and of course the sharks of Beqa Lagoon (pronounced mBenga)! Fiji has something to offer everyone. And of course set in a tropical paradise, among palm trees and smiling south pacific people.
Fijian people are some of the warmest and friendliest people I have ever met. Their smiles can mend any broken heart or fix any problem. The day I left to the farewell song of Isa Lei was full of so many mixed emotions. I felt my heart in my chest every time I heard it or sang it when guests were leaving the resort. Not from the sorrow of new friends departing. But from the sweet melody of the beautiful Fijian voices tugging at my heart strings.
Fijian’s ebullient nature overcame the mind boggles by far. Rather than ask for a light bulb they would steal the one that hung over the compressor so that I would have to pump tanks in the dark. Two tanks at a time. It would be a long dark night. One smile and all was forgiven.
I spent many nights drinking Kava with Fijian friends. They are musical people and there would always be a guitar and singing. The coconut shell must be completely drained in one draft, so choose “low tide”, “half tide” or “full tide” based on your capacity! I soon acquired a taste for the slightly bitter earthy drink. And no preservatives!
It was an adventure just arriving at my home on a tiny wild island in north-east Fiji. Qamea (pronounced Gamea), on the far side of Taveuni is reached first by tiny seaplane (my first!) and then by boat. It was the only resort on the island, which looked like the set from the TV series “Lost”.
Although the resort was beautiful, life was also simple. Many of the staff lived in a nearby fishing village. The water was clear and blue and warm. The white sandy beach was lined with palm trees. It was idyllic. I thought I would never leave. But it was too remote even for me, and I decided to say goodbye to paradise after only 4 months.
Diving was mainly from a small aluminium tinnie, although there was a pretty shore dive to a house reef where there were resident lion fish, anemone fish and shovel nosed rays! Once when I put my hand down on the sandy bottom I accidentally found a star gazer by feel. Of course it bit me. A lesson not to touch anything, even when it just looks like empty sand.
Nearby was “purple wall” which when the tide was right was covered with incredible purple soft corals feeding on the nutrients brought by the current. Another site imaginatively named “cabbage patch” was a huge reef of cabbage coral which from above looked like an endless salad of lettuce or cabbage hearts. It was a good place to spot black tip reef sharks or eagle rays.
Taveuni and the Somosomo Straight are famous for “white wall” and “yellow wall” which surprisingly are walls covered in exclusively white (so white it glows blue!) and yellow soft corals. A dive on white wall was my first real experience of current and it made me feel like a beginner again. My habit of jumping from the boat with my fins under my arm and putting them on in the water was not a good idea here! I had to swim like hell to avoid missing the dive site completely. Another lesson learned! Years later from more experience in currents in Indonesia, I have now mastered the negative entry!
In fact, Fiji is a country made up of around 330 small volcanic islands. Each is unique and the marine life is different in every area. Taveuni where I lived is known mainly for its stunning soft coral. The entire island is a massive dormant shield volcano almost completely composed of fluid lava flows.
The Yasawa Islands in western Fiji (where I was not lucky enough to dive) are famous for manta rays. Its beautiful white sandy beaches are also where “The Blue Lagoon” were filmed in both 1949 and 1980.
The archipelago reef of Kadavu (pronounced Kandavu), is part of the Great Astrolabe Reef which runs around the southern perimeter of Fiji. This barrier reef is populated by a myriad of macro life, stunning soft corals, mantas, billfish, trevally, mahi mahi and numerous species of large sharks. But if we are talking sharks, you really need to go to Beqa Lagoon!
Beqa Lagoon is an exciting place to visit both above and below the waves. The Sawau clan of Beqa is famous for their traditional practice of fire walking. It is an electrifying spectacle where young men test their courage by walking barefoot across a bed of burning embers.
Underwater Beqa is known for its shark feed, where several different species can be seen. Blacktip and whitetip and grey reef sharks can be seen year round. Regular reef dwellers are lemon sharks, silvertips and nurse sharks, but they are more sporadic and unpredictable in their visits. They probably live nearby, perhaps deeper in the channel, and show up on the reef after the feed begins.
The main attraction, bull sharks, are seasonal, with higher numbers being seen from January to August. I dived the shark feed in low season and was thrilled to see around 15 large bull sharks. The crew thought this was a boring day. In high season as many as 110 bulls can be seen on one dive! Imagine!
There are also five tiger sharks which have been known to visit the reef. One large female is particularly famous. Unfortunately, she didn’t come out to play on the day that I was there.
This brings us to the discussion surrounding shark feeding or baiting for sharks. It is definitely an issue which divides people. I used to think that it was a dangerous practice and that by feeding sharks we were interfering with their natural behaviour. For sure it is an amazing experience to see these beautiful animals in the wild in spontaneous “lucky” encounters. But as I have become more educated about sharks and learned to love them more and more, my opinion about shark feeding has slowly changed.
Although it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk, with good management of shark feeding attractions it can be minimized. The feed in Beqa is well run with divers placed behind a low rocky wall while chainmail clad staff feed sharks from a bucket several metres away. Safety divers are also in place. There are rules designed to make it as safe and enjoyable experience as possible. Nothing is guaranteed, but I felt both the thrill of the dive but also safe, and of course wanted to be closer! I entered the water fully informed and at my own risk.
But I could go on about sharks for hours! This is a topic which deserves a blog entirely of its own. Tune in to next month!
In any case, Fiji has something special and for sure one day I will go back. If you are into macro or pretty coral, it is there in abundance. If you are an adrenaline junkie and want to experience shark and manta encounters up close and personal, they’ve got that covered too! And if all you want to do is lie on a pristine white sandy beach, drinking from a glass with a little umbrella in it, there will be a beautiful Fijian with a flowery shirt and a smile you could fall into to bring it for you.