Exploring the Outer Islands with the Fiji Aggressor II

The three large islands of Fiji and the many small ones offer divers a wide assortment of experiences. There are gardens of brilliant soft corals, swift currents full of sharks and other pelagics, also tiny critters hiding in the sea fans and crevices. Many of the best dive sites can be reached from land but may require long boat trips. Live-aboard diving is by far the best way to reach these outer sites. Some are just too far for day trips and can only be reached on a live-aboard.

Few liveaboards operate in Fiji but the Sere-Ni-Wai, which translates to Song of the Sea, has nearly twenty years of diving experience and thus found many of the best dive sites. This one of the most luxurious and well-equipped dive boats that I have ever been on. With a maximum number of ten guests and a crew of seven, it is even more luxurious.

Now part of the Aggressor Fleet and renamed the Fiji Aggressor II, it provides a very personal way to experience Fiji. Leaving from the Tradewinds Hotel just west of Suva, we cruise past the city into the Koro Sea on a quest for the best diving. Standing on the large forward deck, the wind in our face, we slip past Ovalau, seat of the original Fijian government. On the horizon the tropical sunset is aglow.

We are on a quest of Fiji's best: soft corals. Anthozoa, from the Greek word meaning "flower animal," contains soft corals admired for their delicate beauty. Fiji has some of the best soft coral growths in the world and the area we seek promises to be the best areas within Fiji. In fact, discovering and photographing soft corals is a main reason for venturing beneath the sea as these gardens display a pallette of every conceivable color.

As the evening darkens and the stars emerge, we are graced with calm seas. We cruise to the quiet harbor behind the reef that fringes the island of Makogai and eagerly await the morning and our first dive in search of the fine soft corals of Fiji.

The Adventure Begins

East of Viti Levu are a group of islands with some of the best diving to be found anywhere in Fiji. The Fiji Aggressor II has been frequenting these waters for many years and knows well the dive sites that surround the islands of Makogai (24-26), Wakaya (28-30) and Gau (31-33). Many of these sites can only be reached by live-aboards.


Captain Fritz decided that the calm weather would allow us to visit Namena and the Vatu-i-Ra Channel next, saving Wakaya and Gau for the end of the trip. He likes to end the trip with the Island of Gau as it offers a wonderful local village experience and is within an easy day's journey of home.

We began two days of diving with Ron's Delite, a large bommie with lionfish, sea fans, black and white snapper and what we came for: brilliant soft corals! Rick's Rocks were also covered with magnificent soft corals which Lynn remarked were the best she had ever seen. After another day in the waters around Makogai and a night dive to Ron's Delite, we seamed off in the middle of the night to Namena Reef.

Earlier in our trip we had the opportunity to dive Namena Reef with both Cousteau L'Aventure and Moody's Namena divers. Each dive was spectacular and some of the best in all of Fiji. Now on the Aggressor we had returned to Namena to dive from the convenience of our luxury live-aboard.

We previously visited North Save-a-Tack Pass but it was very different than before. The effect of the tides in this passage is pronounced. It is best viewed on the incoming tide as the visibility is much better than out-going. Currents can be a problem so it is important to hit the tides just right for the clear water and big animals but not too much current to force us to hold on to the rocks.

We went out in the skiff and dropped down to the pinnacle. Then we swam alongside schools of barracuda, jacks and baby reef sharks. We swam along a white sand ocean floor with patches of garden eels in the distance. Drifting up I was surrounded by a large school of barracuda which took me away from the group while I photographed the swirling mass.

Back on course I passed through a large arch to find Lynn and the others waiting. Here several sweetlips hung motionless beneath the overhang. We than reached the Window of Dreams; a beautiful opening in the reef covered with sea fans, whip coral and delicate soft corals. A sprinkle of tiny pink anthias fish completed the picture.

Keenan's Reef was another classic Namena reef with complexity, beautiful deep rich colors, fish galore and brilliant soft corals. Large groupers and lots of butterflyfish filled the surroundings. Within the crevices were several different nudibranchs including the common black nudi with white and yellow bumps. I found and photographed one that I had never seen before. On a delicate pink body with white bumps, black lines highlighted its shape. The Namena diving is so full with colors and critters, changing endlessly, that one may never tire of it!

Vatu-i-Ra Channel

One of the excellent things about the Aggressor and the way the trip is planned is how the ship is moved between dive locations. The timing of the moves is done in a way to maximize the number of dives while minimizing the inconvenience. We left Namena in the early hours so we could arrive in the Vatu-i-Ra Channel in time for our first morning dive.

The Vatu-i-Ra Channel is a little more than halfway to Viti Levu and about an hour from the Rakiraki area. This is a very favorite area for divers and photographers with such famous dive sites as E-6 and Hi-8. Both named after types of film and video formats, these sites always promise great photographic opportunities.

We dropped into Hi-8 also called Mount Mutiny. It is a large pinnacle with channels and a very prehistoric landscape. The top of the reef comes within 2 feet of the surface but drops off steeply to below two thousand feet. Diving on Nitrox is always a plus and the Aggressor has a ready supply. I have been certified for the past few years but Lynn was not, s I urged her to take the class offered by Joe, our lead divemaster and specialty instructor. The dive plan called for a dive no more than 132 feet so we watched our depth while we looking for photo-ops.

We swam through a mixture of pristine hard-corals, patches of colorful soft corals and the occasional anemones with their resident clownfish. The visibility here is excellent since the channel is far from land. The soft corals peppered all the way down below our safe-Nitrox level. White-tipped sharks rested in caves being cleared. Turtles are common and while I swam off to video one, Lynn too found cooperative subjects to photograph with her small housed Olympus camera.

Wakaya

In the afternoon of our second day in the Vatu-i-Ra Channel, Captain Fritz moved the ship to Wakaya Reef. We arrived in time for a night dive before a late dinner. The island is owned by David Gilmore of Fiji Water, who also operates the island resort which caters to the likes of Nicole Kidman and other movie stars.

There is nothing like being on the water in the Southern Hemisphere under a warm, clear, star-filled night. We dipped into the currentless waters as the stars were coming out and the seas were settling in for a quiet night.
Almost immediately we came across huge lobsters with black and white stripes and enormous antennae. We then turned off our dive lights to watch the swirling night dance of the flashlight fish.

Under a rock I spied a turquoise parrotfish sleeping within his cocoon. The tent can be built only once each night to provide protection for the sleeping fish. If the parrotfish to disturbed too much and is forced to flee, it will be very vulnerable for the rest of the night.

Joe found his two pet lionfish which he named Ben and Jerry. Lionfish are really not dangerous but you do not want to touch them as their spines can inflict extremely painful, in some cases fatal, wounds and will stand their ground if harassed. The problem with Ben and Jerry is that they are very friendly and will approach closely--almost too closely! We found ourselves frequently looking over our shoulders in the dark water to see if Ben or Jerry was following behind.

Wakaya reef is known for its manta ray cleaning station. We attempted to find mantas without luck. The visibility of the water was excellent, nearly 200 feet. Mantas favor dirtier water full of plankton so their were not to be found. There were plenty of other subjects such as blue ribbon eels and Lynn's favorite, the clown triggerfish.

The Island of Gau

Our last destination was the island of Gau (pronounced "now"). This is a special place not only because of great dive sites such as Jim's Alley, Gau Wall and Nagali Passage but also because of the local Fijians.

Jim's Alley, named after Jim Church, a well-known photographer who frequented the area, is a long straight channel a little sparse but an excellent spot to look for tiny critters. Jim loved this area and spent endless hours combing the area for macro-photo images. It was not long before we came across the rare and famous red anemone in the rocks. Black and white banded sea snakes patrolled the area for tiny fish. Nudibranchs of all sizes and colors clung to the walls of the channel waiting to be photographed.
One of the highlights of the trip is the Nagali Passage shark feed. Moses, our Fijian divemaster, is fearless, to a point were he loses little bits of his fingers from time to time. The dive is done from the "bleachers," a perfect rock ledge were everyone can crouch while the hungry sharks dart over our heads.

As a group, we swam down the channel and positioned ourselves in the bleachers. I was taking video and was allowed to sit just to Moses' right. He began the hand feeding but the poor sharks were the last to be fed as butterfly and trigger fish in countless numbers helped themselves without the slightest concern for the large sharks. This was so much fun that we came back the next day for another session.

A giant brown marbled grouper named Leroy is one of Joe's special underwater friends and a constant participant in the feeding. When Joe did not see Leroy, he feared that the locals may have snagged this very friendly grouper. On the second day, Joe was relieved as Leroy was in attendance. Joe thought he looked a little thin as if he had been away mating with little time to eat. Leroy eagerly helped himself to some big chunks of fish offered from Moses' outstretched hand.

The local villagers of Gau have kept their traditions and have very few outside visitors. More of Joe's special friends welcome the Fiji Aggressor's guests to their village and perform a "mele" with song and dance. We have attended many such ceremonies but this was by far the best.

In the traditional kava ceremony the village starts with mixing the brew, then giving the first cup to the male guest. The mixer claps with cupped hands before and after the mixture has been prepared. The server or the cup-bearer will then carry the bilo (coconut shell cup) to the chief guest, who must "cobo" (clap three times) before and after drinking. The bilo must be emptied and handed to the cup-bearer, who again must clap to declare the cup has been emptied.

After everyone has "drunk" their fill, the music, singing and dancing begins. Meanwhile the "lovo" which is a specially prepared cooking pit, simmers. After the ceremony ends with a speech from one of the village leaders stating their appreciation for our visit and donations to the Post Office building fund, we returned to the Aggressor with our lovo dinner.

The next morning was our last day and we were up early eager to enter the water. Gau Wall is a big wall but not too steep. Here we saw several whitetip sharks, a loggerhead turtle and more of the colorful fish that makes Fiji such a great destination. I caught the tail of a very large hammerhead shark on film but missed the manta that others had spotted. Now with over twenty dives off the Fiji Aggressor II, I still wanted more.

We set sail for home and savored our last hours cruising tropical islands upon the sparkling Fijian waters. Our luxury floating hotel, fine food, great crew and new-found friends combined with world-class diving to make this a very memorable adventure. In the very short period of seven days, we have traveled to the best reefs Fiji has to offer, condensing several explorations into one action-packed adventure.