For British divers, Fiji represents the ultimate escape: it lies some 2,000 miles northeast of Australia and 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Fiji's reefs are rich in marine life
Zoom in – a banded sea snake swims along a reef in the Somosomo Strait, between the Fijian islands of Taveuni and Vanua Levu. The snake’s undulating body mirrors the contours of the reef as it scans every crevice and hole in its path, checking for small fish and other prey. The snake is among the most poisonous in the world, and they are common in Fiji, but divers have learned to love them because they are peaceful, curious animals that do us no harm.
Zoom out – the snake’s territory is a sloping wall adorned with a twisting, skeletal mass of hard coral, which gives way to forests of red gorgonian corals as you descend beyond 20m. Fiji is famous for colour on a grand scale, and the Taveuni area is one of the best places to experience it. Zoom out once more and you will see that this reef is part of a living mosaic, stretching across a million square miles of azure Pacific.
So, welcome to Fiji – soft coral capital of the world, sugar cane capital of the Pacific and all-round Paradise on Earth. Fiji is as famous for its welcoming people as it is for its lush scenery, both factors that make it a popular honeymoon destination. Recreational diving started here in the 1970s, with each region having its own pioneers. As photographs began to circulate, the country became noted among the international diving community for its colourful reefs, and that reputation persists today.
The diving, it must be said, is extremely good – but it’s not perfect. There are few shipwrecks of note in Fijian waters (although several artificial reefs have been sunk), and its dive sites do not have the array of unusual benthic creatures that can be found at Papua New Guinea and Indonesia to the west.
However, some recent discoveries have helped to broaden the scope of diving in Fiji. In particular, several manta ray sites have been identified, most famously Manta Reef off Kadavu Island. Another world-class diving spot is the bull shark feed at Beqa Lagoon on the south side of the main island, Viti Levu, where it is possible to see seven different species of shark on a single dive.
Left to right: This massive brain coral at Taveuni stands 7m high; soft corals at Bligh Water
Located on the southern side of the main island of Viti Levu, divers are drawn to two specific attractions – soft coral and extremely big sharks. Just a ten-minute ride offshore by fast catamaran is Shark Reef Marine Reserve, a multi-tiered site where several types of shark are baited up from deep water.
On a single dive, it is possible to see bull, lemon, nurse, black-tip, silver-tip grey reef and even tiger sharks. You pay for a package of two dives – on the first, feeding takes place at 30m, 15m and 5m, with different sharks becoming bold at different depths. The bull sharks have grown huge on a free diet of tuna heads handed out by the fearless Fijian dive guides. It sounds amazing, but it’s also quite chaotic – for the most part, giant trevally and rainbow runners swirl around, obscuring the view. You only really see the sharks by peering through the mass of fish, or when they venture up to take a piece of fish. Light levels and visibility are both low, and detritus spreading from the fish box, a wheelie bin, helps neither. Divers are instructed to view the feed from behind a bank of coral rubble. The lagoon is protected by a barrier reef noted for its soft corals. There are even a couple of purposely-sunk shipwrecks here, the best of which is a 40m fishing vessel, which lies at 32m and has been colonised by brittlestars, crinoids and soft corals. The site is named Rusi’s Pinnacle, after a nearby bommie noted for its fish life.
Left to right:Bull sharks at Bequ Lagoon; crinoids and soft corals at Taveuni
The expensive but well-appointed Pearl Pacific Resort www.pacific-resorts.com is the upmarket option for shark divers in the Beqa Lagoon area. The food is excellent, but – a quibble – the place is slightly lacking in Fijian atmosphere. However, it is two hours from the international airport at Nadi and presents an excellent place to start off a tour of Fiji. Double rooms cost from £105 per night. For the sharks, we recommend Beqa Adventure Divers www.fiji-sharks.com , tel: 00 679 345 0911), which charges around £110 for two shark dives, or £320 for a three-day big-fish special. Reef dives are less expensive.
On the northernmost tip of Viti Levu you will find several resorts devoted to diving the soft coral and general reef sites for which this region is renowned. Most of the diving takes place on pinnacles and bommies that rise from a reef plateau at about 36m. It is one of the best places for typical Fijian colour, as the gorgonian fans appear in shades of red, yellow and gold.
A barrier reef protects the headland here, but fast currents still course through the coral channels each day, providing the perfect conditions for Alcyonacea soft coral to thrive. The area is of sufficient quality to attract visits from the leading liveaboards, which have a million square miles of Pacific to choose from.
A typical dive site here is one called Mushroom, where a dozen coral heads rise from the bottom at 18m, decked in red gorgonian fans. In places, the coral heads join to create mini tunnel systems patrolled by emperor angelfish and coral grouper. As with many of the sites here, it is easy to spot nudibranchs and anemonefish, but other macro life is thin on the ground. In mid-water, you may see smallish schools of skittish barracuda or jacks: Bligh Water is not noted for its fish life, but there are regular visits from snappers and jacks.
Beyond the protection of the reef there are deep seamounts, which attract pelagics in greater numbers. One such dive is Breathtaker, a series of three coral heads between 25 and 30m, with a drop-off to 100m. Alongside sea fans, divers regularly see schools of skipjack tuna and grey reef sharks. Manta rays are also seen around these deeper reefs, but you need settled weather to dive them.
A Mants ray hovers above hard corals at Manta Reef on the Great Astolabe reef
One of the most civilised places to stay when diving Bligh Water is Wananavu www.wananavu.com, a beach resort built into coastal hills on the mainland. Accommodation is in shoreside ‘burres’, the word for a traditional Fijian house or villa. Inside, you get natty design, a big bathroom, a minibar and a private terrace (ideal for drying your kit at the end of your week). Wananavu serves excellent and sensibly priced meals, including Fijian and international dishes.
For diving, we can recommend Ra Divers, based offshore on the island of Nananu-I-Ra. Owned by New Zealander Steve Darling, they have fast boats and will collect you from the marina at Wananavu. Ra Divers (www.radivers.com) is based at Volivoli Beach, which is also home to a snazzy but laidback backpackers resort www.volivoli.com. It offers great potential for club visits, as there is a range of accommodation including dorm options from £8 per person per night. The restaurant serves staple favourites (try the kiwi burger – and see if you can walk afterwards), but self-catering facilities are available.
Left to right: Clark's annemonefish; banded sea snake.
Taveuni and Savusavu
Arguably the most beautiful of the larger islands, Taveuni sits to the north of Viti Levu and is home to Fiji’s most famous soft coral dives. Known as ‘the garden island’ due to its landscape of rainforests and waterfalls, it is as popular with hikers as it is with divers, so take every opportunity to explore on land if you come here.
The classic dive sites are found in the Somosomo Strait between Taveuni and the island of Vanua Levu. Until Beqa Lagoon’s shark dive came on the scene, the Great White Wall was probably the most famous dive in Fiji. At the entrance of the strait, a great expanse of wall is covered with giant fronds of white soft coral, which appears light-blue at depth (the soft coral growth begins at about 20m). Other nearby sites in a similar vein include the self-explanatory Purple Wall and Rainbow Passage, where a series of coral bommies are covered in colourful invertebrate life and attract a variety of reef and semi-pelagic fish.
Several vessels ply this area – one alternative to the traditional liveaboard option is the liveaboard Tui Tai, a 40m sailing schooner that operates out of Savusavu and tends to operate generalist tours. The idea is to provide a trip that offers a broad base of activities, while still allowing two or three dives a day. The boat is packed with mountain bikes and kayaks, so that practically every minute of the day is planned with land adventures, dives and the all-important village visits.
DIVE made it abundantly clear which activities it was most interested in during its time on the Tui Tai, and to its credit, the crew managed to schedule a few extra dives to help our research. The cruises do take in some of the key sites, but the generalist nature of the trip means that first-class diving is not always the boat’s priority. That said, the crew excels in ensuring you get the complete Fiji experience – hiking to sacred spots, knocking back Kava with friendly villagers, kayaking around sunken calderas and generally having fun under the sun.
The vessel itself is big and looks a bit tatty at deck level, but the cabins have been thoroughly refitted and ensure hot showers and air conditioning on demand. Meals are usually served on the spacious upper deck, where a large area is set aside for scatter cushions. There is even an on-board masseuse, although the prices were slightly higher than at any of the resorts we visited, at 90 Fiji Dollars (about £28) for an hour of pleasant pummelling. Book it! The Tui Tai has a variety of payment schemes based on your choice of cabin, and there is an option to include internal flight costs. However, the basic three-night cruise costs £815 and the five night costs £1,109 and there are additional charges for diving. For full details go to www.tui-tai.com.
Diver views Staghorn coral
The Great Astrolabe Reef
Some of the most spectacular hard-coral formations in the world can be found along the Great Astrolabe, an immense barrier reef that protects the southern and eastern shores of the Kadavu island group. Diving here can be challenging, as the channels between the reefs and the outer sea can be subject to fast currents and heavy swell. Still, the reef diving is of the highest standard, and there is still scope for discovery.
One of the more mellow attractions in this area is Fiji’s ‘other’ big animal dive, Manta Reef. The reef starts at 12m and drops down to about 26m on either side, but you only really need to go deep for the first few minutes, to allow the mantas to get used to your presence. They tend to occupy the top of the reef, and move away if you invade their territory too early in the dive. Mantas visit this reef regularly to socialise, feed and be cleaned – and local operators at Matava dive resort claim a 70 per cent success rate in finding them. DIVE saw between two and six rays here over six successive visits, but they are quite shy and should be approached with maximum caution, lest they depart.
Elsewhere, the Astrolabe has some thrilling drift dives, where you can encounter unusual ‘up’ currents, which send you swirling up the water column by four or five metres before spitting you out. It’s more frustrating than dangerous, but it does add to the thrill of diving these waters. Typical Fijian soft coral sites are on offer every day, but visitors should ask to dive Big Point, a new site discovered by the guys at Matava. This is a hidden reef promontory that extends outwards from the main reef, far into the open Pacific. It has semi-resident schools of jacks and barracuda, but it is fast acquiring a name as a place for unexpected encounters – whale shark and mobula rays were both present during DIVE’s visit, to the amazement of local divers who say such creatures are ‘never’ seen on the Astrolabe.
Left to right: Viti Levu hilside scenery; Tui Tai liveaboard
We have little hesitation in recommending Matava resort as a base for diving the Great Astrolabe and Manta Reef. It’s a small eco-resort on Kadavu Island run by three friends; with some of the friendliest staff we have found anywhere. There is no road network to speak of in Kadavu, so it’s a 50-minute ride by fast boat to the resort. Once you’re there, the concerns of day to day life just melt away – the burres or huts are set against a hill with panoramic views of the Great Astrolabe and a small island just offshore (ideal for kayaks and snorkelling).
The owners are a laid-back bunch, but the place is extremely well run and has a very homely feel; it’s like becoming part of a very cool family who spend all their time diving and drinking Kava. To stay at Matava is to experience Fiji at its most alluring.
UK agent Scuba Safaris (www.scuba-safaris.com, phone 01342 851196) can arrange full packages to Matava and elsewhere in Fiji, or contact the resort direct www.matava.com. There is a series of charges for the different types of accommodation, plus meals packages – you can spend between £40 and £80 a day, depending on your choices. A package of ten dives costs £180 and the resort offers discounts for those who settle in cash (Fijian or US dollars).
Generally, you will spend your surface time visiting villages and hiking to waterfalls. The people of Fiji have an especially strong and welcoming culture, and a visit to a traditional community is a rewarding experience. Fijians love to sing, and their gentle music, combined with the subtle narcotic effects of the Kava ritual, will ensure you have very special memories to cherish. A word about Kava – it is a drink created by crushing and brewing the pepper plant. Its effects range from a mild numbness to near-complete loss of motor function, depending on strength and quantity consumed. Most resorts and liveaboards offer village visits, but the Fijians tend to reserve the most potent Kava for private use.
July to September is the Fijian winter, with water temperatures down to 23–25ºC and visibility generally reaching 30m. From November to April, seas are calmer but the water is less clear as temperatures of 28–29ºC promote plankton growth.
Whether you go it alone or use a tour operator to devise a package, the main choice is to fly with Air New Zealand via Los Angeles, or with Korean Air via Seoul. There’s not much to choose between the two, though you do get a stopover in a good hotel in Seoul to break up the trip on the return flight. Both routes involve two long flights, totalling 20 hours in the air. Internal flights around Fiji are huge fun and offer great photo opportunities – DIVE used Sun Air, which offered a similarly faultless service. You’ll find that 20kg hold luggage limits apply throughout, though some agents may be able to secure an extra 10kg for divers.
What to pack
The less the better! It’s T-shirts and shorts, with a good hat and plenty of high-SPF suntan cream. Those of a tender disposition may wish to bring ‘something warmer’ for the evenings. Water temperatures vary, but a 3mm full suit will serve you well, with a hood and gloves for those who feel the cold. Finally, bring pair of trainers for hiking and a pair of reef shoes for the inevitable wet landings. Women and men are expected to have their knees covered during village visits.
Flight time: 20 hours approximately
Time difference from UK: 12 hours AHEAD
Currency: Fijian Dollar
Exchange rate: £1 = 3.23 FJD
Summer Water temperature: 28–29ºc
Average visibility: 25–30m
Dive Worldwide organised DIVE’s research trip with the help of the Fiji Visitors Bureau, Korean Air and Sun Air. All of the resorts and vessels listed here can be booked by contacting Dive Worldwide’s office on the number below. Especial thanks to Andrew Cumming of Beqa Dive Adventures, who saved our skins by providing a three-pin Australia-style adapter plug.
0845 130 6980
Fiji is undoubtedly one of the most exotic and romantic of the world’s diving destinations. However, to get the most from it, you have to be prepared to travel around. It is fair to say that the coral remains the primary draw (and wreck divers will not find much of interest), but the presence of big fish at several locations has added an extra dimension to the underwater scene. For the UK-based diver, it may seem a distant and costly destination, but there are many affordable options and the magical nature of the place means getting there is more than worth the effort.
For purists, the two most popular liveaboards are the Nai’a and the Fiji Aggressor II, both of which offer packed itineraries. The operators of the Nai’a maintain that the islands around Viti Levu in central Fiji offer the best diving.
www.naia.com.fj Fiji Aggressor II
020 8741 4319
0845 130 6980
www.scuba-safaris.com Plate corals on the Great Astrolabe Reef