Underwater in Fiji

Waya Island

The reef in front of the Octopus Resort on Waya Island in Fiji starts five yards from the shore.  It has the most amazing snorkeling I have ever seen.  The reef is full of healthy and vibrant hard corals.  There are giant brain corals 20 feet in diameter, staghorn, elkhorn; more species than I can identify. I have been to several Caribbean reefs and they look wrecked compared to this reef.  Perhaps this is what the Caribbean looked like 100 years ago, before the overfishing, clumsy tourists, and coral bleaching.

Ferry coming to Waya Island
Likuliku Beach on Waya Island

There are many different kinds of fish weaving in and out of the coral.  I see bright yellow butterfly fish calmly grazing in pairs.  There are Picasso triggerfish cruising the shallows.  Bright blue damsels protect their territory from attack.  I catch a glimpse of an octopus as it slides under a ledge fifteen feet down. As I glide over a wall I see a large moray eel ducking in and out of a cavity at the base of the wall, ready to catch any tang foolish enough to swim by too close.

I see a dark cloud up ahead. It is a gigantic school of fish.  They are small, maybe six inches long, but there are thousands of them.  I find out later that they are sardines.  They form an ever changing mass about 20 yards long by 10 yards wide by 15 feet deep.  There must be ten thousand fish in the school.  I slowly glide into the school and it parts around me.  I try to be as still as possible.  The school envelopes me like I am the eye of the hurricane.  The fish circle me and from time to time I extend my hand to the moving wall of fish.  This causes a panic and the fish reverse direction and flee from the threat.  No one wants to be the fish on the outside of the school, to be eaten by a predator in the great circle of life.

Waya Island waters
The water is clear in the Yasawa Islands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon I take a refresher course in scuba diving.  I think it’s a good idea since I haven’t been diving in ten years.  The instructor is a big, burly islander named Kuki.  Another guest at the dive shop is considering taking a Discover Scuba Diving class.  She asks Kuki how experienced he is at diving.  He tells her he’s been diving every day for 19 years! Kuki runs through the skills with me in the shallow waters a few feet off shore.  I am ready for diving again.

Octopus Resort dive instructor
Kuki, one of the Octopus Resort dive instructors.

The next day Kuki takes me out into the bay off Likuliku Beach.  The first dive is at a site called Three Sisters.  We get our gear on and fall over the side.  Kuki doesn’t wear a wetsuit.  He looks like he has enough insulation as it is. We slowly descend about 30 feet. The assortment of hard corals is amazing.  Near one table coral is a cloud of tiny bright blue fish.  A school of tangs glide past us.

I follow Kuki as he winds his way along the reef. I try to relax and use only my feet, while keeping my arms folded across my chest.  My breathing slows and I achieve neutral buoyancy. Kuki stops by a bramble of coral. He points with his underwater pen at a lionfish.  We count five lionfish in this spot.  A lionfish has sharp spines to deter predators and gulps his unsuspecting dinner whole.

I see an anemone about two feet across.  It is home to two large orange clownfish nestling in the tentacles of the anemone. These fish are not quite like Nemo but a different species. A clam about one foot long slowly flaps its lips at me as I stare at its electric green color.

After 45 minutes of fabulous exploration it is time for our three minute safety stop.  We hover fifteen feet below the surface and watch the timer tick down. As I rise to the surface I’m happy with the dive.  The visibility was very good, the corals were excellent and we saw many varieties of fish.

After a break we head over to another dive site.  This one is called Octopus Garden.  I see many of the same things at this site, but because it’s so good I don’t notice until the dive is over.  The most memorable thing of this dive was seeing a large Hawksbill turtle.  I was at about 50 feet in depth and the turtle was grazing near a wall about 20 feet below me.  It hovered there for a few moments and then slowly moved away to deeper water.

Kuki gave me a high five and a fist bump once we were back to shore.  It was a great way to spend a morning in Fiji.

Waya Island
Waya Island in the Yasawas, Fiji.

The Man and the Sea

Boat in Fiji

The man rose when the dawn broke. It was early. Likuliku Beach was deserted. Time to start the quest. Waiting until later wouldn’t work. Too much to do. The sun started its march upward. The sky is clear and the winds stiff in the bay off Waya Island.

Likuliku Beach on Waya Island
A clear morning on Waya Island, Fiji.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He saw the two boat boys getting ready. One to drive and one to help the man. Three rods to improve the odds. A spare gas can. Six lures. A long pole with a hook to get it on board.

The boys greeted the man. Bula! It was the island way. The man climbed in and the helper shoved off. The man sat in front, the place of honor. The small boat raced from shore. The water was choppy.

It was a very small boat. Open to the sky with a motor that coughed its way across the bay. Nothing inside but a water bottle that rolled on the rough plywood plank that was the floor. Up with the crest of a wave. Down in the trough. Over and over.

No life jackets. No fire extinguisher. No spare rope. No tools. Not even a paddle. Far away from safety regulations went the boat boys. If the boat swamped, they would wait for the mid-morning ferry to be rescued.

No seat cushions. The man sat upon the hard board as four foot swells hit the hull. Life was good. The search was on.

Boat in Fiji
The fishing boat.

 

 

 

 

Sailfish, wahoo, yellow fin tuna. Bonito, skip jack tuna, walu. They caught them all in the bay near the small island in Fiji. The man’s heart was light.

Game fishing sign at Octopus Resort
Where are the fish?

The helper attached the lures to the three lines and cast them. One by one he cast them into the deep. Three invitations for breakfast. But who would come?

The driver set the motor to troll speed. The man was ready. He had waited for this moment. To hear the reel spin at the strike. The helper to hand the lucky rod to the man. The man to do the hard work. How to pull and reel, pull and reel, at just the right time.

Up ahead they see a disturbance in the water. Small fish jumping. Desperate they were, trying to avoid being eaten by a bigger fish. No matter the size, there is always a bigger fish. The man narrowed his eyes. Yes, many fish jumping.

No need to tell the driver. The helper sees them too. Cautiously they troll into the swarm. The lures drag through the school. One pass, two passes, three passes. No strikes.

The man is impatient. The sun is now hot. The sea is rough. The seat is hard.

The boat turned to catch the current. More fish jumping ahead. The helper changed the lures. Something bigger, and bright red. Better to catch a fish to fight the man.

More passes. Still no strikes. At the end of the bay the boat turns around. Slowly trolling back.

The man and the helper scan the waters for signs. Even the sea birds are nowhere to be found.

After a long time the boat heads back to shore. The boat boys tie up the boat and put away the rods, the spare gas can, the lures, and the pole.

The man is disappointed. He has caught nothing but a sore butt.

Walking on Likuliku Beach
Back on land, the man goes for breakfast.
Hemingways cafe
Come in, it’s mad.

Hail to the Chief

The beach at Octopus.

A special welcome ceremony is held every night that new guests arrive at the Octopus Resort on Waya Island in Fiji. The special welcome ceremony includes the kava ritual. Kava is the root of the pepper plant. One of the islanders named Moses put the kava in a cloth and soaked the kava in a pot of water. Moses then wrung out the cloth and repeated the process until the water turned a muddy brown color. After a while, he proclaimed the kava ready for the ceremony.

drinking kava
Kava in the bowl, ready for the ceremony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An older islander called Tiko greeted us new guests. He encouraged us to sit on the ground in a circle along with a couple of islanders. Tiko explained that drinking kava is a social function where people greet each other and pass the kava cup. The process begins with a newly appointed chief for the evening being given the first cup of kava. When receiving the cup, the recipient claps once, says “Bula!,” drinks the whole cup, and then claps three times. However, saying “Bula!” is only done on the first round of drinks, because after that everyone has greeted the group. When the recipient says “Bula!” the others respond in kind, and clap along with the recipient.

elder man in Fiji
Who is the chief for tonight?

“What is your name?” Tiko asked me as he stared me in the eyes.

“Bula, Tiko. My name is Steve,” I said.

“Steve, you are the chief for this evening. You will get the kava first.” said Tiko.

Great! I have never been named chief of anything before. I like this place. What perks do I get for being chief? The best hut in the village? The prettiest young island girl? A new pig for my pig pen?

“That’s very nice of you Tiko. What does being chief mean?” I asked.

“You get to drink the kava before everyone else. That is all.” said Tiko.

Tiko then nominated the guy sitting next to me to be the speaker.

“You will be the speaker,” said Tiko. “The speaker’s role is to decide whether the women around the circle will drink a full cup of kava or only one half of a cup.”

“I proclaim that the women should drink half a cup, but the men should drink two full cups per round!” said the guy. (I found out later that he is Swiss. I have had past negative experiences with certain Swiss individuals (see The Swiss Train Chief), however I made friends with him after and he was a very nice fellow.).

Tiko dunked the cup into the kava pot. He filled it to the rim and handed it to me.
I clapped, said “Bula!” and drank the cup of kava. It tasted like lukewarm dirty water. I couldn’t embarrass myself though, no gagging or regurgitation allowed. I had to down it. I drained the cup and handed it back to Tiko. He refilled it and I repeated the task. Then I clapped three times and passed the cup back to him. He filled the cup and passed it to the person on my right.

Kava is a mild narcotic. It is supposed to numb the tongue and relax the drinker. I wondered who discovered this substance and how it got to become such a ritual. Did some enterprising islander hundreds of years ago start chewing on a plant root, catch a buzz, and tell his friends?

“Hey guys, look what I found out. Take this plant root and chew on it!”

“You’re crazy. Get back to work filleting the fish for dinner tonight!”

Despite having drunk a fair amount of kava, I didn’t feel the effects. Maybe I am immune to kava because it rhymes with java and I don’t like coffee.

The beach at Octopus.
Hey! Gandalf needs his hat back!

Bula! Welcome to Fiji

Likuliku Beach on Waya Island

The two man band played their guitars and sang a local favorite while the resort staff stood in a line leading from the waterline across the sand towards the resort.  The staff members were dressed in brightly colored floral print shirts and dark skirts.  Each incoming guest jumped with a splash from the small boat into the last foot of the Pacific Ocean. “Bula!” said each staff member as they shook hands with each guest.

Bula means hello in Fijian. The Fijian without exception are a friendly people who smile and say Bula! whenever they see another.  I immediately took a liking to the word.  It is so much nicer than a curt “hi,” which sounds like a karate chop.  Bula!  It rolls off the tongue with warmth and feeling.  Booooo-laaaaa!

Fijian welcome
A Fijian welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had come from the Vuda Marina on one of the main islands of Fiji called Viti Levu.  When I got to the marina from the Nadi International Airport I immediately thought of the start of the Gilligan’s Island TV show.  The theme song played in my head as a small group of passengers gathered to board a dive boat for the ride to the resort.  There were two British honeymooners, four young female German backpackers, a family from New Zealand, two elderly Australian sisters, and me.  The movie star, the millionaires, and the professor evidently got lost on the way to the marina.  Instead of the Skipper and Gilligan, we had a very competent crew of three Fijian islanders who clearly had grown up on the water.

I was glad it was no three hour trip.  The seas were choppy and the ride was rough for half that time as we left Viti Levu for Waya Island in the Yasawa Island group, northwest of Viti Levu.  The Yasawas are on the drier and sunnier side of Fiji and consist of a dozen or more small islands.  The resorts on these islands are typically small and rustic, giving visitors the true Pacific island experience.  If you want the amenities of the Westin or the Sheraton, stay on Viti Lev

Map of Fiji
Fiji

My destination was the Octopus Resort.  The Octopus is a small resort on Waya Island having about 20 garden bures, a few beachfront bures, a lodge, and a backpacker dorm.  A bure is a freestanding small building.  You could call it a hut, but it is much nicer than that.  My bure was on the beach at one end of the resort, next to a curving arc of three hundred yards of deserted beach.  The bure had a shower in the bathroom that had no roof!  I could look to the skies while showering under the rain-type shower head, just as if I was standing in the tropical rain.

Fiji island hut
A fine beachfront bure at the Octopus Resort

There were at most 60 guests at the resort and all meals were served on large tables at designated times in the dining room.  I had never stayed at an all-inclusive resort before.  Here it was required because the island is so small and remote, there are no roads and no cars.  All supplies are brought in by boat.  There is nowhere else to go for a meal, no stores, no fast food restaurants, no signs, and no bombardment of the modern world to your senses.

Octopus Resort on Waya Island
Welcome to Paradise, Fiji style

There is soft light yellow sand everywhere, even for the floor of the dining room.  I am not wearing shoes for a week.

The only other inhabited place on the island is a tiny village of about 30 homes. The village is on the other side of the island, and most of the staff members live in the village and walk over a large hill to get to the resort.  The resort provides much needed jobs and an economic lift to the island.  Without it, fishing is the main livelihood.  The staff members are very friendly and helpful, you don’t see the resentment or indifference that is evident in many tourist destinations. They quickly learn the name of each guest and warmly greet them. At one time Fiji was a British commonwealth nation, so they speak English here.  The islanders speak English to the guests and Fijian among themselves.

bartender brothers in Fiji
The bartender brothers at the Octopus

There is no school in the village so the children go to a boarding school on Viti Levu.  All of the children in first grade through eighth grade live in the same dormitory.  On Sunday afternoon the children climbed into a fishing boat for the long ride to school.  Each child grabbed a backpack, enjoyed an ice cream treat, hugged their mother and father, and went away until Friday afternoon.

The village has a small Methodist church.  On Sunday morning I hiked over the hill with Tairata, one of the resort staff members, to attend the service.  The villager women were clothed in fine dresses and the men wore ties.  The children sat together in the first few pews and fidgeted like kids do.  It started with beautiful singing by the choir.  Then an old man stood up in the front corner of the room.  He was dressed in a dark suit and sported dark sunglasses.  I don’t know if he was blind but he sure looked a lot like Ray Charles.  He began a long monologue in Fijian. Tairata told me that this man was the chief of the village.  When Ray Charles was done and the minister stood up, I snuck out.  The service was entirely in Fijian and would last for three hours…

It’s a very different lifestyle here from the typical American existence.  It’s a perfect place to disconnect from the Internet, emails, smartphones, and the 24 hour news cycle.  Soak up the sun, swim, snorkel, and dive.  Time to relax.

Bula!

Likuliku Beach on Waya Island
Likuliku Beach on Waya Island