Chelonia mydas is going for the air edit.
Credit: Brocken Inaglory

By Tim Johnson

As the clouds slowly cleared and the misty rain that had beset us for the previous two days lifted, I began to gain a truer appreciation of this beautiful place.

I was bobbing in a zodiac out on the aquamarine waters that form channels and inlets and bays all through Fiji’s famed Yasawa Islands, a spray of green hills and sandy beaches that reach north from Viti Levu, the nation’s biggest island. We were close to the mountainous spot shared by Tom Hanks (and his best friend Wilson) in the movie Cast Away, nearing the small cove made famous in the (terrible) Brooke Shields movie of the same name — the Blue Lagoon. Doing a final check of our equipment, our dive leader, James — who, for whatever reason went by the name Lionel — gave us one final exhortation.

“Get ready for something amazing, folks. You’re never going to forget this,” he said, cheerily. I then flopped, head over heels over the side, and into a world more colourful than any I’d ever seen before.

Holding a rather dubious scuba licence, acquired after a very lax training program a few months prior at an island resort in east Africa, I was here to explore as much of this underwater world as possible — before anyone caught on that my certification may not be exactly, well, valid. In search of everything from a rainbow of fish to big sharks, I plied the waters of this island paradise, a place where coral reefs surround most of the 333 islands that make up Fiji, which is often known as the “soft coral capital of the world.” And — as promised — exploring just a tiny slice of their 10,360-sq-km of reef was an experience that I won’t soon forget.

In and around the Blue Lagoon, I found a very different world than the one on top. While winds and rain hampered conditions on the surface — the leftovers of an outer band of a tropical cyclone — life down below couldn’t have been more peaceful. I swam amongst multicoloured corals — vast mountains and canyons of them, running off in every direction, as far as my mask-bound eyes could see. This coral was the lifeblood of an underground ecosystem that was at least as vibrant and vital as the one on land, all around. I marvelled at the sight of flashing goldrim surgeonfish, tiny, slippery brown-barred gobys, dour-looking goatfish and about a million more. On this, and another dive, a few days later in the Yasawas, I couldn’t believe the biodiversity — it was, without a doubt, one the most colourful and fascinating worlds I have ever visited, a kaleidoscope where patterns were never repeated.

But soon, Fiji’s other great pastime — that is, relaxing — started to get the better of me, and I started enjoying the fish in different ways. At Qamea Resort, a small, private-island hideaway, I took out gear, only to have it sit, untouched, on my small patio while I dozed next to it, in a hammock (an “activity” promoted in Fiji under the name, “hammocking.”) I took short trips underwater with a snorkel, cruising around an oyster farm, or spending a bit of time just off the each. And I feasted on Fiji’s bountiful harvest of fish, dining on deliciously fresh mahi-mahi, snapper, and myriad other swimmers from the waters all around.

On my last days in Fiji, I came across an activity that tempted to me strap the tank back on. I was staying at Royal Davui, another private island resort that offered a handful of luxury villas (each with its plunge pool that afforded an ocean view), a place that lay just a short boat ride south of Viti Levu’s Coral Coast. On arrival, I was greeted with a rousing rendition of Bula Fiji, the country’s traditional song of welcome, with a young man strumming a guitar while at least a dozen others sang with gusto.

Soon after I settled in, staff inquired about my activity schedule for my three-day stay. I signed up for a daily massage, as well as a visit to a nearby village, where we shopped at a little open-air market selling handmade handicrafts (I bought a “neck-breaker,” a remnant from the country’s cannibal past) and sat while the local school serenaded our small group with simple, sweet songs.

And I tried to take part in the resort’s famous shark dive. The waters around Royal Davui certainly invited swimming. But down below, in the dark depths, swam menacing sharks, a total of eight different species, including bulls, tigers and lemons — and the resort offered the opportunity to scuba among them. The dive out on Beqa Lagoon would take place 30 metres down, first along the edge of a reef wall called The Arena — a favourite hangout for bull sharks — and then halfway down a reef slope in an area known as the Take Out, where tigers mix with multiple other species.

The only thing was — I couldn’t go. The dive staff took a closer look at my certification, and the jig was up. Turns out that you need a little more experience than I had for a dive to that depth. Which, to be honest, really wasn’t so bad. I ended up spending my days in the spa and the plunge pool, and at one point circumnavigated the entire island on a guided snorkel trip — it took about an hour, through a swirling underwater world. And I determined next time — I would come equipped. If not with flippers and a mask, then at least with a proper scuba licence.  

Photo by Brocken Inaglory.
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