Last week, Jon M. Piepkorn, Clare Caroline Brown and Stuart Gow showcased the first part of our two-part feature on the eight best places to dive in Fiji. Here they bring you the much anticipated final four:
The islands of Fiji, which I can proudly state have some of the best diving in the world, are one of a kind. To sports enthusiasts, the Pacific nation is rugby sevens; to topside adventurers, it is its unique traditions and heritage; but to divers, Fiji is a vast unchartered underwater haven, teeming with unique forms of marine life that are yet to be explored. Here are the final four:
The Lomaiviti Group of Islands
Located in the southern Lomaiviti Group of Islands off the east coast of the main island of Viti Levu, the lagoon on the island of Gau is typically only reached via a liveaboard or private charter. On the northern end of the lagoon there are a couple of dive sites to enjoy while waiting for the proper currents, in one of my favourite dive spots in all of Fiji: Nigali Passage. During an outgoing or falling tide, the water actually rushes in through the passage towards the lagoon (opposite of what one might think), bringing cooler, deeper nutrient-rich waters flushing out the channel for usually excellent visibility. At the outer edge of the channel, the depth begins at around 18 metres where you drop in for the dive.
Prepare for the current to gently drift you down the 50- to 75-metre-wide channel which is covered with a sandy coral bottom. Typically you’ll be met by whitetip reef sharks sleeping under the large mushroom coral bommie that sits at the entrance to the channel. As you drift in towards the lagoon, the channel becomes narrower and deeper (with nice walls on either side scratching the water’s surface) and you will be treated to schooling bigeye trevally along with three species of schooling barracuda. Photographers: Turn around and gently fin against the current and you will be in a perfect position to let these schools surround you for a picture that will be sure to impress your friends on Facebook. During your drift into the channel, you’re bound to encounter “Big Bill”, the large resident potato (spotted) grouper who will swim with you throughout the dive. About 15 to 20 minutes into the dive you arrive at The Bleachers – think stadium seating – as the natural coral and live rock walls feature an area for divers to rest gently on their knees with a sandy bottom.
Sitting in The Bleachers you watch the schooling grey reef sharks that are always in attendance. This is the place where the female greys come to give birth to their young – so at the right time of the year you’ll be treated to little grey reef sharks as well. After you have used up your bottom time watching the graceful sharks schooling in front of you while they glide in and out of the schools of bigeye trevally, it will be time to enjoy your ride up the “chute”. This sandy bottom narrow area takes you from about 25 metres up to eight metres, and with a good current can be a fun ride. You might encounter a whitetip reef shark or two gliding back and forth, moray eels, nudis and lobsters.
Moving north from Gau Island you can set your sights on Wakaya Island. Remote from the mainland with a private airport, Wakaya is best accessed either by the resort airplane, or via a liveaboard. With most of the dive sites located on the west side of the fringing barrier reefs, one of the most frequently requested is Vatu Vai – Fijian for “Manta Rock”. It’s a cleaning station for the resident mantas, where you’ll often see black mantas patrolling the outer reef walls during your dives. Lion’s Den is also a favourite dive site on the outer edge of Wakaya Channel. Hard and soft corals with schooling barracuda, reef sharks, and as an added bonus at Wakaya you can often see great hammerheads patrolling the steep walls of the Wakaya barrier reef.
Makogai is just north of, and visible from, Wakaya Island, and is home to a very large marine sanctuary. There is a government station located on the island where they are working to protect and repopulate the turtles and giant clams throughout Fiji. Inside the protected lagoon, which is also designated as a marine sanctuary, you can see some of the largest giant clams in the world. Many dive sites are within minutes of the sheltered lagoon. A favourite dive site of mine is Vatu Vasua (or “Clam Rock”), which is by far one of the best night dive sites in Fiji. This is one remote island and can be accessed by liveaboard, private charter, or yacht.
Located in the Koro Sea and accessible by liveaboard, seaplane or speedboat from Savusavu, this is one terrific area do dive. A small island surrounded by an atoll/barrier reef, there are several areas to dive but the two most popular are the North Save-A-Tack and South Save-A-Tack Passages. The south passage boasts the soft corals that Fiji is famous for. Among scattered bommies, the dive sites’ black forest, chimneys, and “tetons”, will amaze with the colours. Depending on the current, you can spot schooling trevally and groupers, and with a sharp eye you can see painted frogfish, scorpion leaffish, a variety of nudibranchs and pipefish.
Changing tide and current will take you to the north passage, where you start on the wall that drops to more than 800 metres, and can be treated to schooling hammerheads, oceanic silvertip sharks and grey reef sharks. Moving up onto the plateau that is known as Grand Central Station, schooling bigeye trevally and barracuda will greet you. Then moving in towards the arch you can get a great view of mantis shrimps, scorpion leaffish, and pipefish, as well as all the colourful reef fish Fiji has on offer, and the smaller critters (shrimps, anemone fish, etc.). Depending on your air consumption, or adding as a second dive, drop in at the large pinnacle Kansas, which is next to the smaller pinnacle OZ. This is farther up on the plateau where you could easily spend over an hour photographing the smallest of the small pygmy seahorses, Hippocampus severnsi. Nestled amongst the colourful soft corals and the leather corals on top of the pinnacle, the dive site is a favourite of every diver I’ve taken there.
The Bligh Water
Located on the east side of Fiji, between the mainland and Namena Island, some of Fiji’s best loved dive sites are here: Hi-8, Instant Replay, Mellow Yellow, The Cathedral, Cat’s Meow and E-6, named by Jacques Cousteau for the film and developing that had to be done on the boat after a day’s diving. Some of the pinnacles drop down to a depth of over 3,000 metres. As there is no shelter or any islands in the area, the weather really needs to be cooperative for a trip out to this dive area, which can be reached from some of the northern/eastern resorts on the mainland of Viti Levu by speedboat, or by liveaboard. It’s a very diverse region with some great hard coral dives as well as soft coral. Pelagics are often seen as the currents can be “full on” ripping. If you can reach this area – don’t miss it!
Taveuni and the World Famous Rainbow Reef
“If Cozumel is Cayman on speed, then the Somosomo Strait is Cozumel on Acid” – Buck Butler, 2007
The Somosomo Strait (loosely translated as “Calm Water”) is a relatively narrow channel of water separating Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu, from its third largest, Taveuni – home to some of the world’s best dives. With over 10,000 square kilometres of pristine coral reef, the Somosomo Strait features some of the best diving in Fiji. Most reefs are fringing, bordering nearby shores, with a complement of flat-topped platform reefs. The reefs that make up the rainbow reef system vary in size, shape and underwater topography.
There are several wall dives – The Zoo, Purple Wall and the famous Great White Wall – as well as a scattering of bommies and flat top reefs sitting at different angles in relation to the constant flowing incoming and outgoing tidal currents (north to south and south to north, respectively). These currents dictate where the best dives will be on any given day, so consult local shops and crews for knowledge and tips. These currents are also attributed with the rich nutrient-filled water which feeds the reef system twice a day from the deep waters on the north and south end of the Somosomo Strait. Fiji’s reefs boast a spectacular biodiversity with some 467 species of molluscs, 298 species of hard corals, and around 1,200 species of reef fish – not forgetting the Dendronephthya, a soft coral species that thrives in this area, seen in all colours of the rainbow.
Consistently rated among the top dive sites in the world, the Great White Wall is a reason divers come to Taveuni and Rainbow Reef year after year. Often not mentioned is that this dive is very tide and current dependent. The absolute best time to dive Great White Wall is at low slack tide after the outgoing tide has fed the soft corals. When dropping onto the plateau, your guide will bring you to a large tubular swim-through starting at about 12 metres in depth and ending at about 24 metres. Diving down, take your time to look for nudibranchs, bigeye squirrelfish and huge gorgonian sea fans. Often, large moray eels can be seen in the cervices of the walls, checking you out as you descend the tube. Upon exiting the swim-through, you’ll take a “left hand” turn where you will catch Great White Wall coming into view. White corals will be in full bloom, covering the wall from about 20 metres down to over 60 metres. “No current” conditions are perfect for photographers to get their shots. Diving during the incoming tide ensures you encounter the Great Brown Wall, as the soft white corals contract and will appear as little white nubbies.
Dropping into the wall in the middle of a Somosomo Strait ripping current means you’ll be lucky to see the wall for 5 to 10 seconds as the strong current takes you past with no hope of stopping. After checking out the wall, finish your dive back up on the top plateau. You will be treated to fields of blood red/purple soft corals, as well as scorpion leaffish, banded pipefish, octopuses, a few whitetip reef sharks, and a couple of large spotted or potato groupers that call this site home. Darting around the corals as well are thousands of colourful anthias and a number of species of clownfish.
Another popular dive site is Annie’s Bommies. Discovered many years ago by local Fijian divemaster, Annie, this dive, many say, is the reason Rainbow Reef has its name. Three bommies ranging in depth from about 20 metres up to six or seven metres give bloom to the soft corals in all colours of the rainbow. Surrounding these bommies is a sugar white sandy bottom, home to thousands of garden eels as well as ribbon eels, hawksbill turtles, and numerous other creatures.
Barracuda Hole located on the northern end of the Somosomo Strait, upon incoming tide, will treat you to large schools of great barracuda, garden eels, whitetip reef sharks and schooling bigeye jacks. At times there are so many small reef fish it’s hard to see! Use your bottom time on the current (northern) side, then enjoy the roller-coaster ride over the top of the reef to the southern side. End your dive exploring shallower hard coral gardens, schooling reef fish and macro critters.
Rainbow Reef extends for several kilometres from the north end of Somosomo Strait and curves along the shoreline of Vanua Levu, heading south. With over two dozen popular dive sites, there are probably two dozen more dived by those who know the reef well and keep their treasure semi-secret. Somosomo Strait marine life ranges from large to small. The Great Fiji Shark Count, held every April and November, shows an increase in shark sightings each year, Somosomo Strait being no exception. Diving Rainbow Reef, you can see whitetip, blacktip and grey reef sharks, as well as occasionally leopard or zebra sharks and great hammerheads. You may even glimpse a resident tiger shark – “Bill” as he’s known locally. Manta rays, spotted eagle rays, mobula (or devil) rays and small blue-spotted rays can all be seen. Turtles, mainly hawksbill, can be seen feeding on many coral reefs. A favourite of many divers are the ribbon eels. All stages of these hermaphroditic creatures can be seen. Also difficult to spot are the small pygmy seahorses, but they can be found on various dive sites on Rainbow Reef. Sharpen your eyes, or get a guide to show you one!
Other popular dive sites include: Jerry’s Jelly, Rainbow Passage, Nuku (sand) Reef, Fish Factory, Yellow Tunnel, Jack’s Place, The Corner and the Cabbage Patch – usually a nice light-to-no-current dive, and home to one of the world’s largest and most pristine cabbage coral patches. Go out and dive!