This week we had the pleasure of welcoming aboard Harold and his harem of amazing divers based out of Chicago, Illinois. And oh what a pleasure it was! Enthusiastic, energetic and excitable doesn't even begin to describe this quirky bunch and we LOVE that. It's so enjoyable to have what is essentially one big group of friends just hanging out for the week: these guys have been diving together for years and years so all the usual first day pleasantries and 'getting to know you's' were obsolete....no awkward silences here!! When the first day starts at 6 am and we're already having detailed discussions about modern dating etiquette and rowdily chanting in favor of the Chicago Cubs you know it's going to be a pretty relaxed vibe.....
After a full attendance check-out dive at Samu Reef (peer pressure is a wonderful thing hey folks??) we sailed overnight to the area of Vatu I Ra for our first full day of 'real' Fiji diving. Despite a smooth crossing, we awoke to pretty rough seas which made for some challenging skiff ride conditions. But everyone did really, really well; especially our multiple liveaboard virgins, well done guys! Below the surface, however, conditions were great: good viz, super warm and mild currents. First up in the morning, Vanessa led her group to Coral Corner where they enjoyed a huge moray eel, a hawksbill turtle feeding on some soft coral and an impressive school of barracuda passing overhead. On Maytag, Chad showed his group the defensive yellow damsel fish protecting tiny eggs, a couple of cruising white tip reef sharks and the transparent Sarasvati anemone shrimp. Mellow Yellow lived up to its name in terms of current but was a pretty dramatic dive nonetheless. Well, at least the first five minutes of it was: one diver had debilitating cramp, another's tank slid out of its band and yet another's weight pockets fell all the way out!! That's one way to keep your guide on their toes! Later in the day, Koroi and Vanessa led a group on a macro dive, training their eyes to spot the small, cool stuff: cheeky fangblennies, crinoid clingfish, flirting dragonets.....oh, and a HUGE Napoleon Wrasse not really complying with the macro theme! But the highlight of all the day dives HAS to be Tabitha's amazing spot.....a pygmy octopus! These super cute creatures are not only rare but also very camouflaged so really a good find. High five! Energy was high over dinner as everyone excitedly discussed the days diving but it wasn't over yet. Pretty much everyone joined the post-dinner night dive! Dana found a moray eel she was pretty happy with: not so April who rapidly swam in the opposite direction. And everyone came back giggling about the shark that snuck up on Chad!
Overnight we traveled through the Bligh Waters and across to the stunning area of Namena where we would spend two days (yey, a night at anchor!). After more uncensored conversations over morning coffee we set off for our first dive to Schoolhouse. Apparently Vanessa reminding everyone to not forget their 'bits and bobs' proved humorous.....the first of many British-isms! Schoolhouse was kicking off and Bill H came back comparing it to Alice in Wonderland (we kind of agree but did someone sneak something into his morning coffee??). And just what made it so impressive you ask? One word: HAMMERHEADS!!!!! Both groups were graced with their presence and not just a fleeting glimpse, a couple actually stuck around for a fair amount of time which is pretty unusual and super lucky. Vanessa spent some time with Pat as she's a pretty new diver and she improved hugely, continuing to do so all week long, getting longer and longer dives. Next up, Chad led a group to The Arch and Koroi tackled Kansas. Both groups had beautiful dives with Bud declaring it 'the best yet'! In the end, every day got better and better and we heard that claim a few times over: we aim to impress! Over lunch it was great to see everyone pawing over the fish ID books figuring out what they'd seen: we told you...enthusiastic! In the afternoon we headed to Two Thumbs Up. Greg spotted a grey reef right at the start which is always a good omen. Later on, Jen and Janet got their first shrimp manicures and Vanessa got excited when she found a Marilyn Monroe nudibranch and a BABY leaf scorpion fish! Chad's group were introduced to 'stuffed crust pizza' anemones (appropriate for a Chicago group we think) with their resident popcorn shrimps. Chad was a little confused when honeymooners Andy and Tabitha signaled they were going up early at the same time as patting their stomach: emergency toilet break or sneaking off to make Sue a grandbaby, we don't know?! Aaaaaaanyway..... We ended the day with beautiful dives at Tetons 1 and 2. Koroi wowed his group with a blue ribbon eel and FOUR Nai'a pipefish (well, he CLAIMS four but as you guys know, this is Koroi, prankster and trickster supreme!). Vanessa, meanwhile, showed photographers Jeff and Bill T a beautiful decorated dartfish as well as a trio of nudis all lined up in a row having a family hug, and Mary spent some quality time with a feisty yellow damsel, taking pecks at her mask. That evening we had a no less than lively Kava Party, with a meaningful cultural exchange: ummmm, our Americans brought the Chicken Dance to Fiji!!
Our second day at Namena got off to a high speed start with a kick-ass current back at Two Thumbs. Vanessa's group spent a little too long 'faffing about' (British-ism) on the surface and nearly missed the dive site: it all worked in their favor though as they found shelter behind a rocky ledge, in front of which 3 sharks were circling for fifteen minutes! Saved by the sharks! Next up was Grand Central Station, a deep wall which left everyone impressed. Particularly Bill H who saw a 'man-size' Spanish Mackerel (really, you spiked his coffee AGAIN guys?! Just kidding Bill, those things can get HUGE!). We returned to Kansas and The Arch after Grand Central, where Jeff and Judy got up close and personal with an incredibly dense school of jacks and April and Amita checked out the cute freckled face blennies Vanessa is so keen on. Everyone went so full throttle on the day dives that come dinner time, a glass of wine seemed way more appealing than a night dive. Except for hardcore Bill T and Jeff: unstoppable!! As the two guys kitted up, Vanessa told the crew who's tanks to load. Engineer Mosese paused for a second, smiled slightly, then proudly announced: 'Jeff and Bill went up the hill'!! Gotta love the NAI'A crew. It was a nice, calm night dive with a few cool critters for our photographers: popcorn shrimp, tiger cowries and a super friendly flute fish.
And His Best Buddy! by Jeff
Cheeky Fangster by Jeff
Mesmerizing Xenia by Jeff
Porcelain Complexion by Jeff
BFG and His Band of Barracuda by Jeff
Leaf Me Alone! by Bill T
Perfect Pipefish by Bill T
NAI'A by Night by April
Janet's New Bure by April
I Spy... by Jeff
Pretty in Purple by Jeff
Starry Night by Jeff
Dragon Parade by Jeff
Marilyn Monroe Nudi by Jeff
Ready to Clean! by Bill T
Standin' Proud by Bill T
Incy Wincy Spider by Bill T
Whipped Into Shape by Bill T
Cuteness Overload by April
Kava Partaaaaay! by April
Open Wide and Say Aaahhhh by Bill T
Next day we arrived bright and early to the island of Wakaya and finally we were blessed with calm seas and bright skies. It was a stunning day and packed full of INSANE dives! Koroi and Chad guided the first dives and Vanessa stayed on the boat to diligently do her morning workout. She suspected the divers were enjoying themselves even more than usual as more and more time passed after she expected them back. And she KNEW something cool had happened when she finally HEARD them before she SAW them!! Screaming, shrieking, giggling on Wakaya dives can only mean one thing...MANTAS!!! And for the lucky few, not only manta rays but a hammerhead too! Momma Ocean, you're too good to us. In Sue's words, it was a 'magical manta morning'! Vanessa was hoping the lucky streak would continue into her next dive and she was not disappointed: a chain of four mantas, one of them barrel rolling! Unfortunately, however, she only had two of her group with her at this stage: in her briefing she'd explained she would 'zig zag' back and forth along the wall....well, let's just say most people did more 'zigging' than 'zagging'. Ah well, all dives are good dives: mantas or no, dive guide or no! The afternoon dives were equally enjoyable but the focus moved to the smaller creatures as the mantas seemed to have moved on for the day. Vanessa's group had a beautiful glimpse of a hawksbill turtle as it cruised by and Koroi's group saw a couple of nice leaf scorpionfish. But coolest of all were the frog fish spotted by dream team buddies April and Amita: go girls! That evening after dinner we celebrated Tabitha and Andy's honeymoon with a yummy cake and a beautiful Fijian song from the crew. And we ended a great day with our last night dive of the trip: Koroi took the commited few out to Vatu Vai where they were lucky enough to see a white tip reef shark darting around the reef mid-hunt. Awesome! (right, Tabitha?!).
Every day seemed to get better and better and the next was no exception as we arrived at the island of Gau ready for Chad and Vanessa'a favorite dive, Nigali Passage. They'd been bigging it up all week and were slightly nervous they might have overdone it and it could end up being a bit of an anticlimax. But no, no, noooo! It was better than ever with crazy numbers of barracuda and sharks. Cheryl was even lucky enough to see another big ray pass overhead in the bleachers! And Harold and Dana had their own private guide, in the form of the BFG (Big Friendly Grouper), who kindly escorted them about the site. Mary and Vanessa managed to stretch out a full one-hour dive despite all the excitement and heavier than usual breathing, making it all the way to the massive Porites bommie where a whole family – Mum, Dad and twin babies - of Napoleon Wrasse were hanging out. Everyone was buzzing over breakfast trying to figure out how many sharks they'd seen: 10, 20, 30...??? Later that day we headed slightly north to the dive sites of Jim's Alley and Anthias Avenue. Chad was lucky enough to find himself on a ladies only dive (thank goodness they can't talk underwater hey Chad?)! They spotted a big puffer fish resting in the sand getting a nice clean from some helpful wrasse as well as multiple eels. Koroi meanwhile took his group to Jim's Alley where the soft corals were blooming in beautiful Fiji-style. That afternoon, everyone headed to land for a wonderful tour and cultural exchange at the village of Somosomo. We don't think there's ever been a better turn out of ladies getting up there and joining in the dancing: loving your work girls! Tabitha made friends with basically all the village kids (you sure there's not one in your pocket still T??) and Janet with her beautiful blond hair was a major attraction for the little ones!
And so we came to Friday and our last day of diving, back in the Blight Waters in the area of Vuya. Cat's Meow was a highlight: everyone loved the Pygmy seahorses (even if Amita wasn't entirely sure exactly what she was looking at!) and Vanessa was (over)excited to spot a shrimp she'd never seen before, the dragon coral whip shrimp, kinda cool after several thousand dives. There was a second chance for pygmies at Vatu Vonu with Koroi so everyone got their fill. And Humann Nature was also a hit with Chad, with an awesome scorpion fish, a mantis shrimp and a starry night flatworm. Over lunch energy levels were (finally!) dropping, but never fear: Bill T came to the rescue with his signature hot drink, basically a TON of sugar and a TON of caffeine! That afternoon the sun finally came out and the group enjoyed a stunning cruise home with a beautiful sunset off the bow.
The following morning it was time to say goodbye to Harold's Harem, as the group headed off to Wananavu for a week of morning dives (and afternoon cocktails we hope!). The boat felt distinctly quiet in their absence and we immediately started the countdown for their 2018 trip.......
Well, actually we saw/heard them all again the very next day but that's another story.....
“Fiji is a hot spot of biodiversity. We’re here for the rich colorful soft coral reefs as well as the unusual stuff - the strange little creatures and endemic fishes.”
~ Dr. Tim Laman, biologist and National Geographic Photojournalist