It was with a tinge of sadness that we started this charter. Having spent three years on this wonderful boat, our time has finally come to bid farewell and move on to new adventures and this charter was to be our very last on NAI’A. At the same time, however, we were very excited to welcome onboard the new Cruise Directors, Vanessa and Chad, to start their training. Our guests for this charter were a group led by Burt and Hergen, including many studious photographers.
Living on the same boat with the same crew for three years, we’ve become understandably attached to both and were therefore anxious to handover to the right people. Early on however, we were glad to notice a couple of things that allayed our fears: before Vanessa and Chad even met our diligent divemaster Koroi, we warned them not to believe anything said by this straight-faced prankster. In a whirlwind of introductions, they briefly met him the day before the start of their first charter at the same time as many others. The next day, Koroi knew that when Chad saw him, he wasn’t sure if he had met him the previous day, so he took advantage of Chad’s confusion and introduced himself as “Big Mo.” As he has been NAI’A’s top divemaster for the last nine years, Chad was very excited to meet him and rushed to introduce “Big Mo” to Vanessa. Koroi continued to laugh about that for two days straight. Don’t feel bad, Chad. We’ve all been duped by him before!
Then on the check out dive, looking around to see if Vanessa was following, Amanda saw that she had stopped and was still gazing at the first sarasvati anemone shrimp she had found. Looking up, she gave Amanda the sign for “I love these!” We’re pretty sure that falling hopelessly in love with the first shrimp you see in Fiji is a good sign for a new Cruise Director! Meanwhile, the youngest diver of the trip, here with his Mum, Dad and older sister Cate, twelve-year old Liam displayed not only awesome diving skills, but also eagle eyes as he excitedly spotted an octopus and then a beautiful, very decorated Cassiopeia medusa with many “petals”. Add those to a pair of whip coral shrimp, a juvenile many spotted sweetlips, a juvenile yellow boxfish and a blue spot stingray and you’ve got a pretty nice checkout dive.
The second day started out with a bang at Cat’s Meow as Joshua jumped in to find two pygmy seahorses hiding in a black coral. He felt like the reef was rewarding his service with some positive karma. Later at the same site, Amanda showed people the endemic Marjorie’s fairy wrasse. Moving slightly to the UndeNAI’Able region, Big Mo found a stonefish on top of the pinnacle while Liam’s mum, Ann, felt very pleased at having been able to correctly identify the charismatic and endemic Fiji fangblenny. Nice one. Following a strong current that had given everyone a hard time on the fourth dive, we opted to play it safe for the night dive and go to the main reef, which turned out to be a great decision; no current and lots of critters including a white mouthed catfish, two grand pleurobranchs, a few small sole and a couple of beautiful cowries out on the (very slow) prowl.
Making the long journey overnight to the island of Gau, we had our first couple of dives in the famed Nigali Passage. As well as our fabulous schools of barracudas and our lovely ladies in grey, we also had another few visitors. Joyce, Hergen, Amanda and Vanessa saw a group of five eagle rays (very rare in Fiji), while Chad and Lynn both spotted a manta swimming right over everyone’s heads while in the bleachers.
After a successful morning of diving, we dried off in time for our only two hours on land of the charter. It was time for our village visit. As usual, the beautiful people of Somosomo village were delighted to see us and we were welcomed on the beach by a gaggle of kindergarten age village girls in matching purple dresses. Over the last three years, we’ve watched as the children have grown and the welcome has become warmer and warmer. So it was a poignant farewell, but also a great chance to introduce our successors. When it came time for the ladies to get up and join in the dancing, the dance floor was packed with many enthusiastic participants, none more than Joyce though, who danced so hard she received many admiring glances and clucks of appreciation from all the village ladies!
Since we had the least amount of travel time that night, we came back to NAI’A and straight in to our kava party. As was a trend for this group, we had a great turn out. Even though many were ardent photographers, we had very few (maybe even none!) sneaking off to edit their photos, which we’re sure was appreciated by the crew who really put their hearts into the music. This time they were helped out by a couple of guests who had hidden musical flair. Both John S and again, our many talented Liam, impressed us with their guitar playing skills as they accompanied the crew. This being Vanessa’s first animal song, she’s allowed a bit of leeway, but when Big Mo clearly assigned her to make a monkey sound, she sounded more like a chicken! Now, we know it’s been several years since you worked with orangutans, but that did not sound like a monkey. Don’t worry, you’ve got three years to practice!
The next day at Wakaya was easy on the big stuff for all but Hergen, aka Her-gone. After many years of guiding, it seems he now loves to let of steam and go exploring. Powered by long freediving fins, he and his camera can be seen disappearing off into the distance while the rest of us progress slowly along the reef. Sometimes however, it pays off. While Amanda and Burt crept slowly along the sand at 109 feet under Lion’s Den to find and photograph the rare, skittish but oh-so-beautiful Helfrich’s dartfish (there’s a definite sense of achievement when you manage to show a diving legend with 9000+ dives something he’s never seen before!), Hergen zoomed over their heads in pursuit of a large sickle shaped fin he felt sure belonged to a great hammerhead, only to find the elusive white-spotted guitarfish! That afternoon, while everyone else was busy admiring the many leaf scorpionfish resident on the reef, Hergen found a manta to play with on top of Vatu Vai. For those who are feeling jealous right now: he did offer anyone to join him. We all heard him at the start of the charter to those with the stamina, the whizz-bang style of dive guiding was open to all.
While others were out on the reef, Amanda took advantage of a quiet hour or so to take John S to refresh some dive skills and overcome those pesky mask demons that have got the better of many a diver. In the calm turquoise shallows of this picturesque island, John discovered that with some gentle encouragement, it all came back to him and swam around happily underwater both with and without his mask. What an achievement!
Mirror on the wall - by Dave
Clinging on for dear life - by Dave
Nosing around - by Dave
Dimensions - by Hergen
What Fiji is all about - by Hergen
A banner day - by Hergen
Taking pride - by Hergen
Nothing white about it - by Hergen
Fishy business - by Hergen
Yes, we also saw mantas - by Hergen
Love in fuschia - by Hergen
Striking out - by Hergen
World famous - by Lynn
Off the wall - by Lynn
Irresistible face - by Lynn
Solemn warrior - by Lynn
A big fan - by Marie
Life at depth - by Marie
There's a leaf scorpionfish in there somewhere - by Marie
Nap time - by Marie
Magic carpet - by Marie
Whipped up into a frenzy - by Marie
No time for clowning - by Michael
Let me see your cabbage patch - by Michael
Glorious reefscape - by Michael
Girl band - by Steve
Polyps - by Steve
Eight is more than enough - by Steve
Check me out - by Steve
View from above - by Steve
By the time it came around for the dusk dive that night, the current had picked up at Lion’s Den which meant for a challenging dive, but a couple of amorous octopus made it all worth it. For 20 minutes, Joshua, Rosanne and John K observed the cephalopod pair in the midst of an intimate relationship. After pretty much filling up their memory cards and exhausting their batteries on octoporn (is that wrong?) they left the romantic couple in private.
These two guests, plus John’s sister, Sharon, and her husband, Chef Pascal, (who despite 32 years in the US, maintains his strong French accent) are part of our dear friend Sandy’s extended Ocean Quest Scuba family in Florida. Once we discovered this, we very much enjoyed swapping stories with them about this fun group of people. Oh yeah, you know who you are; we were talking about you!
The Namena Marine Reserve was next up. With a little bit of current, the coral on Two Thumbs Up was out and proud, as were a couple more octopus. Both Dave and Chad found one of these fascinating creatures while Amanda found a disco clam (aka electric file clam) on the roof of the swim-through. Telling Liam about it back on the skiff, who’d never seen one, he understandably asked “was it dancing?” Well, wouldn’t that be cool! This was one of many things he learned on this trip, including successfully passing his Nitrox certification! Back up in North Save-a-Tack that afternoon, Schoolhouse had just enough current to bring in the huge schools that this site is famous for plus many grey reef sharks. Hanging off the last bommie amidst a veritable cloud of schooling bannerfish and fusiliers, Ann clapped her hands in delight at this gorgeous sight.
Later, Vanessa and Chad rushed back from their first night dive on crowd favorite, Kansas, excitedly declaring that they’d found the extremely rare and elusive cyerce nigricans nudibranch. Watch out Big Mo, these two might catch up to you quicker than you think!
Being just one day after new moon, it was no surprise that Rainbow’s End in the Somosomo Strait the next morning was alive and kicking; kicking being the operative word if you wanted to stay on the reef! The coral was absolutely blooming, but it was hard work, so it was a relief therefore that we managed to time the current perfectly for White Wall on the third dive. With lots of photographers shooting wide angle, we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time on the wall itself without being propelled along it like a catapult. Happily, at the guest photo slideshow, we saw the proof with stunning shots of this phenomenal assembly of glacier blue soft coral from both Lynn and Hergen, who apparently on this occasion, had resisted the urge to bolt.
Our beloved chef, Mita had the brilliant idea that night to go “off menu” and treat us all with a traditional delicious Fijian lovo (underground barbeque). Smokey chicken, palusami and kokoda, mmm-mmm. If you don’t know what that is, then YOU need to come to Fiji. Oh, we’re going to miss your cooking when we leave, Mita!
And so we reached our last day. But what a last day it was. The conditions were just perfect for Vatu-i-ra, leading Burt and Hergen to describe the yellow coral clad dive sites of Coral Corner and Mellow Yellow as “insanely beautiful”. Praise indeed from Raja Ampat enthusiasts. Promising to try and find him the elusive NAI’A pipefish to photograph on the second dive, Amanda made a plan to meet Burt “on the pinnacle of Maytag” if she found one. Having done just that and then made the complete circuit of the pinnacle to find the blue-handed man, Burt was nowhere to be found… What had happened was, Burt had thought Coral Corner so beautiful that even though he was dropped at an entirely different dive site, he ended up swimming back there for a second look – totally intentional though, right Burt? Never mind, hopefully you managed to find that fish on the following charter! As a grand (or rather miniscule) finale, Big Mo found white pygmy seahorse on Mellow Yellow. OK, big fella, you’re still the best…. for now!
The guest photo slideshow that night was, of course, nothing short of spectacular. Hergen’s lectures had paid off and we were treated to artfully composed, beautifully illuminated wide-angle shots galore and some stunning macro, mainly from Dave, who really is a rocket scientist, by the way.
The night was still young however and following dinner, dancing queen Stacie turned up the music, dimmed the lights and got the party started. As we headed home, Lynn, Pascal, Stacie and her main partners in crime: Ann, Cate, Liam and Tom, (the last of whom was doing his absolute best to embarrass his family with his awesome dance moves), were last seen cutting shapes in the salon as we steamed towards Lautoka for the very last time.
This was a very emotional last week for us. Three years is a long time that went by really quickly for us onboard NAI’A. So, we’re sorry that this has been a slightly longer blog than normal, but we’ve been savouring every moment of our last few days in Fiji. Sure, tears were shed in the village and also underwater, especially on our last glorious dives at our very favorite site, Maytag, but we could not have hoped for a nicer group of people with whom to share our last trip. Despite many carrying around enormous rigs underwater, this was, without exception, a great group of divers. We’re pretty sure we have Burt and Hergen to thank for that, at least in part, so thank you. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Everyone was respectful of each other and the reef and as is often the case with NAI’A guests, we have all learnt a lot (like, fun fact: apparently, the Pacific Ocean is a whole foot higher than the Indian Ocean – what?) and had a lot of fun. You guys made our last trip a great one.
Thank you NAI’A, thank you Fiji and thank you to all the crew we have worked with who make this job easy. We’ve loved it. Over and out.
“Thank you NAI’A team. Spot on service. Best liveaboard we’ve been on. Congrats!”
-Joyce & Michael
“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