NAI'As Ark Part I - The Return of Steve (and Hen-rietta)
A close hammerhead encounter and a double manta ray drive by. Many nudibranchs laying eggs and minuscule skeleton shrimps. Eagle rays, a marbled stingray and schools of jacks, barracudas, bannerfish, triggerfish and fusiliers… all the fusiliers! The past seven days have defied the forecast (with incredible weather until the 6th day) and marked the return of Hen-rietta, who got a little cosmetic surgery done. She is now in the constant company of Giovanni and Leroy, and they have been practicing to travel the world singing acapella. If they ever manage to leave Fiji.
We’ve had some return guests during our time on NAI’A, but nothing like this trip. We welcomed back eleven out of eighteen guests, and another seven had been on NAI’A previously, but before our time. This entertaining bunch is part of the Dive With Steve Village, and we were happy to have them all for a week of the diving they knew they would love. Having been on NAI’A so many times, they decided to make things challenging for the crew, and brought 2 Brendas, 2 Karens, 2 Bills, 2 Johns and 1 Jon. Heidi described it best: it’s NAI’As Ark, these guests came in pairs!
Heidi had her first birthday aboard NAI’A and was welcomed with a Happy Birthday from the guests, then again from the crew. Although it was her day, she was the one who brought gifts for our crew, who were incredibly grateful. As the groups Village Chief, Steve presented Kadavu kava for the crew, who received it with big smiles. Needless to say, this is a group the entire NAI’A family is happy to welcome back again and again. Just make it easier with the names next time, Steve!
Photo by Tami: Anemone fish
Photo by Bel: Village Visit
Photo by Bel: Graveyard at Makogai
Photo by Mike: Heidi's first birthday on NAI'A
We moved on the first night to the Sea Mounts and dived E6 in the morning and Mount Mutiny in the afternoon. The encounters included an up-close and personal with a hammerhead, a 3 eagle rays glide-by, 100+ blackfin barracudas, a multitude of nudibranchs, some skeleton shrimp colonies, a few grey reef and white tip sharks, a big sea angel some mackerels and countless communities of small reef fish like damsels and chromis. The divers had so much fun John S wanted to be on both skiffs and ended up comically carried by Mo. Just another day in paradise.
We followed with two incredible days at Namena Marine Reserve. Despite the current being reluctant to come in at North Save-a-tack, we had incredible dives at Kansas, The Arch and Schoolhouse. Schooling barracudas, bannerfish, triggerfish and jacks posed for the divers. A massive school of scads just about ran over Heidi as they ran away from a big dogtooth tuna, and then doubled back. You could hear them before you saw it happen. Other sightings included palette surgeonfish, dartfish (twotones, zebras, spottails and fire) and spotted crouchers.
On South Save-a-tack, the Mushrooms, Thumbs and Tetons delivered in style, with minimal current and plenty of activity. Aside from the clouds of scalefin anthias and fusiliers (lunars, scissortails, ruddys and blue and yellow), we saw loads of squarespotted and stocky anthias, black ribbon eels, sponge crabs, orangutan crabs, golden mantis, whitecap shrimpgoby, piano fangblennies, moray eels, pipefish and more nudibranchs. The night dives had octopuses, more skeleton shrimps, lionfish, a massive grand pleurobranch and a sea cucumber crab out of its… home.
We did an exploratory dive at Manta Mount and discovered an absolutely gorgeous wall with very interesting topography, swimthroughs, healthy corals and plenty of fish. Brenda T got kissed by a siphonophore and Bill P caught some funny action on camera.
Mighty Righty had a discombobulated day and earned many Diver of the day awards in a single day. Steve as always showered us in knowledge about the marine world and described flatworms as “stepped-on nudibranchs”. And that’s why we are his biggest fans.
Photo by Tami: Lemonpeel Angelfish
Photo by Tami: Latticed butterflyfish
Photo by Tami: Nudibranch, not stepped on
Namena is hard to follow, but Wakaya and Makogai were a tough match, especially with the Village visit. Wakaya dives included two manta fly-bys, a gigantic blotched stingray just cruising around, an eagle ray, a couple of turtles, a leaf scorpionfish and the magenta slender anthias ballet on the reef edge. The group explored Vatu Vula at Makogai and had a good time, except for Tim and Bob who got hell from their BCDs.
On land, we visited the old lepper hospital in Makogai, saw the remains of the outdoor cinema and the graveyard. For the mekes (traditional dances), some adults joined the children. According to Big Mo, these adults lived in Makogai as children and have now returned with their own families and wanted to be a part of the presentations. They welcomed us with open arms as always and received the donations with gratitude, especially Jamie-Sue’s big school supply shopping spree and John K’s microscope set. This group is always so generous and so appreciative of Fiji and its beautiful people, it’s an honor to be their guides.
Back on board, the kava kept coming and Brenda T felt the mood was right to do her read-along for the group. The chosen book was Brenda’s Beaver Needs a Barber. The reactions were priceless, I’m not sure there was ever so much laughter and red faces in our salon. Comment of the night goes to Brenda N who said “I’m gonna have to change my name!”. Oh, Brendas…
Photo by Bel: Guests and villagers
Photo by Bel: With our guide Bill
Photo by Bel: Meke time
Photo by Mike: Brenda, Brenda, Brenda and Brenda's Beaver
We followed that with Vuya, still with fabulous weather and gentle currents. Barracudas, surgeonsfish, fusiliers and anthias schooled everywhere, the soft corals were all open and the critters were out and about. A lot of nudibranch sightings, including some laying eggs and a few “stepped on” types. Also cleaner shrimps, mantis shrimps, lobsters and fish attacking bubble rings. We had our kava party (after a couple of unofficial grog sessions), the favorite evening for these seasoned NAI’A guests.
The last day of the trip was the day for the weather forecast to finally catch up with us, and we had wind and clouds and rain. We also had some unbelievable dives, starting with an action filled dive at GoMo with fish coming out of everywhere. The current was challenging, but manageable, and we meandered the coral garden watching the frantic fish all around us. Mellow Yellow and Coral Corner followed, both mellow, both filled with the abundance of Vatu-i-ra and Fiji’s underwater colors.
Photo by Tami: Female scalefin anthia and bicolor blenny
Photo by Tami: Juvenile damsel
Photo by Tami: Juvenile golden damsel
Photo by Tami: Moody Yellow Slingjaw Wrasse
Then it was once again time to head back to Lautoka, this time with our hearts a little tighter. Steve and his followers have a special place in NAI’A history. They have become our dive buddies, our friends, our family. It is hard to say goodbye not knowing if we will see them as a group again, but we can say for sure many personal visits are due in the near future!
Steve and his fabulous village
“Central Fiji has all the elements of the ultimate ocean wilderness: diverse creatures and habitat, nutrient-rich water, spectacular scenery and owners who respect it.”
~ Dr. Greg Stone, Executive Vice President of Conservation International