This week we welcomed a diverse group of scuba divers of various nationalities and backgrounds: NAI'A returnees Jim and Maureen, a big Aussie-American family & friends group celebrating Milt and Sharon P's 20th wedding anniversary, Florida aquarium worker Alex and her husband Dan also celebrating an anniversary milestone, English doggie sitter Elaine and her husband Gary, hardcore Swiss divers Ursula and Erich, Allan of the flying doctors, and Ingrid enjoying a week of solo diving after a month of traveling with her husband.
The checkout dive went super smoothly: a subtle sigh of relief for Chad and Vanessa as they realized they'd landed a group of very capable, skilled divers, all looking more than comfortable in the water. The water was a little cloudy, not the best viz as the sun was sitting low in the sky, so Vanessa and Big Mo styled their dives to home in on the reef around them and really pick out the small stuff: shrimps, crabs, coral whip gobies, crinoid clingfish etc. Ursula particularly had an eye for the critters and was delighted to find three different shrimps (Sarasvati, peacock and sexy!) in a single anemone. Over dinner the guests were treated to an amazing musical welcome from the NAI'A crew, giving them just a little taste of the kava party to come later in the week. The post-dinner briefing brought much laughter as Chad took the guests through the extensive toaster/coffee machine DOs and DON'Ts for the next morning (those who've been on NAI'A, y'all know it's trickier than you'd think possible!!).
Our first diving day brought us to Vatu I Ra. Both groups rotated Maytag, Coral Corner and Mellow Yellow for the first three dives of the day, enjoying the colorful soft corals and schooling fish on all three. From the big to the small, these sites have it all! Big Mo and Chad both showed their groups an adorable little pygmy seahorse while Vanessa's group enjoyed big lobsters, schooling jacks and multiple white tip reef sharks. Gary B got a nice surprise when he looked down and there was one cruising by just inches below him, calmly doing his thing, totally oblivious to the diver above! Little and large hung out together for Ingrid as she enjoyed a huge Napoleon Wrasse and a teeny weeny juvenile Rockmover right by him. For the 4th day-dive we decided to repeat Coral Corner as many of the divers had really taken our 'go slow' advice to heart and hadn't actually seen more than half the dive site the first time around! By this time of the day, the incoming current was perfect, pumping up all the beautiful soft corals along the wall and encouraging all the sharks to come out and play. Gary T and Susan had an unexpected visitor as they tackled the long swim through up the wall: the giant Napoleon Wrasse from earlier was now blocking the route! Only three intrepid divers – good work Allan, Dan and Alex - resisted wine over dinner and joined the night dive. They were lucky enough to see hunting barracuda, parrotfish fast asleep in their mucus bubbles, larval mantis shrimp floating by as well as masses of different shrimps and crabs. Dan and Alex had particular fun with their newly purchased UV lights! The day wound down in the salon, with the guests flicking through photos and videos from the day. Milt proudly showed Vanessa a close-up vid of Mr Sea Cucumber's butt: oh well, at least he was paying attention at Scuba School!
The next day we arrived at Wakaya bright and early to see if we would continue our winning manta streak of late! And ohhhhhh yes we did. Manta Rays for both groups on pretty much all of the dives that day, woo hoo!! You know you've got a pretty good chance when even on the way there Sly, your skiff driver extraordinaire, is pointing them out from the surface. Thank you Momma Ocean, more again next week please. This day also saw the beginning of a very special week-long relationship: Maureen and her octopus friend Oscar. She hung out with him for a good ten mins one dive and politely asked him to stick around for the next group which he did: Erich and Ursula found him exactly where Maureen had said he would be and enjoyed some quality octo-time also. That evening, air-diver Allan began to wonder just how it was that many others in the group still seemed to have high energy levels even after 4 dives: when we explained that it was probably because they were breathing Nitrox rather than air he decided he'd like himself some of that and signed up for the PADI Enriched Air Speciality course. Getting straight in to his studying that night, we followed up with a couple of days of instructor tuition before certifying him.... congratulations Allan!
Day 3 saw us arrive in Gau for an epic day of shark diving! The currents were pumping and we enjoyed two dives that were just kicking off with grey reef sharks, schooling barracuda and tons of midnight snappers. Even Alex who works with sharks all day long was pretty excited to see them so plentiful in their natural environment. And Gary T declared it was one of those dives where there's just so many fish that they get in the way: we take that as a compliment! We ended the day with chilled dives at Anthias Avenue where the group were graced with yet another manta ray (arriving just seconds after Elaine turned off her camera of course!), and Jim's Alley where Susan spotted a super-cute reeftop pipefish (she was convinced it was the infamous NAI'A pipefish but with the total lack of any red or stripes we're just going to have to say no and disappoint on this one!). After drying off, we headed to land for an amazing village visit at Somosomo. As always we were welcomed with open arms and enjoyed a spectacular show of Fijian songs and dance. Back on the boat, we enjoyed a feast for dinner then an impromptu guitar and kava session on the deck.
Flirty Flatworm by Alex
Manta-tastic by Alex
Eye am a Stone by Alex
Just Clowning Around by Gary B
Peek a Boo! by Gary B
Gloomy by Name...Not by Nature by Gary B
Manly Manicure Please by Gary B
I'm Just Going to Leaf This Here by Gary B
Get Your Groove On by Milt
KAVA TIME by Milt
Who Needs a Dentist by Milt
Looking a little sorry for himself the next morning, Gary B declared that Big Mo had 'led him astray'. We understand Gary, we really do. But what better way to recover than a 7am dive?! We spent the morning at South Save-A-Tack, Namena, with great dives at Tetons and Mushrooms. A few of the group were spoiled with yet ANOTHER manta: that's 3 days outta 4 now!! Chad's group enjoyed schooling barracuda, a big fat lobster and a poor one-handed Baba squat lobster. Oscar the Octopus, bless him, had clearly followed us overnight (many, many nautical miles, yes) and put on another spellbinding show for the ever-appreciative Maureen. Dan found us an awesome Blue Dragon Nudibranch bravely climbing onto a Crown of Thorns. And Susan found her endemic Fijian species, albeit a Nemo rather than a pipefish! Vanessa meanwhile spent some quality time with Elaine and Gary, showing them a Yellow Damsel guarding her nest of eggs, a huge hunting barracuda and a pretty purple flatworm. She got more than she bargained for when she rested her hand in a crevice to get cleaned by some hungry shrimp: a moray eel appeared from nowhere and also had a little nibble. He was actually very gentle though and enjoyed a cheeky nose tickle! For the afternoon dives we headed to North Save-A-Tack and tackled Schoolhouse. Current was PUMPING which made for a very fishy dive: fusiliers were pouring over the top reef, red tooth triggers lined the wall from 30-100' and several big predators came stalking through. The current junkies in the group kicked into the current to hold their position and loved the spectacular show, others found it a bit much and let the drift carry them on their safety stop all the way back to NAI'A! The final dive of the day saw Big Mo take his followers to Kansas where Oscar and half his family were waiting, ready to put on a show again. Those who opted out of the last dive spent their time instead IDing many of the cool creatures they'd seen that day, including thorny oysters and the less than attractive sounding Halgerda nudibranch (prettier than its name suggests). During dinner we celebrated the anniversaries of two of our lovely couples: happy 20th Shannon and Milt, and happy 25th Dan and Alex! We then joined the crew on the dive deck once again to continue our celebrations with the official kava party of the week. As we enjoyed incredible singing and guitar-playing, Maureen commented that this is what makes NAI'A truly special: being part of the crew's Fijian 'village' on board the boat. Chad and Vanessa snuck off somewhere around ten but word on the street is the most dedicated of the group kept going till 1 or 2 in the morning. Loving your effort guys!
After a peaceful sleep at anchor in Namena, we awoke bright and early for another full day of diving. The morning saw us return to the south, where we dived Inner and Outer Two Thumbs Up. Conditions were lovely: mild current and clear water, really showing off the top reefs at their best. Milt and Shannon saw a pregnant white tip reef shark, always a nice indicator of the health of the eco system. Vanessa pointed out a huge Moray getting a clean from a friendly/brave shrimp and Joyce spotted a miniscule Fiji Anemonefish on the top reef. Chad showed Mark and Joyce a couple of brown banded pipefish and a friendly gloomy tambja nudi. And who shows up again but our friend Oscar?! What a well-traveled octopus. In the afternoon we hit up Grand Central Station and were treated with much calmer currents than the previous afternoon. During Vanessa's dive Dan and Alex discovered their very own Arch, Jim merged into a huge school of bigeye trevallies and Maureen stared in wide eyed disbelief at the biggest tuna EVER! Big Mo's gang enjoyed multiple sharks cruising along the wall and then as they relaxed on The Arch (as opposed to Dan and Alex's Arch) stared at 'something' awesome Big Mo was showing them....it was only upon surfacing and chatting about it they realized the wacky critter was a golden mantis shrimp! The next dive, everyone took a closer look at Kansas and The Arch, the highlight being a miniscule seahorse spotted by Big Mo from something like 100' away. After the 4th dive most of the group called it quits for the day and hit the gin! Only Allan, Dan and Alex resisted and signed up for the post-dinner night dive, setting off with rowdy cheers from the rest of the gang on top deck. Beautiful bioluminescence lit up the water as the back rolled in and under there they found a juvenile many spotted sweetlips, a free swimming moray, a 1-inch juvenile scorpion fish, 2 huge shells with sticky out stalk eyes (technical terminology!) along with masses of shrimps and crabs. They arrived back to the boat to find everyone singing and kava-ing on the dive deck....AGAIN!
After a bit of a bumpy crossing (and maybe one too many gins?!), there were a few bleary eyes the next morning, not helped by the grey skies and rain that had set in overnight. Oh well, after accepting the 'liquid sunshine' and shoving soggy skins and swimsuits in the tumble drier, pretty much everyone got their game faces on and went diving anyway. That's the spirit! And we were all rewarded with beautiful dives at Cat's Meow and Vatu Vonu. Our favorite Pygmies were still hanging out on their black coral home, Vanessa found 5 little shrimps hiding up and down one coral whip to test Allan's eyesight, a couple of scorpion fish gave away their position in the blink of an eye and Chad's group finished their dives with a nice school of barracuda. For most people that spelt the end of their diving time this trip: the grey skies and windy seas convinced them that the afternoon would be better spent with a beer and a good book. Not for Alex, Dan, Susan and Gary T however: the last ones standing, they enjoyed a peaceful dive at The Pinnacles with Vanessa in the afternoon. The conditions were super calm and with only 5 of us on the whole dive site there was loads of space to explore. Yellow soft corals were blooming down one whole side of the main pinnacle, a sleek White Tip circled a couple of times and who showed up just at the end to put on one final display? None other than Oscar the Octopus of course!
By the time the last dive returned, the sun had decided to show itself once more and so we ended the day with glorious sunshine and everyone relaxing on the top deck, content after a week of rewarding diving and entertaining times aboard the NAI'A with her special Fijian crew.
“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