Seems RAYsonable To Us!
Well, we knew the ocean gods were working in our favor this week when we had a special guest entertain us as we prepped the boat for our divers' arrival: a stunning Manta Ray came cruising into the wharf right alongside NAI'A and hung out with us for nearly two hours! We prayed and prayed that she (yes, we've decided only lady mantas can be THAT graceful!) would stick around for our guests....and she was more than obliging! Not only did she hang out as the minibus arrived and the guests offloaded, she barrel-rolled over and over, showing off her pretty tum-tum for all to see. Not every trip begins with such good omens!
After 5 or 10 minutes with Lady Manta, we coaxed the group aboard and officially met our guests for the next ten days. We welcomed back two NAI'A returnees - New Zealander Quentin and American Jean - then an awesome assortment of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities: American-but-living-in-UK Laurie, Russian-but-living-in-UK Andrey, half-Bulgarian-half-Israeli-but-living-in-UK Albena (definitely a common theme here!), Thai couple Tarawat and Kobkarn, American Bill and his Aussie/American/lived in UK wife Janelle, and American-but-descendant-of-Robert The Bruce (fact!) Mike...What an eclectic mix!
After introductions and a welcome briefing we headed out for our check out dive at Samu Reef. We had some weighting issues and equipment malfunctions but that's what the checkout dive is for: a perfect chance to get any little niggles sorted before the real diving kicks off the next day. Andrey still found time to hang out with an octopus for a while though!
We set sail that evening and woke to a day of beautiful diving in Vatu I Ra. We got off to a great start on Coral Corner: all our divers were mesmerized by the bright yellow soft corals covering the wall from top to bottom. Vanessa also showed Jean multiple sharks (her favorites, she just loves them!) and Andrey might even have got a snap of a cheeky Grey Reef nibbling a White Tip! Add to that some huge Pickhandle Barracuda circling overhead and all in all we had a pretty nice dive! Next up the skiffs alternated between Maytag and Mellow Yellow. Those first up for Maytag had a challenging time with super strong currents but dealt with it really well. In the meantime, those on Mellow Yellow had it a little calmer: Tarawat spotted several sharks skulking around the edge of the pinnacle and Big Mo found multiple cool nudis. Currents had calmed down considerably by the next dive but were still strong enough to keep things super-fishy. Vanessa guided Mellow Yellow and her gang determinedly kicked around the pinnacle into the current to be rewarded with raining Fusiliers and some big predators targeting their prey around the outside. On the calmer side as they slowed down, Laurie and Mike had a giggle as they tried to find the head of a very lengthy, winding Moray Eel all wrapped up in a crevice! Having 'lost' wide-angle photographer Bill very early on in the dive, Vanessa was not at all surprised to find him amidst all the life and color of the top reef as she did her safety stop: one very content diver! Chad tackled Maytag and hunted down its resident leaf scorpionfish, looking very chill despite all the current. After those pretty tiring dives, we decided to go for a nice, easy, calm one at Alacrity for the last day-dive: Big Mo impressed the group as ever when he found the first Ghost Pipefish of the trip, this one an Ornate. After dinner, we headed back to Alacrity for a night dive: Vanessa found what is quite possibly the world's biggest star fish sprawled across the wall and Bill and Janelle enjoyed a few juvenile lion and scorpion fish.
That afternoon and evening the wind and waves had been getting quite intense so we decided to make a break for it and outrun the bad weather, setting off on the long journey to Wakaya that night. We woke up to glorious calm seas and sunny skies: mission accomplished! We spent the day checking out the long wall, from Vatu Vai, through Blue Ridge and down to Lion's Den: and all day long we were treated to magical manta moments! A few lucky individuals (especially Kobkarn, the Manta whisperer!!) were fortunate enough to see them whilst diving but everyone got to enjoy beautiful glimpses from the skiff to and from dive sites. One even came right alongside us and gave a little wave! Thanks Joji and Koroi for your incredible eyes. Underwater, Quentin was wowed by Big Mo's infamous critter-spotting ability. He said he himself was convinced that there was nothing much going on down there and when suddenly from nowhere Big Mo would find a Leaf Scorpion, a Robust Ghost Pipefish, a juvenile Ribbon Eel etc. etc! He also managed to hunt down the rare and very good at hide-n-seek Helfrich's Dartfish at 110'! Come on Big Mo, give the rest of us mere mortals a chance....! Over dinner that evening, everyone started to get to know each other a bit better and inevitably started comparing diving experiences. Chad and Vanessa's list of must-see dive spots is getting longer and longer, thanks guys! Tarawat, we're coming to see you in Thailand for some whalesharks.....
We thought we'd been ever so smart outrunning the bad weather to the north east of Viti Levu the previous evening. However, it now meant we were somewhat stuck! The winds continued to pick up to the north making that a no-go and to the south the currents were not yet conducive to the dives we'd got planned there. Biding our time for those perfect conditions, we decided to spend another day in Wakaya and do a bit of exploratory diving both there and at nearby Makogai. First up was the super-deep Yellow Wall: viz was lovely the deeper we got and we had to resist the temptation to keep going, the bottom was an easy 300' down!! Both Chad and Vanessa's group were greeted by a lovely Hawksbill turtle. Jean, Quentin and Albena watched it swim casually overhead, making a beautiful silhouette against the clear water and bright sky. They also laughed as a school of at least 50 bat fish came charging past, clearly in a hurry to get somewhere very important. Bat fish tea party presumably. Chad's group spotted a lovely scarred flatworm and a big Moray Eel striking a pose for the photographers. Next up, we decided to check out Ron's Delight and Rick's Rocks, two sites Big Mo used to do but not for many months/years. The former, sadly, did not live up to its name but the latter was a very pleasant surprise! Everyone came up happy and the macro photographers especially had been spoilt for choice. Mike did a great job finding a white tip reef shark and a shy octopus for everyone to enjoy and Janelle found a lovely, striking purple nudibranch in the rubble. Vanessa found a strange looking white mass, in a looping spirally kind of a shape, resting on a ledge right next to a Blue Dragon Nudibranch: as she guessed (but confirmed on Google after!) it was indeed the nudi's eggs. Weird and wonderful! Vanessa also found a nice pipefish for Andrey to photograph. She then moved on but soon saw Laurie coming by so tried to re-find it for her: no need, Laurie managed to spot it for herself, good work! For the last dive we decided to do a re-run of Rick's Rocks now that everyone knew what kind of stuff to look for. Vanessa thought she'd done quite well at the spotting on the last dive....until Big Mo came back from this one having found ANOTHER Ornate Ghost Pipefish!! After showering and drying off we got ourselves ready for our village visit on Makogai, including electing ourselves a chief to represent us. By unanimous vote, Andrey was the chosen one and did us very proud: to the extent we haven't yet overthrown him or led a revolution! We had a great couple of hours on land with lots of kava, singing and dancing. Albena, your follow my leader moves were exceptional!
At last the currents shifted in our favor and we moved south to Gau for two days of epic shark diving! These dives are always a highlight of the trip and this time was no exception, with unusually calm waters and wonderful visibility. During our first dive at Nigali Passage, Vanessa was 20 mins into the dive and stopped counting the sharks at 55 coz it was just getting silly! Now THAT'S what we call diving!! After 40-45 mins with sharks all around, the divers moved on and also got to enjoy the huge patch of cabbage coral and the massive 2000 year old Porites bommie, really shown off at their best with the clear water and sunny skies, just spectacular. We then did the next couple of dives at Jim's Alley and Anthias Avenue: both enjoyable, relaxing dives but nothing huge to report after the action of that morning. The last dive of the day took us to the Outside Nigali slope: despite massive surge swinging us back and forth in the water, we still managed to find a huge lobster, a tiny baby shark hiding under a rock, a sea snake coming straight at Quentin for a photo and a big Moray Eel that was looking a bit worse for wear after presumably losing a fight (though we haven't seen the other guy, maybe he's worse off?!). That night we all gathered on the dive deck for another great kava party: big smiles all round as the crew sung and played guitar for everyone. Lacking an actual musical instrument, Tarawat made do with an upside down kava bucket for a drum, good improvising!
Grey on Grey - by Andrey
Life And Sole - by Andrey
Bashful Blenny - by Andrey
With All the Frills - by Andrey
Playing Safe - by Andrey
Give Us A Smile - by Andrey
Say AHHHH - by Bill
So Pretty O So Pretty - by Bill
Put Your Right Fin In... - by Bill
Color BOMBie - by Bill
Hitching a Ride - by Bill
Master of Disguise - by Janelle
Eggcellent! - by Janelle
Go Mo - by Laurie
Warm Welcome - by Laurie
Kava Time - by Laurie
Cute To The Power Of 5 - by Laurie
Young Warriors - by Laurie
Follow My Leader - by Laurie
WHEEEEEEEE! - by Quentin
Apex - by Quentin
Macro Magic - by Quentin
Cheesy Grin - by Quentin
Our second day in Gau was even more awesome than the first! TWO dives at Nigali Passage! Vanessa's group had non-stop action from the get-go, descending straight into a massive swirling school of Big Eye and Blackfin Barracuda. Bill was so impressed by these that we 'lost' him (once again!) at this stage and didn't see him again until back on the NAI'A: Barracuda Bill forevermore. Laurie, Mike, Janelle and Andrey stuck together and enjoyed at least 40 grey reefs confidently cruising by. And a stunning rare treat: a huge Devil Ray, coming overhead at least three times! Chad's group were even more fortunate: a Devil Ray AND a Manta! So many beautiful rays on this trip: greedy some might say, seems RAYsonable to us though! We all had a giggle over lunch when Janelle decided to nickname Vanessa 'Hermione': apparently she looks like quite the little wizard underwater gesturing dramatically with her bright white pointy stick! After lunch, the group had a wonderful dive at the deep pinnacle Jungle Jig, enjoying mild conditions and super-good viz. The pinnacle BEGINS at 80': it looked so tempting to go deeper and deeper but we were very well behaved. And the top was wonderfully colorful and full of life: Big Mo pointed out a teeny Morrison's Dragonet and Vanessa found an Orange-Spotted Pipefish. Later on, along the slope, Vanessa set Tarawat a macro photographer challenge, pointing out the miniest juvenile Spotted Parrotfish imaginable; essentially just a speck of white and orange drifting under a rock. Our time in Gau ended with a peaceful dive back at Anthias Avenue. That evening, we were in for a wonderful surprise: Chef Mita and her wonderful team had whipped a storm in the galley and we all tucked into a roast turkey feast for Thanksgiving Dinner! We all recognized our gratitude for travel, diving and new friends.
Overnight, we traveled smoothly North to the marine protected area of Namena, where we would spend two days. Both skiffs went to Two Thumbs Up to begin the day: Chad came back most excited to have found his very own Robust Ghost Pipefish (we were beginning to think they were invisible to all but Big Mo!). We then split the group for the next dive: one skiff to Tetons 1 with Vanessa and the other to Magic Mushrooms with Chad. Jean was very happy to have seen a white tip reef shark and an octopus (her other favorite!). And Tarawat and Albena enjoyed the white Leaf Scorpion Chad pointed out. Vanessa meanwhile, showed Laurie and Andrey a very cute 1-inch Sea Hare she'd never seen before and also introduced them to cleaner shrimp manicures! A little later on she was baffled when she felt something bashing into her head and then into her fin: when it came straight for her mask with a 'clunk' she discovered it was a most grumpy yellow damselfish with anger management issues! As she swam swiftly past it decided to start on Laurie instead: oops, sorry! We spent our last day-dive on Kansas, so our divers could get to know the layout of the site before doing our night dive there after dinner. Vanessa and Andrey found a good 10 pipefish between them, Mike pointed one of Vanessa's favorites the Red Spotted Blenny and Quentin spent most of his dive getting up close and personal with a friendly Coral Trout.
Our second day in Namena started at The Arch (it was SUPPOSED to start at Grand Central Station but Momma Ocean has been toying with us all week and mixing up her currents!): despite the challenging current, everyone had a great dive and found some cool stuff. Big Mo showed the group a feeding Hawksbill turtle – always a favorite – and Vanessa showed those who were brave enough to get close a HUGE Moray Eel. The photographers particularly had fun capturing nice shots of their buddies swimming through the big coral arch formation. Vanessa and Laurie wandered off towards Purple Hills at the end of the dive, steering clear of a ferocious Triggerfish eating a sea cucumber on the way and checking out a big scorpionfish on their safety stop. Next up was a super currenty, super fishy dive at Two Thumbs Up. Finding shelter between the pinnacle and the coral ridge, Big Mo picked out a Robust Ghost Pipefish and a Shortnose Pipefish (the latter being essentially a floaty thin piece of nothingness with a face!). Chad's group dropped in on a Grey Reef and a White Tip on the edge of the pinnacle then stayed sheltered and enjoyed the colorful soft coral all plumped up in the current. For the third dive of the day we split the group between Mushrooms and Tetons 1, both stunning sites for the wide angle photographers in the group. The last dive of the day was at Tetons 2 where Chad found a pretty Blue Ribbon Eel and Andrey found himself 6 or 7 Banded Pipefish in a one-meter radius!
We woke up early the next morning in Vuya and were welcomed with the most spectacular sunrise: every shade of red, pink and orange spreading across the sky and reflecting in the ocean. What a lovely way to kick start the day and our moods only got better and better after great morning dives at Cat's Meow and Humann Nature. At Cat's, our divers got to enjoy the much-anticipated Pygmy Seahorses AND a Pygmy Octopus, no more than 2 inches wide with his little legs stretched as far as they could go. Despite many interesting creatures at Humann Nature (sharks, barracuda, a Reeftop Pipefish, pretty nudis etc etc) the highlight turned out to be a lobster....a dead one. Completely intact, it was just perched on a hard coral looking very alive and well except for the total lack of movement and, upon closer inspection, it turned out to be just the shell and made everyone giggle! The laughter may have got louder as Big Mo perched it atop his head..... Over lunch we moved just an hour back over to Vatu I Ra where we had enjoyed our very first day of diving together. The port skiff enjoyed a beautiful dive back at Mellow Yellow with Chad while Vanessa's group decided to revisit Maytag and try to do it justice after the excessively currenty dive of a week before. It was a gamble but it sure paid off! From minute one right through to the last seconds of the safety stop it was truly spectacular and the group came up saying 'oh, THAT'S what Maytag should be like!' Later that afternoon Koroi took the gang out and dropped in on Coral Corner once more: it was a bit of a fly-by by all accounts but everyone came up laughing and pumped with adrenaline! After dinner, as the boat was on the move relocating for the night dive at Howard's Diner, everyone was contentedly watching a magical sunset over the mountains of Viti Levu when all of a sudden we hear the cry of 'DOLPHINS' from the bow. We run up and are delighted to see several dolphins keeping pace with their namesake NAI'A, jumping and spinning and generally having a fun old time!
Our final day was spent in the lovely area of Nananu I Ra and we tackled three beautiful dive sites: Pinnacles, Labyrinth and Golden Sunset. Vanessa started out with the Starboard skiff: her group had a great time checking out a pair of mating octopi and several big lobsters. Andrey was focused on his macro photography and got some winning shots of the challenging Transparent Anemone and Cuapates Shrimps as well as a pretty black and yellow flatworm. Chad, meanwhile, looked after the Port divers, finding a number of spectacular nudis, the most beautiful of which was a Chromodoris in the middle of laying her pretty eggs. After lunch we reluctantly set out for the last dive of the charter: it had been ten days of great people and great diving, no one was in a hurry for it to end. But end it must and so the guys said goodbye to Fiji diving with a peaceful, relaxed-pace dive at Golden Sunset (Vanessa may or may not have got somewhat lost on a 10' plateau for the middle twenty minutes of her dive: hopefully stretching it out to 75 mins made up for it!!). A great end to a great charter.
The day ended with a great guest slideshow: you really got some lovely shots folks! And we cannot wait for Barracuda Bill, coming to a cinema near you in 2017.......or later......probably later.......it is Bill after all!!
“Joann & I had a remarkable experience here in Tonga! Our diving trips mostly entail liveaboard boats and this one was the best yet – great crew & great food! You are fortunate to have the ownership in place to allow you to do it right! We won’t easily forget our “Whale Week” on NAI’A – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime gig!!”
~ Terry & Joann