What Had Happened Was
We knew we were going to have our hands full the minute this group started unpacking their bags. From amongst the mess of dive equipment and clothing, litre upon litre of gin, vodka, tequila, you name it, started appearing. What had happened was, this group had a strict rule: bring at least a litre of alcohol or you’re not coming on board. Some had opted for the safe side and brought two, or three, even the 16 year old was accounted for. Quick, Suli, check the ice!
So you can imagine the ruckus caused that night when during the safety briefing, right after the bit that goes “there will be no smoking anywhere on the vessel…”, Joji said, completely deadpan: “there will be no booze anywhere on the vessel”, which met a chorus of boos. At the time we thought that was the closest to pandemonium we would come that trip. Unfortunately however, trouble of a different variety was headed our way. Several storms were lurking nearby, threatening to disrupt play, but we put our best foot forward and planned accordingly.
Notably absent from all these first day shenanigans were Gary and Sharon. They had ironically missed their flight because of bad weather in Texas, however they finally made it on board at 10am on Wednesday, the second day. Stating that “they’d be upset if we didn’t do anything”, ringleaders of all pranks, Barbara and Sophie lined up all divers as well as several of the crew as soon as Gary and Sharon arrived, for Fiji’s record longest fin-spanking gauntlet!
This behavior all makes a lot more sense when you consider that every member of this group was a pirate. Dive Pirates to be precise. It’s a wonderful charitable foundation set up by Team BS (Barbara & Sophie… of course) to help injured and disabled people go diving. But it’s also coincidentally, a great excuse for a lot of, err, pirate like behavior. Arrrr!
So with a very tired Gary & Sharon safely onboard, we set off for the fantastic sea mounts of Mount Mutiny and E-6. These towering pinnacles gave us all a great glimpse of some of Fiji’s famous soft coral as well as a few white tip reef sharks and a strangely inflated porcupinefish stuck up in a crevice with a second much smaller uninflated buddy swimming around it. Was this mating behavior? Visiting the Cathedral on E-6 that afternoon we then continued along the reef and Charley, Jason and Amanda spent a record 84 minutes swimming happily along in the shallows of one of the most impressive hard coral gardens we have here.
That night was the first night dive of the trip and the first of a lifetime for Paige. At sixteen years old, Paige is already a great, calm diver, so it was surprising to see her struggling to get down at the start of the dive. Joshua had to pack eight additional pounds to sink her! What had happened was, Paige had decided to wear a brand new 7mm wetsuit on her first night dive on a 3000’ pinnacle and hadn’t thought she might need more weight! But all’s well that end’s well. A valiant effort between Joshua and Charley meant that no one had to end the dive early. Hurrah!
So back to that pesky weather situation. We had been watching carefully from a few days before the charter started as various storms formed in our vicinity. Expecting the closest one to arrive around the sixth or seventh day of the charter, we headed straight for Namena to take advantage of the best conditions. Arriving on the third day, which was also New Year’s Eve, we had a fantastic start at North Save-a-Tack that morning. The current was running in just enough to make Schoolhouse a massive hit. Huge schools of the longface emperor and big eyed trevallies making a backdrop for four different species of shark, including a close pass by the crowd pleasing scalloped hammerhead! Well spotted, Preston! Plus three kinds of reef shark: grey, white tip and the elusive black tip.
We learnt early on that Charley would be a good dive buddy, always reacting to the interesting wildlife we pointed out with audible “oohs”. Having followed a similar path of dive work/travel (and yet somehow was now in a more stable job that allowed her to actually be a guest on a boat like this rather than crew!) she had accumulated many thousand dives and was as at home in the water as we were. To demonstrate this, she skillfully managed to steal J’s fin so that he had to swim after the hammerhead with one fin only, pirate style. What had happened was, J tried to kick Charley’s reg out of her mouth. So it was, after all, a fair fight.
The second dive in the north was at the famous Grand Central Station. With just a small incoming current the conditions were perfect. Clear vis, a good amount of fish, including some nice shark action and big schools of barracuda, pompano and trevally. From large to very little, it was then time to get magnifying glasses out for some as we then snuck down after the Arch to visit our new friend the pygmy seahorse.
The afternoon took us, in glorious sunshine, to South Save-a-Tack. Just before boarding the skiffs for the afternoon dive, some got prematurely wet as Katie poured beers over Preston and Marlene’s heads. What had happened was, they’d reached their 100th dives. It’s a Dive Pirate (and a Texan) thing and we like it! It was especially fitting as Marlene was the most pirate-like of the bunch.
Having lost half her leg in army combat, she had overcome a lot to be here today. When she first returned after recovery, she would go to the beach and swim, with her one leg, in the ocean. Straight out to the buoys and back, it was hard work but she enjoyed the quietness of mind and the sound of the ocean so much. This is where Dive Pirates found her, or maybe she found them… either way it was a happy meeting for both parties. Sophie then taught her to dive and she became somewhat of a poster child for the organization.
Now often an amputee will only be able to achieve a level two through four of dive certification, which means that while being qualified to dive, they will always require some sort of assistance. However, due to Marlene’s strength and comfort level in the water and, undoubtedly a huge effort by both Marlene and Sophie, they remarkably managed to qualify her as level one, Open Water diver, just like the rest of us. She now even has a specially adapted dive leg, which has an interchangeable foot and fin. Skiff driver Moji became a pro in helping her change one out with the other, even in the waves, and then of course helping her in and out of the boat with grace… or something like that!
Jumping in at Tetons II that afternoon we had a very special treat. A huge black manta glided by right in the beginning making this day a real winner with both hammerheads and mantas in a day. It was a very good end to the year.
About ten hours later however, it was a very different story. After a delicious dinner in the salon sparkling with lights and tinsel, many decided that one midnight was much like the next and headed off to bed at the normal time. Marlene and a handful of cohorts decided to screw with Barbara and Sophie for dropping off to bed early, so they taped cling film – coated with lotion – over their cabin door and screamed bloody murder. Anticlimactically, Barbara emerged without crashing through the plastic and Sophie didn’t even wake up! Note to self, next time turn off the hall lights. By the time midnight came around it was just Hallie, Charley, Jason, Amanda and Joshua toasting the new year with a glass of champagne, joined by a few of the crew who stayed up with us drinking kava and playing tunes.
Flat out - by Barbara
It's not all black & white - by Barbara
Spotty - by Barbara
All fins - by Barbara
Ice cream cone - by Barbara
Mutiny Magic - by Barbara
Hide away - by Charley
Aaand they're off! - by Charley
Bed of roses - by Charley
Rarity - by Charley
Magic carpet ride - by Charley
Rubble discovery - by Charley
Just poking around
Synchrony - by Charley
Lined up - by Katie
Juvies - by Katie
Clowning around - by Katie
Take off - by Katie
Angelic - by Katie
On the lookout - by Katie
When the captain quietly separated himself from us at 12:30 and stood staring out at the ocean we knew something was up. We were anchored by the island of Namena, which according to all available weather reports should have been a fine place to shelter from the forecast thirty knot winds. By 12:45 even we had noticed that the winds had picked up however and by 1am it was all hands on deck. What had happened was, winds which had suddenly intensified to 50 knots whipped around the island, forcing us to heave anchor and head for the shelter and safety of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second biggest island. Emerging from behind Namena, however, the full force of the storm hit us face on. Our tropical depression had turned into a cyclone.
Within minutes, Captain Johanthan decided that the safest option was to return to the relative shelter of Namena Island. There we dropped two anchors and Johnathan and Big Mo then took turns in the exhausting task of driving the boat into the waves all through the night, while the rest of the crew did their very best to lash down and secure everything else. Needless to say, nobody slept that night.
As dawn broke the storm eased off slightly, allowing us to assess the damage. One of the first things we noticed was our new passengers. Several seabirds, who normally give us a wide berth apart from occasionally perching on our bow, had taken up residence onboard! With six boobies on the bridge deck and one who’d settled in quite nicely – thank you very much – on the weight bin on the dive deck, we had ourselves a veritable aviary.
The only noticeable absence was, unfortunately, three tanks, complete with dive gear belonging to Barbara, Joshua and poor Sharon, who it seemed, was not on a winning streak. What had happened was, shoulder-high waves slammed over the stern platform and, despite the heroic efforts of Chief Engineer Lai, who stood clinging to the stern salvaging 17 sets of gear, they escaped. We counted our lucky stars that he had managed to save all the rest and of course, himself.
The weather continued to die down all morning, so after a well-needed kip for all the crew we organized an afternoon dive along the shores of Namena Lala, where Barbara, Preston and Paige found themselves diving without mouthpieces as the storm had ripped them off! Upon surfacing we noticed that the wind had picked up again so we headed over to Solevu Bay, Vanua Levu while the going was good. This is where we’d spend the next day until the storm had blown over and we could get back at our dive sites in the more exposed areas.
The diving there was, as you’d imagine, fairly mucky. We were affected by all the runoff from the main island, but there were still some interesting critters and juvenile fishes to be found for those willing to swim slowly. Namely, juveniles of the spotted parrotfish, many spotted sweetlips and brush-tailed tang. As the day went on and the storm changed direction, it started to get more blown out, so we heaved anchor again and headed for Viti Levu Bay.
The tropical depression that we’d hoped would leave us alone, was lingering to our north, but meanwhile, another one had turned into Cyclone Ula and was off to the east of Fiji, threatening to head straight for us. This was about as far from good news as you could get. We were being threatened from both sides, and having seen how nasty a tropical depression could get, we were wary of both and playing it as safe as we could. Or so we thought.
Waking to blue sky and sunshine the next morning, however, everyone’s hopes rocketed. Spotting two seamounts on the chart away from the main reef and on the edge of a steep drop off, we jumped in to some very interesting topography, nice hard corals and to top it off, a school of about forty squid on our safety stop. Paige, Carly, Robin, Charley and Amanda all hung out with these guys for ages. To be honest it was hard to tell who was more curious about whom!
On the back of this success and with the weather still looking great, we nosed out into unchartered territory at the south end of the Vatu-i-Ra reef system. This was much further than we’d made it last year when sheltering from Cyclone Pam, so this was great!
Dropping anchor where we had easy access to what looked like several potential dive sites, we jumped in on two promising pinnacles on the outside of the reef. The vis was a little under par, but we had an interesting dive spotting a couple of really good sized grey reef sharks, a small school of the rare and endemic Marjorie’s Wrasse and some of our famed beautiful soft corals. It felt like we were at least close to the sites we love. Everyone surfaced with a smile, but back on board, yet again, things had changed. Captain had received info on the storms that would again scupper our plans.
With sad faces, we headed again for shelter and an internet connection to find out that we were right in the path of disaster. Knowing how the weather was indeed a fickle mistress, we spent some time discussing the options with the gang, but came to the conclusion that it was better to start looking into flights home. Bear in mind that this was a group from Houston. These people are no strangers to the odd hurricane and the devastation that they can wreak in a country like the States. In a country like Fiji, you may well be stranded for several more days at best, so they knew what they were up against.
Obviously, we were all very sad that the charter had to end this way, but we couldn’t have hoped for a better attitude among our guests. Everyone accepted the news with grace, cheer and optimisim. While we can cater to almost any special requests onboard NAI’A, what had happened was, there wasn’t nothin we could do about the weather! The best we could do for everyone at this stage was to get them home safely.
We were able to squeeze in one more dive that afternoon for the very hardy. The wind had indeed picked up again and had left us with one option only: the very murky fringing reef of Nananu-i-Ra. Those that braved it however were well rewarded. Whilst we had trouble seeing each other underwater, among the bounty discovered were cassiopea jellyfish, Persian carpet flatworms and for the most tenacious divers of the whole tour, Charley and Jason, two robust ghost pipefish. Nice!
Thanks to Captain’s knowledge of the inside reefs, we had a surprisingly smooth ride back to Lautoka that night in the shelter of Viti Levu, followed by a day of washing, drying and packing, before we sadly bid farewell to our anything but fair weather friends. Thank you for being such great sports, Dive Pirates. We appreciate your good humour and patience and very much look forward to having you back to show you capricious Fiji’s better side, another time.
“Thank you Amanda, Joshua & all the crew for this amazing trip. Loved the ambiance, kindness & help. Would love to come back… no cyclone next time please.”
“Team BS is forever grateful for the fabulous diving, education & fun. In spite of the tropical disturbances, we dove, ate & drank with gusto. We are also in your debt for the heroic efforts of the crew in the early hours of this New Year. Be warned, we will return.”
“Lomaiviti reefs are in extremely good condition compared to Indonesia and PNG. Immediate action must be taken to conserve this unique region.”
~ Dr. Michael Marnane, Marine Biologist, Wildlife Conservation Society