Within minutes of boarding our new passengers, we knew we were in for an amazing final charter of 2016: we couldn't have asked for a more friendly, happy bunch of people to see 2017 in with! We were super excited to welcome home the legend that is Steve Webster of Monterey Bay Aquarium fame along with his avid followers, including many NAI'A regulars. We also welcomed back Carole and Oliver, an Anglo-American couple based in New York, along with Brenda and Jon who have been with us in Fiji and Tonga before. Last but not least, we welcomed NAI'A fresh faces doctor-lawyer duo Andrea and Robert. Our guests of honor this trip were four of the core NAI'A family: owner Rob Barrel and Cat Holloway, who ran the boat together back in the early days and their two awesome young girls Parri and Malia, who had just completed their Open Water course with Chad and Vanessa and were eager to start fun diving.
We had pretty much a full house for the Samu Reef checkout dive, great to see everyone getting comfortable with new equipment and weighting ready for the 'real' diving kicking off the next day. We had a nice peaceful dive with easy conditions and a couple of very cool finds. Jill excitedly pointed to a blob on the bottom using hand signals to suggest it looked like an upside down jellyfish: which is exactly what it WAS! Well, the official name is a Cassiopeia but essentially it's a jelly that has evolved to plop itself upside down on the bottom rather than drift mid water. And Karen captured a stunning event with her excellent macro videography skills: a female coral whip shrimp laying an egg mass and using her two front pincers to shape it (we THINK! It certainly looks that way and none of us can imagine what else it would be!). That evening after dinner, Parri and Malia were made to feel like superstars as they were recognized for their hard work achieving their diving certifications: Vanessa proudly presented their diving cards and Steve nominated them for his fun initiative Diver of the Day (what time is it Karen??)! Well done girls, such an achievement.
We had such a smooth crossing overnight that Chad and Vanessa actually woke and looked out the window, worried that the boat had broken down and stopped moving it was so calm, and so we all woke full of energy ready for a day of diving in the ever impressive Vatu I Ra area. Mellow Yellow was just stunning, with our little resident white pygmy seahorse showing himself off atop a sandy ledge and endless streams of blue and yellow fusiliers pouring off the reef crest in glorious sunlight. Maytag was equally impressive: Jane faced her demons of a previous trip where she'd been chewed up and spat out by Maytag's infamous currents and came back beaming, and Robert followed Vanessa's advice and happily spent much of his dive latched on to a rock facing into the current at 20' just enjoying the show! Coral Corner was beautiful with perfectly plumped up yellow soft corals as well as some beefy sharks and barracuda skulking around. The 'pizza slice' as we've nicknamed it was kicking off, an amazing concentration of fish life and just full of color. In fact, Coral Corner was so good we decided to do it again at the end of the day but this time we styled it as a dedicated macro dive: after a thorough briefing we all dived super slow with our heads in the reef and found some exciting critters. Top two favorites were a robust ghost pipefish Chad showed Andrea, Robert and Lucy and a black and gold sapsucking slug Vanessa was super excited to show Jill! After a great last dive, we all enjoyed a delicious dinner whilst sharing stories from that day and previous dive adventures. During dessert, we celebrated Carole and Oliver's (hereon in known as Caroliver) 11th wedding anniversary, with congratulations spelt out in chocolate mousses: well done guys!
That night, we set off on a long but calm 12 hour passage all the way north to Taveuni where we would stay for two days to welcome in the New Year. On the 31st, some of the party headed off for a little land-visit, hiking up a little hill for the views and playing on the beach: Linda had a giggle learning partner yoga with Bruce and playing in the crystal shallow waters... forever young Linda! The rest of the gang had a stunning morning dive at Rainbow's End. Being just after New Moon, we had a strong, strong current: when even the White Tips look like they're struggling you know it's a ripper!! But it was no match for our excellent group, who all dealt with it exceptionally well and enjoyed the intense color and fish life it brought with it. Vanessa was a bit sad when she saw Robert getting blown over the reef fairly early on, assuming he'd had to cut his dive short: imagine her surprise when he came up AFTER she did! He'd listened super carefully to the briefing and had managed to get himself down and sheltered on the other side of the reef and enjoyed a remarkably peaceful dive... earning himself Diver of the Day for outstanding solo survival skills! For the second dive of the day we tackled Fish Factory and The Ledge, spotting a few nice creatures... but nothing so awesome as Ardelle's FIRST SHARK (we realise now she probably meant first shark of THIS trip but, whatever, we're getting excited regardless!)!! After lunch, we headed to the White Wall, hoping the expected lull that comes with the tidal change would allow for an afternoon dive there. We waited and we waited......and we waited......but Momma Ocean was toying with us and the current never abated so we regrettably had to accept it was a no-go and we hit the 'road' again, this time heading up to Rabi in time for dinner. Why Rabi specifically you might ask? Well, for one, it's a really spectacular, lush island with a beautiful bay: a perfect spot for the evening's celebrations. But, more importantly, it's EXACTLY where the 180th meridian cuts through Fiji.....meaning we could do a night dive bang on the line and be the first in the world to greet 2017!! How about that for once in a lifetime?! Mid-afternoon, everyone agreed this was a great idea: when the post-dinner coma hit around 9pm, however, we soon realized midnight is a real challenge for a bunch of tired divers! Some of the group were smart enough to take a 2hr nap: the rest of us stayed up, listening to the crew playing guitar on the dive deck, solving Bruce's never-ending supply of riddles and playing a range of fun card games. And maaaaaaybe we had just a little champagne to begin the celebrations. At 11.30 we gathered for a detailed briefing: not just on how to night dive, but more importantly on how to drink champagne underwater (surprisingly easy it turns out: invert the bottle and blow!). At 11.50 we got into the water and settled into a couple of large groups on the bottom ready to celebrate: as midnight hit on Chad and Vanessa's synchronized watches, we all swung our torches wildly above our heads and popped open the bottles.....HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!! We all came back exhilarated, it was a really unique and special experience.
The next day we had a 'late' start (well, 8.00am instead of 7.30am: can't have people drying out for too long!) and got ourselves prepped for a 'maybe-manta' dive. We'd heard rumors of mantas congregating in the area and thought we'd be mad not to at least check it out. Well, either they were just rumors or our timing was off coz not a manta did we see! Ah well, it was still a lovely dive and everyone made the most of it, especially Caroliver who were spotted barrel rolling and flapping their arms wildly, making their own manta action... good on ya guys! We then headed back to Somosomo Strait for a couple of beautiful dives on the hard coral slopes of Freeway and Jack's Place. The highlight of the day came around 5.30 though. Chad and Vanessa had been silently praying all day but didn't want to get people's hopes up again, so they silently snuck out for current check and came hurrying back announcing 'Go, go, GO....White Wall is ON!!!!!' The current was finally behaving more predictably that afternoon and was perfect for the last dive of the day. We quickly kitted up and got out there before the ocean could change her mind and we had a SPECTACULAR dive: the 'arctic blue' soft corals were blooming (after much debate and deliberation we've decided 'artic blue' best describes their mesmerizing color!) and the giant swim through from 15' to 70' was hit with perfect light, really a dream-like dive. Koroi even found a cute little Sole in the sand and Chad found a Thin Ghost Pipefish which Steve was all excited about (though it turns out his camera wasn't in focus and he's got some really nice shots of the rock behind!).
And so after two great days at Taveuni we set off that night on the long trek to Gau: we were super lucky with the crossing - couldn't have asked for calmer waters - and everyone woke refreshed and raring to go again. We spent the morning up north at what we call our 'warm up' dives for the day: Anthias Avenue and Jim's Alley. We saw a ton of cool stuff: from sexy shrimps to sting rays, from blue ribbon eels (good spot Jane!) to octopus, from Gloomy Tambja nudis to manicure giving cleaner shrimps......those kinda dives where there's never a dull moment, jumping from one great thing to another! Brenda came back wondering if those were just the warm up dives, what could possibly be coming that afternoon?! Nigali Passage, that's what!! That afternoon, we had two amazing dives at Nigali, one of the largest natural groupings of sharks in a set area we know about. It never fails to impress and this was no exception: the sharks were out in force and were complimented with a healthy dose of barracuda, BFGs (big friendly groupers) and three MASSIVE tuna. We ended the diving day just buzzing with excitement and chatting about our great interactions with the fish life over dinner. Post-dinner, professional photographer Bruce had some fun photographing Malia, Parri and 15 year old Lucy out on the bow of the boat: he captured some really great moments...keep those shots till you're 90 years old girls, what memories!
We stayed at anchor that night so had a good solid sleep ready for another day in Gau's amazing waters. We started the day with two dives on the Outside Nigali Slope and Jungle Jig. We were blessed with crystal clear water and calm conditions so managed to cruise along nice and peacefully, finding lots of cool critters. Jon was in for a cool surprise when thirty seconds after descending a banded sea snake swam right down in front of his GoPro: that's when you know it's going to be a good dive! And Vanessa was more than a little excited when she found not one but two golden mantis shrimps burrowed in a head of hard coral! Later in the dive, heading in to the rubbly shallows we started spotting several different cute little juveniles: a tiny rockmover wrasse, several bright orange yellow tail coris' and a beautiful leopard wrasse in its colorful intermediate phase. After lunch we returned to Nigali Passage once more, we just can't get enough of it! This time, we managed to draw people away from the sharks a little earlier and get them as far as the cabbage patch and the huge 2000 year old porites bommie. And we all had a giggle when Brenda came back: she'd been bitten. Not by a shark...but by a 6 inch orange lined trigger fish! We should clarify: nibbled rather than bitten... That afternoon we headed in to land for our village visit at Somosomo on Gau. Everyone was back in the village from Suva and further afield for the Christmas/New Year period and were in high festive spirits: we were greeted by the kids firing homemade canons off the beach and we had SO much fun in the village hall, with everyone getting involved in raucous singing and dancing!
Angel Delight - by Parri
Mom Is My Muse - by Malia
Tucked In For Bed - by Cat
Splash of Color - by Cat
There's A Clown In Town - by Cat
Nom Nom Nom by Cat
Fish Are Friends - by Cat
Baby Seal Puffer - by Cat
First to Welcome 2017 - by Rob
Game of Thorns - by Rob
Driving Lesson - by Rob
Shark Alert - by Rob
It's Amore! - by Rob
Great Snap(per) - by Rob
Start 'em Young - by Rob
Veterans & Newbies - by Rob
That night we hauled anchor and started heading north, to the island of Wakaya. We spent the next day there enjoying a full day of five dives along its impressive deep wall. Cat and Vanessa started off by guiding a group to the 130' Pretty Good White Wall (as opposed to Taveuni's Great White Wall!). The group descended in the shallows on to a school of barracuda then dropped over the lip of the wall to see the silhouette of two grey reefs circling below. Some of the group were also lucky enough to see a lone hammerhead shark pass by below! Chad, meanwhile, lead a group on Blue Ridge and spotted what would be the first of a long run of leaf scorpion fish that day. In the afternoon we hit Lion's Den, where Koroi continued the leaf scorpion trend and Vatu Vai where Vanessa was happy to be able to show Karen her favorite shrimpgoby, the Whitecap, and also the long sought after Blue Ribbon Eel. Vanessa was not particularly concerned when Joe headed off in the opposite direction to her, he does tend to like to do his own thing: she found out afterwards that this time he was just off spending some quality time with his old friend Fluffy the shark (better you don't ask!). Chad guided the second night dive of the trip that evening and Lucy came back claiming it was the best dive EVER: you can come again Lucy. They had seen all sorts of shrimps, some squid, a twin spot lionfish but most importantly a hunting shark!
We set sail again that night and awoke in Namena, where we spent our final full two days of diving. First up, we enjoyed spectacular dives on Two Thumbs Up. Jane got so distracted with all the cool stuff around the bottom of the pinnacle that she only made it to the teeming-with-life crest for the last five minutes of her dive – just in time to realize how stunning it is and just too late to enjoy it for long - and so vowed to improve her time management for the next dive! Chad and Koroi both found a sparkling white leaf scorpion fish for everyone to enjoy and Vanessa snuck off with Linda to share with her a beautiful Lined Nembrotha, having promised days earlier that she would show her some spectacular nudis! We also learnt on these dives that Bruce has his own shrimp which is kinda cool: the Bruce Hingebeak, which can be found in multitudes hidden in Two Thumbs' dark crevices. Next up, we moved to North Save A Tack for kick-ass dives at Schoolhouse and Grand Central Station....both groups came back buzzing having seen HAMMERHEADS!!! They got pretty close and were some beefy looking sharks: perhaps not quite the 'at least 12 foot' that Joe suggested but darned big all the same! We also saw a load of the bigger predators including Spanish Mackerel and large Tuna, with Terry and Jill ending their dive just swarmed by huge schooling barracuda overhead. We then dived Kansas and The Arch focusing a bit more on the smaller stuff after the excitement of the biiiiiiig stuff on the last dive. Vanessa showed her group 10-15 sexy shrimps just doing their cute little tail-bobbing thing around the edge of a pizza anemone and also a couple of her favorite goby, the adorable Red Freckled Face. Half way into his dive at The Arch, Chad turned the corner to find Steve, Lucy and Linda hanging out with Diver Dan as he did his annual dive (Dan being an awesome little wind-up toy diver who likes to whizz himself through the water!). Sadly on that dive Brenda and Jon dropped their GoPro as they were surfacing, the brand new one they'd just bought at the airport having lost their previous one. Unfortunately, no one had enough air to go back and search but Chad took a mental note of where it was last seen. To Be Continued.....
After a truly awesome day of diving we were all ready for a good long sleep...but not before a cheeky little Kava Party! We had a great couple of hours chilling on the dive deck, listening to the crew singing and playing guitar. It made for a perfect end to a perfect day and everyone went to bed tired but oh so content. Next day we were up and at 'em bright and early again, ready for a big 5 dive day! Mushrooms and Tetons 1 were up first. Vanessa had fun showing Karen a feisty little gathering of dragonets along with a couple of Flame Hawkfish on top of Mushrooms and Koroi found a pretty Leaf Scorpion on Tetons. We then went back to Schoolhouse and Grand Central Station: no more hammerhead action but great dives all the same. Before the next dives went out, Chad and Cat disappear for a secret rendez vous – whisper, whisper, whisper- and Cat then shoots off in a skiff. Twenty minutes later she returns and what does she have in her hand? Only the lost GoPro from yesterday!!! Brenda and Jon looked a little shocked but very, very happy. Commendable search and recovery operation, go team! We all headed back out, thoroughly impressed, for great dives at The Arch and Kansas. Well, we say The Arch, but as per tradition Vanessa once again went nowhere near the actual arch, dropping in on the wall and soon getting distracted by a load of sharks and barracuda and choosing to follow them instead! She sure can relate to Dory and her just keep swimming mantra. On Kansas, Chad was excited to find a pretty looking nudi-esque creature: he ID-ed it on return and it turned out to be a Miniature Melo headshield slug, a rare and beautiful find! We returned to South Save A Tack to finish off the day. Chad took Karen to see another Blue Ribbon Eel on Tetons 2 and Koroi wowed his group with 2 Robust Ghost Pipefish! After dinner, we gathered people for a night dive, expecting perhaps 2-3 as energy levels were definitely dropping by this stage of the trip: but there was a final push and we got 9! We're impressed guys. Vanessa and Koroi split the group, taking a skiff each to one of the Mushrooms pinnacles. Both skiffs had a great dive: Koroi managed to locate his earlier Robust Ghost Pipefish IN THE DARK and Vanessa's gang found a load of cool night critters including Marbled Shrimp, Slipper Lobsters, a 3 inch Sole and a couple of nice big Morays. Well worth the effort!
And so we came to our final day of an amazing charter, three dives in the stunning Vuya area. We started the day off on a sad note, unfortunately, having heard from our friends at Somosomo village that they had just lost 4 of their people to a deadly fish-borne toxin, Ciguatera. Really heartbreaking news but we felt it was important to share it with everyone as we had been there just days before, and also to let them know that we will be donating books and materials to build a library in the villagers who passed' honor (if anyone wants more info on this please do e-mail us). The mood was lifted again by hearing Rob tell the story of how he proposed to Cat and Cat's Meow: always a tear jerker, romance lives on! Those on Cat's went on to have an amazing dive, Chad showing them pygmies and ghost pipefish along with multiple turtles. Vanessa meanwhile guided on Humann Nature where it was nudibranch central: she found four glorious flabellinas on a single hydroid (and said a silent prayer to Momma ocean for making her job easy!) and a couple of big scorpion fish. By mid-afternoon, diving was done, gear was washed and hung out to dry and we had a good few hours to enjoy the perfect afternoon sun on the top deck as we slowly cruised towards home. We had a great feast for dinner, ending with multiple speeches and toasts: from us to the guests, from the guests to Rob and family, from Karen to Steve, from to Steve to all.....fair to say a good number of friendships have been established and re-affirmed on this trip! With a great warm and fuzzy feeling, we settled down to watch Malia, Bruce, Steve and Karen's photo/video contributions: a wonderful show of memories from an incredible ten days, thank you for your creativity!
The next day, we said a sad farewell to our guests, sorry to see them go but excited for the day they return. Steve, we just don't believe your 'last trip' suggestions! Thank you all for seeing in 2017 with us aboard NAI'A, may it be an adventurous, exciting year ahead for one and 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