Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Best Shark Dive on the Planet

Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon is home to one of the most exciting shark diving Mecca’s in the world. Located off the southern tip of Viti Levu Island, it is possible to see 7 species of sharks on one dive in this tropical paradise. Our holiday in Fiji was not planned around diving, but this was the one dive that was an absolute must. After we surfaced, however, we realized one was just a tease. We chose Beqa Adventure Divers because we had met them and also knew about their involvement with the Shark Free Marina Initiative. For a small island nation, Fiji has 25 marinas signed on and is continuing the push. There are other dive operators, like anyplace, but we always like to dive with people who respect the ocean and are taking actions to protect it. Mike Neumann and his team, work as a well oiled machine from start to finish. They are a group of passionate people who love sharks and love the ocean. Each person we met had a smile on their face and made us feel like we were all old friends. There are not many places in the world that you can find this kind of experience, either topside or beneath the surface.

I had been dealing with a tooth issue that was causing pain in my left ear, but wanted to make the dives anyway. We loaded our gear and boarded our vessel. The entire dive crew is Fijian, which is a nice change from the typical expat contingent at most operations worldwide. A short boat ride to the site and it was go time. We geared up and slipped into the sea. I made it to about 20 ft before my ear started to feel like my head would explode and opted to hang out and work on clearing. I did this while watching a feeder work with a large group of white tip and black tip reef sharks. I was really excited because this was my first time seeing a white tip and they were high on my list. They have a very cute face and I sat for probably 30 minutes watching them weave in and out, cruising right over my head.

Duncan made the deeper first dive and watched as dozens of bull sharks weaved in and out. The stop there was quick due to depth and Mike put on a special show for Dunk after the other divers began to ascend. Duncan was still wide eyed during our surface interval, not believing what he had just seen. The second dive was set for 50 ft where the bull sharks would be hand fed. This is what we had been waiting for. I made my descent a bit slower and muscled through the pain. I had traveled this far and damn it I was going to see this spectacular underwater show. The dive team moved us into position and then the world, as we know it stopped.

Lined up in the best seats in the house we watched as at least 40 massive bull sharks were circling in front and above us, a site that would normally be the stuff of nightmares. By massive I mean 10-12 ft and fat. They breed some big healthy sharks in those waters. The biggest, fattest bull I have ever seen would be the Kate Moss of sharks in comparison to this brood. Similar in movement to the Caribbean reef shark feeds in the Bahamas, the animals move in one at a time to take a fish. There are hundreds of giant trevally and other fish in the mix, but the space where the feeder and sharks interact is like a beautifully choreographed ballet. Watching Rusi with the animals was by far one of the most mind-blowing things I have ever witnessed. To see an underwater tank of a shark and this man, a man on borrowed air and in their world, share a connection, still gives me goose bumps thinking about it. Each shark slowed down momentarily before delicately taking the fish from his hand. There definitely exists an understanding between 2 creatures with every reason to be mortal enemies. Humans are killing millions of sharks each year and most people are terrified of sharks. Here on this small reef, man and animal are moving together as one and stereotypes, fears and hate do not exist. I only looked up a few times and all I could see was sharks. There was no time to feel fear, because I was in absolute awe. Duncan and I spend a lot of time in the water with sharks, but there is nothing even close to what we saw, felt and experienced in Beqa. I am still having trouble wrapping my head around it.

Mike Neaumann and his team are incredibly professional and passionate. They have a system that allows divers to safely and respectfully watch these animals. $20.00 from each diver goes to the local village to help provide food and pay for schooling. This keeps the locals from fishing at the reef and allows the marine sanctuary to stay healthy. I cannot find the words to express our gratitude for this once in a lifetime experience but I will say next time we are doing at least 5 of these dives and bringing our cameras. Yes, that’s right, Duncan and I did not bring a single camera on the dive. We sat with unoccupied hands and saw first hand the most exhilarating underwater show on the planet. For more information please check out Fiji Sharks

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bula! Welcome to Island Paradise

Arriving under the cape of darkness, we had no idea how far away the ocean was or what it looked like. Falling asleep to the waves crashing against the shore was a reminder that something amazing was awaiting us at he first light of day. Waking up I was like a kid on Christmas morning, eager to open my present. As I walked to the window I was speechless, and we all know that doesn’t happen very often. Our hill was covered with lush palm trees as it sloped down to beach as far as the eye could see. Endless, flat, ocean stretched beyond the beach as lush jungle draped the coastline. I took a deep breath in. The air here is thick with freshness and the aroma that I imagine the color green should smell like. It is a mixture of morning dew, fresh cut grass and a newness that comes after the rain. Breathing it in feels like it is going right to your soul. It is healthy and pure; exactly what one needs after hours absorbing recycled plane air.

I headed downstairs, so I could step outside and Sydney the house pet was asleep on the deck. The dogs here are like the pot cakes in the Bahamas. Most do not have homes, roaming the jungle and roads for scraps. Sydney, however, is doing quite well and has a loving family and a steady flow of guests to spoil him. Some of the local expat contingent joke that the Queen must have lost a corgi on her visit to Fiji, as there are a lot of dogs with corgi ears and stature running around the island. No power or water, so I grabbed my book and returned to the porch. What a perfect place to relax. No Internet, no phone, no editing, no cameras, just relaxing.

When Duncan woke up and stumbled to the window with one eye open, I heard him mutter, “ holy shit.” I think the view was better than coffee for him. It is stunning, especially when you have no idea what to expect when the sun rises. Our host came up to check with us at 8 am. He apologized about the power, but assured us that it would be fixed that day. No worries, just like life in the Bahamas. Scott is an Aussie that has traveled the world and done some amazing things. He is big into surfing and bounces from Australia, to Hawaii to Fiji, not too bad. He gave us the run down of the house and where to find things and suggested places to checkout. He again complimented Duncan on his off road driving in our cheap and cheerful economy rental car.

After having fresh papaya for breakfast Parro, one of the staff, came up to see if we wanted coconuts. Yes, please. He took off his boots and shimmied up a massive palm tree. He posed for pictures and smiled the whole time, enjoying his captive audience. Duncan scurried to collect the coconuts as they plunked onto the ground. Like the guys doing conch in the Bahamas, he made it look so easy as he moved from coconut to coconut, cracking them with his machete. In a matter of seconds I was handed a fresh coconut overflowing with water. YUM. It dribbles down your face, but who cares. Standing barefoot on soft ground, overlooking the sea, with coconut water dripping down my chin-life is good. I asked Duncan if he would shimmy up the tree if we needed more coconuts? Will let you know if that happens and yes, there will be photos.

For our first adventure we decided to head into Sigatoka and explore the markets. The drive was exciting, as we were now getting a sense of where we were and all the treasures that had been hidden away in the night. The Fijians are the friendliest people I have ever met. They all greet you with a smile that makes you feel welcome in the country, their homes and their hearts. Children laughed as we shouted Bula in return. It makes your heart feel good and returns your faith in mankind. The faith that withers away after just a short time spent in Miami.

The town of Sigatoka is small, but very busy. The collection of stores includes handicraft shops, clothing stores, grocery stores, home goods & appliances, small cafes & restaurants, the massive fresh fruit & vegetable market and the bootleg music & video shops! We parked where Scott suggested and made our way down the street. It smells of curry, frangipani, fresh bread and laughter. The market is vibrant and stuffed from wall to wall with fresh produce. Bright purple eggplants, green limes and papayas, bowls of red and green chilies, yellow bananas and golden pineapples. Duncan and I paused for a moment to take it all in. There must be at least 100 tables, all with a different mix of edible delights. We wove our way through, toting our canvas shopping bag. We purchased pineapples, papayas, limes, coriander, curry powder, fresh ginger, garlic, onions, bananas, lettuce, eggplants and some type of green bean. We made a quick pop into the supermarket to pick up a few other things before venturing home.

The beach here is covered with crushed and broken pieces of coral. The surf break is approximately half a mile off shore with a shallow lagoon that is completely exposed at low tides. The little pockets of water that remain are teaming with life. Bright blue sea stars and tons of fish are making their homes and surviving in these little sanctuaries from the ebb and flow of the tides. Very little trash had washed up on the beach and the only people were locals out hand lining or collection urchins. Some have a mask, but most just swim around and grab the urchins. They have boats made of large bamboo logs strung together. These are called billibillis and they tow them behind to load fish onto. I have spent several mornings having my coffee as the sun wakes up the world, watching the men pull their boats out to sea. Life is simple here and people are happy. I think we get caught up in the rat race of technology and materialism, forgetting how simple things can make us happy.

Our host told us that all guests to Fiji are welcome at any resort. We decided to check out the Hideaway, which seemed more, our style than the lavish 5 star Outrigger. The Hideaway is nestled on a beautiful stretch of beach and has a very laid-back surfer vibe. There is a channel that leads out to one of the most dangerous surf breaks in Fiji with great snorkeling on either side. They have a coral propagation program, trying to repair the damage that has been done by the harvesting of coral for aquariums. Fiji “ live rock,” is big business and the Coral Coast is seeing its natural wonder readily disappear. On our first snorkel we found Nemo, well not exactly Nemo, but a similar species of anemone fish. I squealed and dragged Duncan over to see. I had no idea this was his first encounter with a Nemo in the wild!!!! They are the cutest fish and I could watch them for hours as they weave in and out of the tentacles. We also saw at least 6 different kinds of butterfly fish, another of my favorites. I think it is sweet that they are always in pairs. There is something reassuring about monogamy in the animal world, maybe because of its rarity.

Upon returning for several more snorkeling adventures we found Gill (another reference to Nemo…I know I am a dork) or should I say Moorish Idols. Yes, another squeal of excitement from this child at heart. They are such an elegant fish to watch; yet I am always reminded of Gill’s wit from the movie. Makes me smile and laugh every time. No less than 30 other species of fish, all within 50 meters of the beach.
Now that Duncan has had a run in with a spider, although less severe than mine, still unnerving, he understands my new distaste for the creatures. After spending a great deal of time in Australia, one expects that most critters that crawl or slithers are out to get you. Luckily in Fiji this is not the case. Duncan beckoned me to the bathroom after he had finished a lengthy excursion and I was boggled by what on earth I was being taken to see. Down in the toilet bowl I could just make out 2 huge furry legs. Uhhh…that’s enough. “It tickled my bum,” was all Duncan said. We later found out that it was a Huntsman and a sign of good luck to have one in your house. We just make sure to thoroughly check the toilet before placing our backsides anywhere near it.

Our next adventure was the nearby waterfalls. Scott gave us directions and we made our way down the winding and steep dirt road. As we arrived in the village we were greeted by a pack of dogs, all scrounging for snacks. A donation was made and our barefoot guide waited as we donned our sneakers for the trek. The path passes through a bit of farmland and crosses the river 9 times before the waterfall comes into view. Our guide explained local plants, tried to catch a fresh water eel with his machete and never flinched as the ground changed from mud to rocks and back. 3 of the dogs made the journey with us, bouncing along and playing in the water.

After a 25-minute hike we crossed a bridge and found this treasure. There were only 4 other people there and we were treated to a private experience. Our guide loved the Go Pro camera and eagerly climbed ahead to film us. He seemed really excited to snap photos and see us laugh and smile. He shredded coconut to feed the fish and little for us. We swam for a while enjoying the cool clear water before he announced we needed to jump off. He scurried up the rock face and turned back to watch us. Balanced precariously he grabbed my arm and hauled me up over the side. We swapped places and handed off the camera. He was going to film us jumping! Dunk and I delicately crept across the rocks to the jumping spot. Dunk, being a gentleman, offered to go first. 1,2,3….splash. My turn. 1, 2, 3…splash. Our guide was laughing and smiling. I assume because we were fairly awkward squirreling into position. This was confirmed when I watched the video. “ Now your turn,” I stated. He laughed. Once more coax and he was shimmying up the rock face to a higher spot than ours, of course. 1,2,3 and 2 thumbs up….splash. We all had a good laugh. I think our guide enjoyed his time with us as much as we enjoyed ours with him!

As we got into our car a woman from the village politely asked if she could hitch a ride to the main road. Hitching is the norm here, as most people, our host included, do not have cars. We happily welcomed her into our luxury mobile and off we went. Idol chitchat turned into an invite to stay in the village next time we are on the island. Our new friend was a volunteer teacher at the school in the village. The children do not go to the larger school down the road until they are older, but the village wants to provide the opportunity to learn. She offered her home to us and we felt again, the warm embrace of this country. We will definitely go stay when we return to Fiji. I think it would be an amazing experience to share the daily life and culture with a family. Our new friend gave us her contact information before thanking us and jumping out at her stop.

After one week in paradise my skin feels softer and definitely darker. The toxins ingested and absorbed in the city and on the plane have long sense evaporated. My belief in the power of living simply is fully intact and I have consumed more fruit than I have in the 8 weeks prior combined. Life is good in Fiji.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Time to be a Tourist

Duncan and I have managed to remain under the radar as tourists in Fiji. We have done our own tours, visited the markets when we wanted and explored outside the suggested snorkeling area. This is who we are. Crammed on a bus with 50 other sweaty and sunburned tourists is not our idea of a good day; so we did exactly that. We broke down and booked a day cruise. Captain Cook’s was the most advertised company, but with a passenger size of 100 we opted out of the cattle boat option. A review for Whale’s Tale raved about the service and reflected the only distasteful element was a drunken karaoke broad that had to be tied down, as to not fall overboard. I would consider that free entertainment. The other enticing elements were the visit to a private island and all your alcohol and meals included.

We made our way to Outrigger to be picked up and laughed as a massive coach bus pulled up. I felt as thought I needed a large brimmed sun hat and my fanny pack. We quickly boarded, grabbing a seat near the front, already plotting our immediate escape upon landing. We enjoyed the quiet ride as the lush countryside passed by our window. I think Duncan was pleased to not be avoiding potholes, pedestrians and the steady parade of livestock that we encountered on every drive. About 15 minutes into the hour-long ride our peaceful cruise was interrupted by long bus ride a proper Aussie Shelia sat directly behind me. Her assessment of life in Fiji was broken only when she threatened to slap her child, who was messing around with the camera. When that was not effective, she informed the child that she would be left on an island in Fiji. Well done. We hoped she wasn’t on our boat.

Arriving at the port we filtered off the bus. A man from Whale’s Tale was waiting and gathered us away from the masses. There were about 20 of us, as the 50 or so other passengers made their way to Captain Cook’s. Nice! We headed down the dock to find our vessel. The Whale’s Tale is a traditional old schooner that is a bit rough around the edges, but exactly what we were hoping for. We were greeted and pushed into the mess for breakfast and champagne, with champagne being the priority.

Our guide, announced with a grin that we would be cruising for 90 minutes,” Fiji time,” to our island. There we could snorkel, fish, kayak or lay in the sun. There would also be the option to walk around the island, which we did in approximately 3 minutes. Champagne and rum flowed, as guests began to lubricate themselves. Dunk and I took it easy because we wanted to get the full experience of the kava ceremony awaiting us on the island. A young honeymoon couple asked us if we had tried it, describing the experience as ingesting dirty water with the effect lasting only a few moments. The newly married guy was named chief of our group and offered the first bowl. Kava is a root that is dried and then ground up. It is said to relax the body and cure all sorts of random ailments. It also leaves your tongue and lips tingly from temporary numbness.

Around our group of 25, the bowls were passed with each person clapping once, saying bula, drinking and then the group clapping 3 times. You could tell that our guides were not just doing it as some ridiculous interpretation of the culture, but were proud of their heritage.

A guided snorkel followed the kava. People seemed impressed that Dunk and I had our own gear. We guessed that the provided gear would be from the “my first fin collection,” of which we are not fans. The guide floated on a pile of lifejackets incase someone became incapacitated or the rum kicked in. As we cruised out most of the coral was bleached and a bit ratty. Once in deeper water, Dunk and I began to freedive and explore the caves and crevices. I spotted at least 20 anemone fish on one area and 3 new species of butterfly fish that I had not seen. The guide showed us a type of coral that changed color when touched. Something I was amazed to see, but also thinking that a guide should not be molesting the already struggling corals. We popped up and down, wedging our faces into crevices to see what critters were hiding. I lost the group following a pair of butterfly fish I had not seen before. Happily we left the world behind as we submerged ourselves into the ocean. Time stops and nothing matters; the quiet stillness filled with life is intoxicating. The guide signaled that is was time for lunch. We slowly followed the group, in no rush to leave the quiet beauty of the sea.

At lunch we were approached by several other guests and asked about our diving, what we do and how we hold our breath. Apparently we were as exciting to watch as the fish and we had been completely oblivious to such observation. We happily chatted with our new friends and enjoyed the amazing spread of Fijian delights. After lunch we did a lap around the island just to see the whole thing and then returned to the water. Floating along and feeling the ocean against our skin as Duncan did his best Jack Sparrow impersonation asking, “ but why the rum was gone. “ Soon it was time to depart from our private island and board the love boat once again.

The ride home was filled with more of the guests approaching us and waiting for story time about our adventures. This was interrupted as the crew pulled out the guitars and sang for us. The rum flowed and even the captain was bringing Duncan drinks. Dunk was referred to as Scotland by the crew from the moment we stepped on the boat and within 5 minutes we no longer had to get our own drinks. Magically our glasses were always full, a dangerous luxury. A rendition of “ Brown eyed girl,” made my heart smile. This song follows us around the world and always makes me think of my dad; I am his brown-eyed girl. We laughed and sang along as we passed a chain of small islands on our way back to port. Duncan was recruited to solicit for tips and happily meandered to each guest and held out his “ crew appreciate jar.” It was very sweet and he was proud to help out these amazing people. Not once did the smiles leave the crew’s faces. Our final song was the anthem of Fiji, which they did acapella. The people of Fiji are beautiful and wow, can they sing!

We pulled up at the dock and the Captain Cook vessel was parallel to us on the next dock over. She is the same size vessel, but stuffed with 100 people. Not many of them had smiles on their face, while everyone on our boat had a warm glow. (most likely due to the copious amounts of rum) We made our way back to the bus, while the crew tried to fill a couple of to go cups for Scotland and his bride. Crammed back on the bus we waited, as there were more people than we started with and many of them not familiar. Finally about a dozen people realized that this was not the bus to their resort. We had 3 young Aussie blokes that were well lubricated with rum, sitting around us. We were invited to a party back at the resort. Before I knew it Dunk was involved in a male only contest of best feet, best hands, best elbows, before it went south as there was an awkward moment when the emcee announced best nipples as the next category while he thoroughly examined himself. The gig was up. Not sure how Dunk managed to join, but I believe the rum was a key factor. It did make the time pass quickly and we soon pulled up at the Outrigger. We had survived an entire day of being tourists and actually had an amazing time. We capped off the evening with some dinner and an impromptu Polynesian fire show. Always a random adventure.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fiji: Our Journey to Paradise

Although I enjoy the rush of a city and the unseen energy that seems to move everything; my mind, body and soul can only tolerate so much noise, traffic and busy people. Sydney was amazing, but we were ready to bid her a fond adieu and once again embrace the island life that suits us best.

We arrived at the airport and immediately joined the outstretched line for Air Pacific. We entertained ourselves with some people watching and our usual banter. The line moved fairly quickly, despite the passport issues, forms not filled out and too much luggage that caused a few delays. The attendant gave us a deal on our overweight luggage. We did our best to trim it down, but missed by 5 kilos. Not too bad considering the amount of gear we carry.

We breezed through customs and security. Usually we have to pull camera cords and chargers out because they resemble a homemade bomb. Monty has even been pulled out and scanned separately, but nothing this go. We looked at each other a little shocked; we get nervous when things go that smoothly during the airport portion of the trip. We found some comfy chairs and I enjoyed a Pure Blonde, while my pure blonde shopped for a new watch in Duty Free. I was impressed when he came back with a lovely dive watch that he had selected in less than 20 minutes. This is quite an amazing feat for the Dunkster. His usually shopping techniques are very thorough.

As we found our gate, a massive 2 level plane was pulled up. Wow, must be going on to LAX after we stop in Fiji. We were both anxious to get on the plane and begin our first real vacation. I know, I know, we travel a lot. This is true, but it is always work or work related. This is our first trip together that is just about us exploring a new place. There is no schedule, no plan, and no underwater camera housings. We found our seats near the back and I kid you not there were 4 babies strategically placed to our 4 sides. There was however an empty seat to my left. Last time we flew to Fiji we had a guy that chugged 5 beers and 3 double whiskeys before passing out for 10 hours. We had to climb over him to get into the isle. One flight attendant hit him pretty hard in attempt to wake him, but he was out cold. Ah the adventures of travel. Monty luxuriated in the spare seat when he was not acting my pillow.

The flight was fairly quick, a mere 4 hours. This breaks down to a meal, 2 glasses of wine, part of a movie (Yogi Bear) and a 2-hour nap for me. There was only mild screaming from the strategically placed babies. We arrived in Nadi and were excited that this trip we would be staying longer than a 5 hour explore. As we made our way through customs we were greeted by lots of smiling faces and everyone yelling “ Bula!” This is hello, good morning, good evening…etc in Fiji. We headed to the rental car place where it took nearly 30 minutes to get our car. Yep, back on island time.We were anxious to get on the road, as we knew it was going to be a bit of a drive. Our trusty steed was a small Toyota that would surely be put through her paces. Had to stop and get fuel and grabbed a few snacks. Now we were officially on our way.

We wove through villages that became further and further apart, as the jungle consumed more space. It is quite exciting driving down a rather bumpy and narrow road when you have absolutely no idea where you are or where you are going. We passed people walking, dogs, cattle, horses and avoided taxis that came flying around corners with 2 wheels on our side of the road. It was Sunday and most of the villages were holding a church service with people sat in circles in small huts. We could hear singing and laughing as we passed. The air is heavy with freshness and nature. It smells of flowers, fresh cut grass and the sea. You feel invigorated and it seemed to cleanse us of the toxic plane air you ingest when flying. The road kept winding as kilometers passed. Our directions said the turn for our house was approximately 5 minutes past the Outrigger Resort. We made our way through several roundabouts and only made one wrong guess as to which road was the one we were suppose to continue on. Not too bad. The last 5K seemed to take forever as we watched the numbers slowly approach our destination. We made our turn and stopped as we faced a massive hill.

We had opted not to get the 4WD because were not planning any jungle treks. Now with a steep unpaved track in front of us we realized the 4WD option might have been a more suitable plan. Ah well, we were there now. Dunk has quite a bit of off road experience, so he took off with a great big grin on his face. There were massive rocks and ruts where the road had washed away. We passed our first house and just kept going. Sydney, the island dog that we recognized from the blog, came to greet us. We continued upward passing 2 more houses. We figured that we could always come back down if we needed to, but we had to keep our momentum. As we neared the crest of what seemed like an endless hill, our host was standing with a flashlight. As we pulled through the gates we stopped and both took a breath. I am pretty sure were both held ours for most of the ascent.

Scott, the property owner greeted us and expressed how impressed he was with Dunk’s driving. I think Dunk was relieved, but impressed as well. He then explained that the power was out and handed us some flashlights. Ah island life!! Made our way into the house and found some extra lanterns. He gave us the nickel tour and chatted for a bit. We would get better acquainted in the morning, as it was already after 10 pm. We found a large beer and a papaya in the fridge! Excellent. We had finally made it. High on a hilltop, in the middle of the jungle, we had found our little piece of paradise. We fell asleep listening to waves crash against the beach and a lovely breeze coming through the windows. Bula Fiji!