Taveuni, May 6-15
Vatu-i-ra (bligh water), May 15-18
Pacific Harbour (Beqa), May 18-20
Resorts and Dive Operators:
The 2004 Digital Shootout, in Taveuni, Fiji
A few months ago, Berkley White over at Backscatter (a great underwater photo shop in Monterey) invited me to participate as staff in this year's Digital Shootout Fiji. I had heard about the last two Digital Shootout events in great detail from Jim Watt, and was honored to be invited.
I'll not write too much about the event, other that to say that it was a great success. As staff members, we watched the participants' daily photo submissions increase in quality on a daily basis, and the opportunity to spend quality time with staff members and participants alike was fantastic. For many photos of the event, check out the in-depth coverage at Wetpixel.com, which I updated daily from the Garden Island Resort in Taveuni. As a result, I was toiling away in my room while some other folk were outside enjoying kava, but it was worth it. :)
May 15, 2004
I'd like to write a bit about Air Fiji, and why they suck. Well, they don't suck, but they do things a bit strangely. A bus-load of us left the Garden Island Resort early in the morning for the airport in Taveuni. When we arrived at the airport, we were told that some of us were going to be held back until the next flight due to weight limitations of the aircraft. James and I managed to get onboard, along a few others who also had connecting transportation, but after we were airborne, we were told that we were going to make a stop in Savu Savu for "refueling." When we arrived in Savu Savu, we noticed that our luggage was being taken off of the plane. Um... hello? A few more passengers were shuttled onto our flight, and it was then that we saw that their luggage had been put aboard instead of ours. And so, we fought. Actually, Ron and Evert became self-appointed champions of our cause, which was very valiant of them. In the end, everyone's bags ended up on board, except -- that's right -- two bags belonging to me and James Wiseman. The two of us waited for our bags at the Nadi airport for hours because we had been told that our bags would be arriving "in half an hour, by noon or half one, or two thirty." How's that for precision? We decided to leave the airport at 1:30pm because the last ferry to Nananu-i-ra leaves at 4:30pm, and it takes roughly 2-3 hours to drive from Nadi to the dock. Argh. No luggage! But what can you do?
We've noticed that the Fijians we've met have all been very, very nice. But that also means that they are likely to tell you "yes" when the real answer is more complicated.
Vatu-i-ra Passage (Bligh Water)
May 16, 2004
We had two fantastic dives this morning at Garden of Eden and Black Magic out here near Nananu-i-ra with Mike Trussel at Kai Viti Divers, who picked us up at the dock in front of our bure at Bethams. It was SO NICE to see as well that our luggage had arrived, so I was reunited with dive gear, toothbrush, and swimsuit. :) We had originally tried to book our diving with Crystal Divers at Bamboo Beach Resort, but we were told that they could not confirm our reservation unless we were guests of Bamboo Beach.
The coral growth is amazingly lush when compared to what we had been seeing over in Taveuni, and the fish here aren't very scared of divers. I crept up to within a foot of a good-sized titan triggerfish, and all he did was look at me warily as he continued chewing up some coral. On the boat as well was a Florida surgeon named Abbas, who also runs hyperbaric chambers as part of his work as a physician. It turns out that Abby knows the Abernethies in West Palm Beach! It's a small world out there, especially when it comes to the community of scuba divers. But I worry about Abby, because he told us that he has plans to take a deep dive down to 300' on normal air. Why? "Just to do it." I hope he makes it.
At 5:30pm, Mike picked us up in a little skiff and drove us over to Wananavu resort to have dinner with Abby. The staff there (as usual) learned our names almost immediately, and even sang a song dedicated to us (as "friends from the island") and the guests who were leaving the next day. Especially amusing was a drunken, pink-faced New Zealander who decided that he would sing along with the staff. It might have been more effective if he knew the lyrics, though. :) Anyway, the food was tasty, and the company good as well. After dinner, we motored back to our island under the darkness of the new moon, and enjoyed the Milky Way splashed haphazardly across the sky and the bioluminescent green sparks being thrown up in our wake.
James and I spent the evening hanging out with Jason, Neal, and Amy (two Irish guys and an English girl), who are bunking in the small dormitory next door. We had a bit of beer, looked at photos, and played a naming game where you pick names for boys & girls, a band, fruit or vegetable, country, car, and animal starting with a specified letter of the alphabet -- you know, the sort of game we might have played as kids. They were all a lot of fun to spend time with, and it made me remember what it was like to travel as a backpacker myself, wandering from place to place and meeting new people daily. The electricity went out shortly after 10pm, so much of our time was spent in the warm glow of lanterns. At the moment, I much prefer this to the air-conditioned sterility of a resort. Having said that, I'm sure the nice resort we're relocating to in a few days will be a welcome change.
May 17, 2004
Dives sites today: G6, Purple Haze, and the back of Garden of Eden
I slapped a +4 diopter on my 16-35mm lens this morning before jumping into the water, and I am *so happy* for that decision. I had thought that the additional distance between the lens and the larger Seacam dome port would alleviate the need for a diopter, but I was wrong. My photos are sharp, again. :) I'm also having some issues with shooting RAW underwater with the 1Ds. Some of my photos -- especially the ones that include sun balls in them -- look better having been shot as JPGs. I'll have to do more investigation tomorrow and write up something for Wetpixel. (It turns out that the Canon RAW converter also produces more pleasing blue-water shots than other converters do, so you can still shoot RAW, as long as you play around with the Canon converter in addition to Photoshop/Capture One).
Mike at Kai Viti Divers continues to be a fantastic dive operator, and his crew members Seci (pronounced "Sethi") and Iliesa have been great as well. The two Fijians are both pretty big guys, but play around on the boat like they are little kids, joking around and laughing constantly. I'm really enjoying the Fijian sense of humor (think of Jim Carrey, as opposed to complicated, obtuse humor).
We did our safety stop tied off to the Crystal Explorer (Crystal Divers' dive boat) behind the Garden of Eden, and had a little reunion with Ron and Suzie, with whom we had spent the last week in Taveuni. It was very nice to see them, and we have plans to go visit them at the Bamboo Beach Resort, assuming that we are able to make it into the premises. There are signs here at Bethams telling us that we are not welcome to visit Bamboo Beach.
Speaking of signs, there are notices posted all over the place here at Bethams absolving them of all responsibility for just about everything. The power outlets in the cottages say, "please speak with Rob before using appliances," and the little plank that serves as a bridge over a small crevasse warns, "Not a public bridge. Use at own risk." I'm finding it pretty funny.
May 18, 2004
Dives sites today: Golden Dream and Dream Maker
Mike took us out in a different direction today for some amazing topography. The water was really snotty, but I could imagine that the sites we dove today would be absolutely stunning if the water were clear!
Bethams were nice enough to let us check out after we returned from the day's dives. Mike had lunch with us before driving us back to the dive shop at Wananavu Resort, where our new taxi driver ("Sonny") was waiting with a station wagon to drive us to the Pacific Harbour Lagoon Resort. My God -- what a nightmare. The guy probably couldn't see at night or something, because I felt like we were going to die the entire time. "We made it here with only one fatality," James later summarized. Yep. Sonny killed a dog during the 5 1/2 hour drive. It was very sad. :(
Needless to say, we were both very, very happy to have made it to the south side of Viti Levu. Pulling up to the resort was surreal, because the reception area was completely deserted -- at 8:30pm. After about twenty minutes, we managed to get checked in, and walked into the old-school colonial "bar" area for a fish curry dinner. I'm glad to be here, but it's very strange compared to the bare-boned comfort of our backpackers' accommodations the nights before. I can't wait to get in the water with sharks tomorrow!
Pacific Harbour Lagoon Resort/Aqua-Trek Beqa Lagoon Big Shark Experience
May 19, 2004
James and I walked out of our room this morning to find our Aussie mate Paul Byrnes hanging out in the lobby of the Pacific Harbour Lagoon Resort (a bit shaken up from sketchy accommodations the evening before. "here's another magazine, Paul." *shudder*). Together, we had breakfast and then boarded the Rainbow Reef (the same boat we had been using in Taveuni!) for the Big Shark Experience. On board was Mike Neumann, a Swiss guy who has been working for the last year with the local villages and Fijian government to (somehow) protect the shark dive and the local sharks. Neither James and I were sure how the marine "park" that has been set up recently will really protect the sharks in the area because the actual area of the park is tiny, covering no more than the actual shark-feed site. Two long-lining vessels have already been chased off before they were able to make much of a catch. A $10FJ levy is paid to the local village for each diver that participates in the shark dive, so hopefully the economic value of the sharks as a tourist resource will be enough to encourage the local village to help police the surrounding lagoon area.
Here's something confusing: there are two operators running shark dives out of the Pacific Harbour Lagoon Resort: Aqua-Trek, and Aqua-Trek. The "new" Aqua-Trek opened up on Monday, May 17, 2004, taking the name, logo, and main staff of the previous, competing operation. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the split in operators, it seems that the new Aqua-Trek (the ones we dove with) will be the dominant operator, having already gained support from notable shark folk and clientele.
The Shark Dive
The dive was very well organized, and I was pretty impressed at how well everything was run. A group of shark "shepherds" wandered around the site with metal crooks for protection, and each photographer in the area also got a shepherd protecting their back. At no time did I feel like I was in danger.
Present at our two dives, we had 2 large nurse sharks (large enough to have accompanying pilot fish with them), 2 small white-tip reef sharks, a small black-tip reef shark, a small lemon shark, a large napolean wrasse, and between 5-7 large bull sharks. The bull sharks were the focus, circling around slowly but rarely coming in to get bait. What was equally as exciting for me was the big school of giant trevali, which can each weigh upwards of 55 pounds. They whipped around in a frenzied ball, and would hit the bait (often just above your head) with such force that the experience really was visceral more than anything else. James and I were placed inside the arena on either side of the two feeders (Manasa and Rusi) for a better angle for photographs, but a bull shark only came in close to me once during the two dives (for still photography, a shark has to be closer than around 5 feet in order to get a good exposure).
Mostly, the message I took back with me after seeing the operation in action was that there is tremendous potential in the shark dive at Pacific Harbour, for both photographers and shark enthusiasts alike. Shark feeding is a controvertial issue, and I don't want to get into that debate here on my site, but because there is almost no way to get close to a shark without bait in the water, I'd gladly support a feed in exchange for a close encounter that may help people around me think about their endangered existence.
We were told that Gary Atkinson had been in town for the two weeks prior to our arrival, and that they had tagged a few of the large bulls with satellite tags to see where they go (for research purposes, and to support an effort to get their entire migratory route protected from fishing). Interestingly, as of our time at Pacific Harbour, the sharks that were tagged had not shown up at the feed since being tagged.
At dinner this evening, we sat down with some folk from Maui and from another resort down the road. The hotel staff sat us down at a long table, and had all of the males present stand up and move two chairs to the left between each of the three courses. As a result, we were able to meet everyone at the table. It was a nice twist to end the evening with.