Red, orange, yellow, blue… I spiral gently down a coral pinnacle, counting the colours of the rainbow. My dive buddy, meanwhile, is frantically scribbling down names on a slate.
Green, indigo, violet… In all my years of scuba diving, I’ve never seen such a rich concentration of luscious, luxuriant colour. The sheer variety of coral and shimmering, darting fish is quite mind-boggling. If only my mask would let me, I’d be grinning from ear to ear.
Down we go, my buddy scribbling away. ‘Trumpet fish,’ he writes, pointing. ‘Christmas tree worm’. ‘Red coral trout’. ‘Sweetlips + cleaner wrasse’. Not only is this one of the most beautiful dives I can remember, it has subtitles too.
The man with the slate is Johnny Singh, the resident marine biologist at my base for the next few days, Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort (JMC). Together, we fin across the seabed, watching garden eels sway in the sand, then wind our way up one of the two pinnacles that make this part of the Namena Marine Reserve, nicknamed The Chimneys, so special. The best sight of all comes right at the top — a garden of sun-dappled soft coral. Hovering over this magical space are clouds of tiny reef fish: anthias — the males, bright pink; the females, vivid orange. Tomato clownfish bob in and out of anemones, angelfish glide by and a pair of triggerfish dance a tango. ‘Courtship ritual,’ scribbles Johnny.
Even divers who’ve spent a lifetime exploring the tropics find Namena impressive. Jean-Michel Cousteau, the septuagenarian son of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, says it’s one of the most beautiful and diverse reefs he’s ever seen.
Back on the boat, Johnny explains how the reserve came to be. These remote, nutrient-rich waters lie within range of mangroves and seagrass beds where fish breed prolifically, but in the late 1990s, fishermen from the local Kubulau community were noticing that large fish were becoming scarce. Their solution was to protect the area and charge divers an entrance fee to fund anti-poaching patrols and educational projects.
“Banning commercial fishing has really worked,” says Johnny. “The fish have recovered. But poaching’s still a problem. Before, this place wasn’t so easy to find. But now, all you have to do is look it up on the internet. People travel long distances to try to fish here illegally. So every entrance fee counts.”
Red-footed boobies and white-tailed tropicbirds glide above our boat as we motor over to another site, Grand Central Station. We descend onto a reef that’s teeming with fish, pick up the current and ride. It’s utterly exhilarating. Definitely my kind of rush hour.
I’ve landed in heaven, I think, as we head back to the resort. Of course, I’m not the first to be bowled over by this faraway corner of the South Pacific. Fiji’s tangled landscapes, soulful singing and easy laughter are so appealing that people fall in love with it all the time.
With tropical waterfalls and palm-fringed bays, Fiji is the kind of place onto which visitors project their fantasies. Elle Macpherson made it the backdrop for a dreamy wedding and Pinterest is littered with the Fiji-themed mood boards of other brides-to-be. Entrepreneur Ben Keene chose Fiji for his sustainable eco-tourism experiment, Tribewanted, while for others, such as Mel Gibson and Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, it’s a place to invest in the ultimate luxury, a private island.
Inevitably, there’s a counterpoint. Fiji has a complicated past, chequered with tales of cannibalism and colonial injustice. Eighteenth-century seafarers such as William Bligh, usurped commander of HMS Bounty, fled these waters in terror as its chiefs had a reputation for gruesome acts of torture — cutting out an enemy’s tongue, for example, and eating it while they watched. To the 60,000 Indian and Southeast Asian indentured labourers who arrived in the late 1800s, Fiji was, like many other island nations: a trap. Many stayed but were never assimilated. A century later, the repercussions played out in four bloodless coups d’état, prompting international concern. It was only when this year’s general election was confirmed that the tension began to relax.
Tourism is key to Fiji’s future, but for now its benefits are thinly spread. As in so many destinations with escapist appeal, most tourists are oblivious to life beyond their resort. It’s a balance that certain ventures, including the two I’m here to visit, are keen to adjust. Their aim is to engage visitors in conservation and dissolve the invisible barriers, which all too often separate tourists and their hosts.
The taxi driver who showed me around Nadi on the day I arrived was bemused that outsiders should subject Fiji to more scrutiny than any other developing nation. “Right now, we’re very optimistic,” he said, referring to the forthcoming election. “Sure, the vote is overdue. And we have a few problems to solve. But who doesn’t?”
To reach Nadi from the UK, I’d travelled a gigantic 180 degrees of longitude. For the Australians and New Zealanders who flock here in the Southern winter, Fiji is conveniently close. For me, it’s the opposite. But I was determined to see that as part of the magic.
I pressed on from Viti Levu, which Fijians refer to as the mainland, to Savusavu Bay on the wilder, less-visited, northern island of Vanua Levu — lured by what’s rumoured to be the best diving in the world. From what I’ve seen at Namena, it was a good call.
It’s hard to imagine a better base, I decide, as I sip sleepily on a mojito at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, enjoying mellow tunes from the house band. Laid out in the pattern of a traditional coastal village, JMC is that rare thing: an unpretentious luxury retreat that makes families and couples, divers and non-divers feel equally at home.
Responsible tourism principles are stitched firmly into its ethos, but it wears them lightly. Some are pleasingly explicit — each guest room, for example, is a spacious bure of timber and thatch, with natural ventilation and minimal gadgetry, and there’s a brilliant kids’ club that’s strong on eco-focused activities. Others are left for guests to discover. Wander around the grounds and you’ll come across a kitchen garden overflowing with organic fruit trees, vegetables and herbs, where the gardeners encourage you to help yourself.
As you get to know the staff, you start spotting family resemblances — no coincidence, since JMC, though US-owned, has a policy of recruiting very locally. “It really adds to the close-knit atmosphere we have here,” says general manager Mark Slimmer. Even more remarkable has been JMC’s role as a sponsor of the Savusavu Community Foundation, which runs free medical clinics for locals by channelling the goodwill of regular guests who happen to be doctors.
With its palm trees, hammocks and soft sea breezes, you’d think JMC would be a peaceful spot to recover from a long journey, but my first afternoon was full of exuberant noise — shouts from the staff’s weekly rugby match, excited yells from a group of young beachcombers and top-volume chirps from bulbuls (songbirds) in the hibiscus beside my bure. Dozing after a coconut oil massage in the rustic beachfront spa, I was jerked awake by a sound as loud as a thunderclap — a lali drum, whacked to herald the sunset torch-lighting ceremony. I then sit in on a high-spirited talk on reef ecology, delivered to an audience of fascinated kids. Clearly there was nothing for it but to go with the flow.
The man doing the talking is Johnny Singh, Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort’s secret weapon. Born in Fiji, he has a master’s degree from a top Australian university and a boyish enthusiasm for all aspects of marine ecology. Since joining the full-time staff at JMC, he’s been involved in several projects, from repopulating the fringing reef with clams to planting mangroves, which will capture carbon, shelter fish and prevent sand from damaging the coral. To the young guests he teaches he’s a real-life superhero.
“Cousteau — that must be quite a name to live up to,” I say, as we head out to share another of his passions, bird-watching.
“It is,” Johnny says. “Jean-Michel Cousteau started diving with his father aged just seven. He loves to see kids getting interested in the ocean, and I definitely want to play my part in that.”
Jean-Michel Cousteau first travelled to Fiji in 1989 and co-founded JMC a few years later. Originally a partner to the luxurious Californian eco-retreat the Post Ranch Inn, it’s the only resort to bear the Cousteau name. Jean-Michel still visits on a regular basis.
“What he believes is that preserving the environment is the best way to deliver sustainable economic development. So protecting the oceans is a moral issue. I really respect that,” says Johnny. “At this resort we try to demonstrate that everyone has a part to play in conservation, and it’s totally possible to enjoy a luxury lifestyle in balance with nature.”
The garden is full of flowering shrubs, and birds are plentiful. Raising his binoculars, Johnny points out some sulphur-breasted myzomelas, tumbling like butterflies in the palms, before leading me to a spot where we might see another Fijian endemic, the Vanikoro broadbill. Sure enough, one appears.
It’s tempting to limit my universe to the resort and its reefs, but there are several villages within easy reach — appealing places where everyone greets you with a friendly ‘Bula!’ and a smile. On a rainy Sunday, I visit a coastal hamlet that first appears deserted, bar a few chickens on the rugby pitch. In fact, everyone is in church; their harmonic hymn-singing flooding out of the doors and windows like a wave. Just as the service draws to a close, the sun breaks through and men in sulus (wraparound skirts), women in floral sulu jiaba ensembles and children in their tidiest outfits step out, beaming, onto the grassy shore.
There are over 300 islands in Fiji, scattered over the Pacific like constellations — and I’m looking forward to seeing a few more. I cross Vanua Levu by taxi, bumping along a road fringed by palms and rain trees laden with epiphytes (plants that grown on other plants), until at last there’s a gap in the foliage and I glimpse the boat I’ll be boarding — Tui Tai, a three-masted cruiser with the jaunty appearance of a pirate ship, anchored in the peaceful waters of Natewa Bay, far below.
Tui Tai is a dive boat with a difference. The brainchild of a young American Silicon Valley escapee who married a Fijian, it takes you to parts of northern Fiji that would be hard to reach any other way, except by private yacht. Run by a crew who were born in the region and know it intimately, there’s an immersive, philanthropic theme to its trips, which combine diving, snorkelling, kayaking and hiking with visits to remote, culturally diverse villages where worthwhile gifts are much appreciated.
As I approach the boat in rigid inflatables (RIBs), the crew, dressed in kalavata — the Fijian uniform of sulus and tropical shirts — greet me with a song, rounded off with a hearty, piratical ‘Bula’! It’s a fantastic welcome and I’m thrilled to climb aboard. But as I look around, my spirits dip. Tui Tai, once a grand sailing boat, is priced at luxury level — more pricey than a Red Sea or Great Barrier Reef liveaboard — but it’s clearly seen better days. It’s spotless, but everything from the decor to the RIBs, scuba gear and compressor has a tired look. And if it had a full complement of 24 divers, it would feel hopelessly cramped.
I’m disappointed, and wonder if this is a classic example of an enterprise set up by an outsider who’s lost interest. But I’m looking forward to the adventure. Let’s see what tomorrow brings, I think, as the boat motors through the night, gently rocking us to sleep.
As it turns out, the next day brings something magical — a dive with manta rays, which glide overhead like UFOs and swirl around us, mouths agape, when we surface for a closer look. “Next stop, Dolphin Bay,” says Isoa Vosaniyavu, the dive leader and guide. Isoa and his colleague, Daniel, who have the laid-back rapport of a comic double act, seem able to spirit up wildlife like magic. To our delight, a pod of spinner dolphins appear and we scramble forward in the RIB to watch them dance in our bow wave.
On Rabi, home to a community of Micronesian immigrants, we visit Tabiang Primary School, where youngsters dressed in traditional grass skirts and shell-beaded belts treat us to one of the most spirited performances of drumming, singing and dance I’ve ever seen. It’s a brief, superficial encounter, but the songs remain in my head long after we leave.
On another day, we hop backwards and forwards across the 180-degree meridian on Taveuni, just for fun, and watch shoals cruise through the blue as we dive the legendary Rainbow Reef. In the evenings, the friendly crew gather on deck to share a tanoa of kava — a ceremonial bowl containing a muddy-looking herbal drink that tastes medicinal, numbs your tongue and makes you mildly giggly. Strumming their guitars and ukuleles like sea gypsies, they sing yearning sigidrigi ballads about loves lost on distant shores, and cheerfully rummage for a Fijian songbook when I ask if I can join in.
By the end of my trip, I’m a Tui Tai convert. If a super-efficient Australian or American were to take the place of Isoa, who’s an expert diver but an unconventional guide, communication might be smoother — but an outsider could be tempted to start speaking on behalf of the Fijians, moulding their commentary to fit foreign expectations. Isoa’s enthusiasm and the warmth of the rest of the crew is so infectious I’m glad, on balance, to be among Fijians who are speaking for themselves and doing things their way.
I was warned that when the crew sing the Fijian farewell, Isa Lei, emotions run high, yet the tears rolling down my cheeks are a surprise. Yes, Tui Tai is pricey, and no, it doesn’t get everything right. But step aboard with an open mind and it can leave you with a lasting love of the ocean, a hatful of songs and a stash of memories that money can’t buy.
When to go
May-October brings the driest weather and the best underwater visibility, with an average temperature of 25C. December-April is cyclone season, although direct hits are rare. Tropical downpours can occur all year round.
Need to know
Visas: Tourist visas are issued on arrival to holders of a UK passport with at least six months’ validity.
Currency: Fiji dollar (FJD). £1 = $3.10.
Health: Check with your GP that the usual travel vaccinations are up to date.
International dial code: 00 679.
Time: GMT +12.
ResponsibleTravel.com has nine nights in Fiji, including a seven-night, full-board cruise on the Tui Tai from £3,875. Prices are per person, based on two sharing in mid season, including flights from the UK and transfers.
At JMC and on Tui Tai, additional charges apply for scuba gear hire, PADI training and diving excursions.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)