It’s rush hour on Fiji’s southern coast, but this is no ordinary commute. A school of pipefish ghost past us in perfect unison, their seahorse heads down and determined with purpose, their bodies lean and long. Purple and pink table coral acts as a junction where bright lemonpeel angelfish turn swiftly and fizz up past our masks, while blue iridescent South Seas Devil fish navigate into view and dart out of sight. I hover in the wild, multicoloured traffic in suspended disbelief.
We’re barely offshore, in less than 30ft of water; it’s our first dive in Fiji and the currents are alive. I gasp for breath as I lift my head above the warm waters to feel the sunshine on my face, and a wave of excitement comes over me. We’ve come to Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, hoping to experience the ‘soft coral capital of the world’, but hadn’t expected to see this much so soon. “Bula!” which is Fijian for hello, says a fisherman heading out to sea. “Welcome home!” I’ve never been here before, but I’m already willing to adopt the island.
Our journey to the Coral Coast — a 50 mile stretch of coastline on Viti Levu’s southern side — comes off the back of a four-hour flight from Sydney and a couple of hours’ drive from the main airport in Nadi. We’ve been told that during the drier months (April-September) visibility underwater is optimum, currents are gentle and there’s a chance to see more than 1,500 species of marine life. Still, I’m no diver, so what’s it going to be like for a beginner?
“You don’t need no gear, relax. You’re on Fiji time,” says Jo, one of the dive instructors at Hideaway Resort & Spa, with a wink and a smile. “You can dive, sure, but it’s all here,” he says, waving a hand to the shallows under the big, blue skies. “Grab a snorkel, flippers, a T-shirt for the sun and you’re good to go, lots to see!” I’m beginning see why Fijians are often called the happiest people on the planet.
Before our dive, I get in the Fijian mood and lounge in a hammock by our traditional bure (wood and straw hut) to scan the waters and check the wind has subsided.
Underwater, I dive down slowly. The coral is in bloom, flowering in the clear waters. A forest of soft, bubbling white clusters gives way to shades of yellow and green shelving, stacked together haphazardly. As my eyes adjust, a flame angelfish comes out of a hole and we startle each other, its intense vermilion radiance almost shocking. My wife, Anne, is giving me the thumbs up — she’s pointing at a bicolour parrotfish dancing in the shafts of sunlight coming through the water. It seems to change colour as we watch transfixed.
I feel a change in my ears — the water pressure creates a new sensation — and it feels like I’ve entered a different world. The one above seems as far away as the country I just came from. I glide along and zone into checking off the species around me (clownfish, eclipse butterflyfish, threespot angelfish, moon wrasse), then coral (razor coral, blue coral), and then outlying oddities such as the blue sea star. I try to remember the unfamiliar Fijian fish names I’m learning: guru damu, tvi tivi, dreanu na vonu. The 100ft-plus visibility allows me to take some underwater shots to capture the vivid stripes, spots and abundance of reef life. The fish seem just as curious of me as I am of them and zip along closely by my side, watching carefully.
My friend Martin’s children join us — they’re five and three. That’s the beauty of this kind of resort diving — no hassle, zero gear, no qualifications and because we’re close to the coast, we go several times today. On the beach, we watch the sunset with tired, salty eyes and I devour fresh mangos, pawpaws, watermelon and pineapples bought from roadside stalls. That night we watch the legendary firewalkers of nearby island Beqa and I’m sure I can see the shapes of angelfish swirling in the rising flames.
Yes, the Finding Nemo ones. Clownfish or anemonefish, so called for the sea anemones where they make their home. Striking orange, yellow and reddish colours with white bars and clear black outlines.
A yellow fish also known as Bennett’s butterflyfish or the bluelashed butterflyfish. It’s instantly recognisable with a black (eclipse) spot in its middle and a black band near its head.
The bicolour parrotfish, with its purple and blue patches, is one of the most luminescent fish in the sea. Most species are sequential hermaphrodites, starting life as females before becoming males.
The moon description refers to the wrasse’s tail — the bright yellow of a crescent moon on its caudal fin. Its body is green with distinctly marked scales and its head has a chequered pattern from pink and magenta to blue.
Long, thin and around 35-40cm, with tiny, toothless mouths, pipefish look a bit like straight-bodied seahorses. Some are zebra stripped with black rings down their bodies, while others appear more translucent. When schooling, their svelte profiles together are a wonder to behold.
A sea slug may sound unappealing, but this species is an extraordinarily coloured nudibranch — a soft-bodied, elongated mollusc with ‘skirts’ in brilliant blue, black and yellows. The colours and lines can vary greatly from specimen to specimen but its radiance dancing in the corals currents is mesmerising.
The Trips of a Lifetime 2018 guide is distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)