Don McKern came to dive at the end of last year and his wife Bridget looked down on him as she snorkelled 30 foot above. Here’s her account of the week:
When Don and I booked in August for our Fiji Dive trip we were both pretty sick in bed with flu. The email with the special discount dive package using Cousteau’s dive boat came from www.paradisecourses.com – I was on their list from a year before when I enquired about a writing course at Daku Resort. Somehow this idea of a dive holiday lifted our spirits and we said (typical Don style) “Why not? Let’s go for it.”
Because we were both out of condition, and frankly I wondered if Don would mange the rigours of diving again with his arthritic shoulders and knees, I decided to make a get-fit programme for both of us. From then on until November, we went to the Hurstville Olympic pool each week and dressed in our snorkel gear and flippers, trolled up and down the indoor pool. I rashly joined a gym too to get my stamina working – as it turned out I have really enjoyed doing the Curves programme 3 times a week as it only demands a mere 30 minutes each time using resistance equipment.
What with one thing and another November came round really fast and we found ourselves winging it to the lovely Fijian Island of Vanua Levu. We were greeted by friendly Fijian girls who made us welcome, gave us lunch and showed us to our little buré (Don preferred to call it his burrow). We were introduced to the two girls from Canberra who had come in the day before and already had their first dive. They were full of praise for the dive team which was at Cousteau’s five star resort just up the road.
Fiji is a classic tropical paradise in a third world condition. Our first impressions from the air and road were the sparsely populated areas – little villages stuck away on top of mountains or alongside rivers with no obvious roads connecting them. Small subsistence farms of sugar cane in the north, copra and yams, in the south. As we came down the mountains towards Savu Savu we saw a beautiful big harbour surrounded by steep mountains and somewhat muddy after the rains but changing to clear green-blue water further out to sea. Steep hills all around are covered with verdant impenetrable rainforest covered in creepers. The mountain ranges look as if they have just been spat out of a volcano. Sharp ridges on the sky line appear to have faces of the ancestors gazing skyward in an eternal dream.
The next day we joined the other two girls to start on our daily diving routine at Cousteau’s. Well-organised dive masters made sure our equipment was all OK and we got into our first dive boat – a rather narrow flat bottomed tinny 30’x 5’ with a sparse shade along the middle and two 85 hp Yamaha engines to take us out to the reef. Mostly we went outside the reef at the southern end of the island and occasionally inside the reef.
Each dive site was a separate entity with names such as Whale’s Tale, Wonderland, Shark Alley, the Grotto and Lighthouse ….How they knew where to stop the boat was a mystery as most dive sites didn’t have any sign of a marker. The skipper would haul up with the reef breakers only 200 metres away and there was the underworld beneath us, clear waters that felt as if you could see for ever down into the depths.
The divers prepared themselves with all their gear and then one by one tipped unceremoniously backwards over the gunnels into the clear water below. As the only non-diver amongst them, I watched with fascination to see how it was done and then slipped myself over the side with my snorkel on and watched as they slowly let themselves down into the deep. I had never been out on a dive boat before and Don had always felt sorry that I could not join him in his favourite sport. This time I joined him from above and found it fascinating to float serenely on the surface above the divers, watching their progress as they explored the reef below me.
I discovered what fun it is to play in their bubbles – like a dolphin I swam merrily in the bubble wake and tried to catch the big ones as they rose in front of me. I discovered what a delicious tickly feeling it is to swim in a sea of fine bubbles.
When I was tired of that I had the whole reef gardens to myself with the millions of glorious fishes darting about. I could watch and see how they looked after their coral gardens, chased each other away from their babies and swam in schools or groups of the same kind all going about their business undeterred by the strange fish on the surface looking down on them. My favourite pastime was to swim over the top of the skyscrapers and look down the edges – I felt like a base jumper who never takes off.
Window shopping in the reef is wonderful.
I was surprised that I wasn’t more fearful when I looked up, there was only me and sea and the reef pounding away over there – in between surges I could see the dive boat skipper as he trolled around the area looking for the divers’ bubbles.
I knew he could come and get me in a moment if I needed to get out so I just enjoyed my solitary reef-gazing as much as I could.
My longest time in the water was probably about 45 minutes. No problem.
The water is deliciously warm and even though I wore a tee shirt to protect my back I forgot that the backs of my legs were exposed to the sun and came home the first day with cherry pink backside and legs. From then on I wore a white pair of long pants which kept the sun off. As I had yellow gloves and a cobalt blue Keep NZ Nuclear Free Tee shirt, I think I matched the reef fish quite well. I would wave at them sometimes, but they never actually waved back. The most notice they took of me was an occasional sideways glance and then it was back to the business of protecting their young, or chipping away at the coral gardens.
On the last but one dive, the divers went to what was called Shark Alley. I hopped in the water as usual after they had all submerged, and was happily amusing myself among the condominiums of the deep when I noticed a big White Tip reef shark cruising along slowly underneath me about 100 feet down. I was fascinated but hid myself as far as I could, behind the nearest bommie. Another one and then another one came along after the first one. Three in all! All heading in the same direction… looking for dinner. I hope they don’t look up at me, I thought. When the divers came back from their run, they complained that they didn’t see one shark in the shark gutter. ‘They were all out fishing with me,’ I said.
What rainbow colours there are in the fish world and the coral gardens! Apparently the colours are not as bright the deeper you go so I had the best of both worlds up on top near the sunlight. Don’s favourite fish was a gorgeous purple one called Anthis. Mine was the tiny cobalt blue fishes that live in the coral ‘bushes’ – they hide when they see you coming but if you stay still enough they will come out and play again before long. Another of my favourites was a stripy Nemo mother with six or seven tiny little Nemo babies around their coral nest. I also enjoyed floating amongst a fluttering cloud of “butterfly” fishes who hang out over the edge of the big drops. They don’t seem to notice the oversized blue fish with white pants and yellow flippers that has suddenly joined them from above.
Then there was the pulsating coral – looks like a cauliflower but has a soft furry surface which waves in electrical pulses across the surface. Don found a Magic coral which fakes dead coral, going white as soon as it is touched and then comes back to life again after the threat has gone.
Dan, our divemaster, told us about a segmented nudibranch like a little train with carriages which breaks apart into separate pieces when threatened – once the danger is passed it reconstitutes itself again! He also told us about a certain fish family that is all males except one. If the female dies or goes away, another male turns into a female and then they are complete again. Perfect population control. Ain’t Nature grand?
On our last night together we headed for the Surf & Turf, the favoured eating house in town. Don was thrilled to get two lobster tails for $25 and ate to his heart’s content.
What a lovely holiday it was. We felt cleaned and refreshed by all that wonderful ocean and the warmth and dignity of our hosts the Fijians.