Bull Sharks and Coral Reefs
One of my favorite parts of working at sea is the unparalleled opportunities to visit places I’d otherwise probably never get to go. I’ve always dreamed of going anywhere and everywhere, but life, work, and bank account balances have typically dictated my decisions, as they are wont to do.
Sometimes you get lucky and get to work a contract out of world-class travel destinations such as the dazzling ports of Richmond or San Pedro, California. Other times, you have to go where the ship goes, even if those destinations are ho hum places, like Hawaiʻi. Wait, I may have gotten those two mixed up — do people usually prefer to vacation in lush tropical islands or massive industrial centers full of container ships? I can’t remember.
This was one of those dream times, when I found myself being deposited via zodiac in the port of Suva, Fiji, after transiting halfway across the Pacific Ocean from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi aboard R/V Falkor. Fiji was one of those places that’s always existed on the very periphery of my imagination — a place where I knew I’d never turn down the opportunity to go, but never really thought I’d get the chance in my lifetime. But here I was, being dropped off in its capital city, my first landfall in the Southern Hemisphere, without a guidebook and nothing close to resembling a plan.
I am categorically not a “resort person”. My time on tropical islands has mostly been spent at field stations or small, out-of-the-way campgrounds, and this is how I like it. Something about luxury (sometimes contrasting sharply with poverty) and being waited on excessively makes me extremely uncomfortable. Still, it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, even if your comfort zone of backpacking tents and research station dorms is probably what a lot of people would consider out of their comfort zone. To each their own.
Wild camping or government-park campgrounds do not seem to be a thing in Fiji, at least not that my limited research found. Accommodations seem to be split between various levels of luxury resorts interspersed with cheaper, backpacker-oriented hostel-style dorm rooms, sometimes as a different facility at a luxury resort.
I decided to head to the Yasawa Islands, a small island chain to the northwest of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. The islands are accessible by ferry or seaplane and promised relaxation next to turquoise waters.
I boarded the ferry from Nadi the next day, after a stressful journey to Nadi involving a cab driver and some behavior I’d rather not relive, more desperate than ever for this relaxation thing I’d heard so much about. My first stop was a small resort on Nacula Island, close to the northernmost end of the islands. First-ever resort, let’s do this!
The resort had a comfortable shared dorm and a healthy coral reef right offshore, everything I could possibly want. I was reading The Places in Between, a book by Rory Stewart detailing his 2002 walk across Afghanistan (recommended, by the way), and perfected a technique for lying half-in and half-out of the warming spring ocean to read without wetting the pages, which provided perhaps the most diametrically-opposed juxtaposition of book subject matter and reading location possible without actually leaving Earth and flying to space.
In addition to reading, I entertained myself by spending hours snorkeling and taking photos of the fish and other interesting sea life around the reef. Purple iridescent corals, giant clams, tiny fish and interesting algae. I could stay there forever.
Nights were occupied with communal dinners with the other travelers and local delicacies provided by the resort (okay, okay, I see why people like this resort thing). My favorite dish by far was kokoda, a dish of citrus-cured fish served in a spicy stew of coconut and crunchy fruits and vegetables, notably pineapple, red onion, bell pepper, chilis, and cucumber, with a side of hot steamed rice. I took note of all the ingredients so I can try my hand at making this dish when next I have a kitchen.
After a couple of days on Nacula Island, I headed back down the island chain to another resort on Nanuya Balavu Island, this one with a SCUBA diving center. It had already been three whole weeks since I was last on SCUBA at the aquarium, so obviously I was in need of an underwater-meditation fix. (Digression: the weirdest part about working at sea is you usually don’t actually get to go in the ocean. It seems quite unfair to be constantly teased with the possibility of underwater adventure without ever going underwater, unless you manage to fall off during an ROV recovery or something.) A double-tank dive on a shipwreck and in some coral caverns a short boat ride from the island was an enjoyable pastime.
After a night on Nanuya Balavu it was time to head back to Pacific Harbour in the south of Viti Levu via ferry and mini-bus. The main draw of this small town for me was a world-famous bull shark dive my friend Mugdha had told me about from when she was working in Fiji over last summer. I booked two days of diving, one day of soft coral and shipwreck diving in the channel between Pacific Harbour and Beqa Island, and a second day of shark diving, the main event!
My main experience with coral reefs thus far has been limited to the hard reef-building corals around Hawaiʻi, so it was a new and exciting experience to see the rich diversity of soft corals in this area. As a plus, the reefs around Fiji (at least those that I saw) haven’t experienced the mass bleaching events that Hawaiʻi has in the last several years, and it was quite heartening to see a part of the ocean that’s still vibrant and healthy.
The next day, it was time for sharks! During the two shark dives in Shark Reef Marine Reserve, dive operators hand-feed bull sharks while participants line up along a coral wall (sans cage) to observe the frenzy. Shark feeding is highly controversial, with compelling arguments on each side of the issue. Some argue that feeding sharks changes their natural behavior. Others contend that the benefits of shark tourism, which include incentivizing protections for sharks rather than killing them for for their fins and teeth, outweigh the drawbacks. At Shark Reef Marine Reserve, divers pay a levy to compensate the villagers who traditionally fished the reef for not fishing, and a few years ago Fiji’s first National Marine Park was established in the area, protecting not only the sharks but the entire ecosystem. The number of divers per week is also limited, and research has been conducted on this population to determine whether the sharks’ natural feeding patterns have been significantly altered by this tourism. A 2018 study found that the sharks still hunt for their food and the impact of this dive tourism is not significant to their diets and is ecologically sustainable .
After the diving was done, it was back to reality. I spent my last day lounging and finally reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which had been taking up several precious ounces in my duffle bag since September and turned out to be pseudoscientific tripe of the highest degree. Still, I can’t exactly complain about getting to read a book in a hammock under a palm tree. I think I might try this vacation thing more often. Just one bus back to Nadi and a flight to Los Angeles and then to San Diego lay between me and a mad dash to pack for my impending return to the Southern Hemisphere.