Squid (and Calamari)

After a few days in Makogai we continued on our track west, first sailing 50 miles to an anchorage at Nanunu-i-Ra and the next day another 60 miles to the Yasawas, a chain of islands stretching some 90 km along the west coasts of Fiji’s two main islands. Resorts of the more basic type are scattered along the shores and serviced by the yellow Yasawa Flyer high speed catamaran that drops off and picks up the holiday traffic. Hollywood has been here – both Blue Lagoon (Brooke Shields) and Castaway (Tom Hanks) were filmed in the Yasawas. Did I mention that in 2005 Mel Gibson bought Mago Island in the northern Lau for US$15 million, one of the largest privately owned islands in the world?

Now we are on the dry side of Fiji and the volcanic hills are sparsely forested and covered with golden brown grasses as high  as my head. I’m always grateful that these South Pacific islands have no poisonous critters (like rattlesnakes) to hide in the underbrush. We revisited some old favorite sites on the island of Naviti, hiking through the tall grass across to a shallow lagoon where a WWII plane is sunken in the shallows (the locals rescued the downed pilot), stopping by to say hello to the quite elderly Fijian at his nearby homestead. We intended to visit the giant rays that inhabit a channel near Manta Ray Island, but learned from a local that after a resort (named Mantaray Resort) was built, the rays left for less crowded waters.

AVATAR was quite popular with a school of squid at our anchorage off Naviti. Fifty or sixty lingered in the shadow of the hull, most likely attracted by the plentiful schools of small silvery blue minnows that also swirled in the water underneath the boat. Determined to photograph the squid, I made several snorkeling attempts by easing myself into the water off AVATAR’s stern, trying not to splash and startle them away.

The squid hang suspended in the water, all facing the same way, but one sudden movement and the entire school vanishes (swimming backwards) in the blink of an eye. I wait patiently (it helps to have a spotter aboard the boat), and they suddenly reappear at the fringe of my visibility. By drifting innocuously near them, trying hard not to move or even exhale noisily through my snorkel, I would eventually find myself floating in their midst.

However all their caution went out the window when Rod tossed a squid lure on a fishing line into the water. The lure was shaped like a little rubbery red prawn, apparently a big favorite of squid, and they went for it enthusiastically, completely disregarding me as they tried to grab hold of the lure with their tentacles. All my hours of sneaky stalking were wasted; now I had a squid feeding frenzy literally inches from my camera. The only downside was that just as I framed up a good shot Rod would jerk the line causing my subject to fly up out of the water (and viewfinder) onto the boat, splattering hull, deck, and Rod with black ink.

Epilogue: Calamari appetizers at cocktail hour while watching another lovely Fijian sunset.

Giant Clams

We’ve been off the beaten track for the past week and out of data coverage as well, but now we’re working our way towards Denarau as our cruising winds down. Today we sailed to Mana Island and are “connected” once more. It is very conveniently pouring down rain in a brief squall, giving me an excuse to catch up on the computer.

From Savusavu we sailed west some 50 miles to Makogai, a small island cluster encircling a protected bay. The Fijian government operates a fishery on the island raising crops of giant clams and coral for seeding the reefs.

We dinghied to shore to check in and were told a sevusevu was required, so back to AVATAR to collect our second bundle of gift-wrapped kava. This sevusevu was a far cry from the formal ceremony in the Lau. Two employees pulled up a few chairs on the porch of the fishery office and invited us to sit.  One accepted our kava bundle, mumbled three or four words max in Fijian, then looked up at us and said “OK”, by which we knew we were now invited guests free to anchor, swim, scuba dive, hike and otherwise enjoy the premises.

He did give us a tour of the giant clam incubation tanks, where tiny giants-to-be were only an inch or two long.  In five years or so they will be the size of the clams in the photo above, and in ten years they can be measured end to end with outstretched arms.  Their lips come in a variety of colors, from mottled creams and browns and blacks to irridescent peacock blues and emerald greens. Our Fijian guide told us the clams were incapable of slamming their shells shut because of the massive bulk of the flesh, but we declined to put that to a test with an arm or foot.

Mike and I spent an hour or so scuba diving with an assortment of the clams stored in shallow water off the fishery’s beach.  I thought it would be a quick rather dull dive dedicated to snapping a photo or two for posterity, but instead it turned out to be a fun exercise in underwater composition.

In addition to the giant clam nursery, Makogai offered a wonderful underwater garden off a rocky point. We snorkeled there first and it was such an unexpectedly spectacular spot that the next day Mike and I took our scuba gear and dove it again with photography in mind. Reef fish refuse to follow instructions and smile for the camera; it takes a lot of wasted shots to get a fish in sharp focus and posed in the right spot! I take my camera whether I snorkel or dive, but the added complication of holding my breath and bobbing up to the surface after every burst of clicks definitely ups the challenge. Puttering around in full scuba gear in shallow water with plenty of sunlight gives me a chance to actually make an effort to apply some composition and technique.

We spent nearly two hours leisurely exploring in just a few meters of water until I was too cold to hold the camera steady! In addition to looking for scenic shots in the rich variety of coral and marine growth, we spent time coaxing a shy octopus out of a crevice, and I caught a few shots from below of waves breaking on the black rocks. We had more fun playing in the shallow water than we did on the “real” scuba dive on a wall on the main pass into Makogai’s bay.

The slideshow below includes the giant clams and some other underwater scenery from Makogai.  Click on “options” at the lower right to play fullscreen.




Viani Bay

One of our favorite destinations remembered from our 2006 Fijian cruise aboard Raven was Viani Bay, a quiet pastoral spot on Vanua Levu’s southeast corner, just across the Somosomo Strait from the island of Taveuni. Viani Bay is so secluded it is not even serviced by a road. Access is by boat (or maybe chartered seaplane) or a very long walk!  In the morning the school children cross from one side of the bay to the other to attend school on the local version of a school bus. 

And we had fond memories of Jack Fisher, a colorful local man well known amongst the yachties. It was a pleasure to see he was still there and up to his same old routine. Jack is a big jolly fellow, full of stories. He has set himself up as the resident dive guide for visiting yachts. His knowledge of  local weather and water conditions and reef topography makes it a pleasure to have him join us for a morning of diving. The entire bay is populated with Fishers – Jack’s grandfather was a British (I think) sailor who bought the entire bay at the turn of the century.  Jack would be 3/4 Fijian, but he speaks with an odd accent that must have a bit of the old country mixed in.

Jack’s son ferried him out to AVATAR at the pre-determined time; as soon as Jack climbed aboard we were off to visit the best dive sites along the Rainbow Reef:  the White Wall, the Purple Wall, Fish Factory, Cabbage Patch, The Point; whatever the selection of the day.  He guided us to the best anchorages, gave us detailed instructions for each dive, and manned our dinghy for us while we explored below the water – following our bubble trail and picking us up when we surfaced.

Rod’s girlfriend Mayflor is just learning to scuba dive this trip, so with Jack watching out it made it easy for all four of us to dive together, Rod supervising May, knowing AVATAR was securely anchored and our dive tender was tracking our underwater route. My favorite dive was the White Wall, a sheer wall festooned with soft white corals. Access is through a descending tunnel in limestone, lined with sea fans and ending in blue water on the sheer face of the wall at 20 meters or so – a great photo op.  But another dive was a close second, along a shallow reef rich with soft corals and swarming with literally millions of small brightly colored fish. Mike laughed when I was attacked by a pair of clown fish – I must have been close to their nest because instead of tucking themselves safely in the tentacles of their anemone house, they came charging out at me in the blue water, darting right up to my face mask, too close to even focus.


For the past couple of days we’ve been hanging out in Savusavu, a sleepy little town stretched out along the shore of a placid bay and backed by a hilly landscape dripping with greenery.  A popular hangout for yachts, there are maybe thirty or forty anchored here in the harbor at the moment.  Most are active cruisers but some are derelicts, apparently abandoned, rusted and decaying with ferns growing out of the light fixtures.

Savusavu is small but with enough amenities to keep everyone entertained, including a yacht club and a squash club, restaurants and bars, shops and banks, a produce market and a handicrafts market, also a resident pearl farm and upscale pearl shop. The Rugby World Cup 2011 is playing on TV and everyone turned out yesterday afternoon to watch the Fiji-Samoa game (Samoa won).  We met one cruising couple from Nogales, Arizona, and another American girl who has been sailing around and around the world for fifteen years non stop, including two trips to Antarctica, the coast of South America, Mexico, and the all the remote spots in the Pacific.

The weather has been grey for the past few days.  I’ve been entertaining myself in the mornings with long photo kayaking expeditions sneaking up on the terns in the harbor.  They perch on available channel markers, buoys and rafts.  They are fairly well acclimated to boat traffic and I can approach really close by letting the kayak coast quietly towards them without benefit of paddling.  Some of the youngsters are fully grown and feathered out, but can be identified by piteous squawking and posturing as they try to convince mom to share a meal.  In the afternoons Mike and I stretch our legs by taking long walks along the coastal highway.  Lunch and dinner are at the local cafes, giving the crew a break from cooking and dishwashing.

We’re off in the morning to Makogai Island with hopes of more awesome diving opportunities.  Internet access will probably fade away for a few days, but we will see. Six years ago on our first visit to Fiji we spent a lot of time scouting out internet cafes and suffering through power outages and snail pace connections. Times have changed; now cellphone service is functional nearly everywhere and the internet blazes along at 3G speeds.  We have a gadget installed on AVATAR called an Ericsson W35 Marine Pack which allows us to plug in any 3G data card from any country and create our own hot spot aboard the boat.  Great invention!

Slideshow of tern photos below. Click on Options, lower right corner, to play flash based slideshow fullscreen.



Our entertainment up til now has been strictly water based.  Kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing have been the daily fare, star watching or a DVD on the big screen TV for evening entertainment – if we can stay awake past 8 p.m.!

The scuba diving in the Lau group was exceptional. Being so far off the beaten track, the reefs are unspoiled and the fish plentiful and curious about the bubbling newcomers in their midst. We enjoyed two awesome dives on a sunken pinnacle called Trigger Rock.  The sheer north face of the pinnacle wall plunges some 600 meters into the blue depths, making it a prime spot for the big pelagics to come cruising through.  Mike and I began the dive by pulling ourselves down hand over hand along Avatar’s anchor chain to cope with the significant current.  Once we reached the wall we were able to tuck down behind it and have a more leisurely view of the reef.  We found ourselves swimming with fifteen or twenty tuna, rainbow runners, trevally and schools of barracuda, as well as the plentiful reef fish. When we concluded the dive, as soon as we pulled up anchor we dropped our fishing lines off the stern and circled the pinnacle a couple of times; it only took two minutes before a pair of dogtooth tuna hit our two lines simultaneously and it was sashimi for lunch!

Another reef dive in the Lau presented us with a wall of barracuda and a big grey shark cruising through their midst, no doubt occasionally snapping up one or two as a snack.  There was a multitude of white tip reef sharks here as well, so curious about us that I had to backpedal to try to fit them in the viewfinder.  Mike, who is exceedingly wary of all sharks, asked me later why I didn’t just bonk the pushiest white tip on the nose with my camera housing but in fact it was only curious – and white tip reef sharks aren’t a threat.  Grey sharks, however, are the real deal and we treat them with respect.

Back in the Bay of Islands lagoons there was one big bommie in shallow water between two islands, not far from our anchorage.  A bommie is a sunken pinnacle rising up from the bottom, a cluster of rock, coral and sealife, and an omnipresent navigational hazard in Fiji.  This particular one was abolutely blooming with soft as well as hard corals and an abundance of creatures.  I took my camera and scuba gear and spent several hours poking into all its nooks and crannies until I was just about on a first name basis with the inhabitants, including a huge old lobster trying desperately to disappear out of sight under a ledge – but his 3 foot feelers poking out were a dead giveaway.

Fishing here has been awesome – normally we don’t scout out the fishing in advance like we did at Trigger Rock, but truly our biggest problem has been losing our lures and hooks to fish too big for our tackle.  So far in the last month we have lost 4 lures, and one big fish even snapped the elastic bungee that Rod rigs up as a shock absorber for the lines. Our last fishing run netted us another even bigger dogtooth tuna, a rainbow runner, and a smaller tuna.  With the fridge full of fish, we have had to put the fishing gear away or we won’t be able to eat it all by the end of our trip.




Our first order of business upon arriving in the Lau group was to check in with the local village to perform the traditional ceremony of sevusevu. Although on mainland Fiji more and more it seems the sevusevu is often skipped over by the more accessible villages, here in the Lau it is still taken very seriously.  As outsiders, we are expected to present ourselves to a council of the village headman and elders.  At their invitation we remove our shoes and enter the council building where we sit crosslegged in a circle on the floor.  We offer the chief a gift of kava, a bundle of dried roots from the pepper tree that Rod purchased at market in Nadi.  Our offering is gift wrapped in newspaper and tied with a spiral of pink ribbon making a shape much like the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  Our gift also included a couple of tee shirts with the AVATAR FPB64 logo.

When ground into powder and mixed in a large ceremonial bowl with water, kava makes a mildly narcotic drink flavored suspiciously like mud.  It numbs the lips and tongue and creates a mellow zoned out state.  It is dipped from the bowl using a half coconut shell which is passed from person to person, each expected to gulp down the contents in one go.  Even more traditionally kava was originally prepared by young boys who chewed on the roots and spit the pulp into the communal bowl.  We have thankfully bypassed that method of preparation, and on this trip to the Lau we were spared the kava drinking portion of the ceremony as well. However the chief accepted our gifts with a ceremonial speech in Fijian and then, converting to English, we shared our names and a little of our story – where we came from and what we were up to – after which the chief formally welcomed us to his village and gave us permission to make use of their land and water for our recreation – to anchor our boat, cruise their waters, swim, dive, fish, explore.  We made our entry into the ledger kept of visiting yachts, and Rod looked up his prior visit to the Lau in 2003 aboard Raven.  The count of visiting yachts thus far in 2011 stands at thirty-four.

Post ceremony we were invited into the home of one of the elders and served hot tea by his wife while we visited and chatted, exchanging counts of children and grandchildren, hearing the Lau version of Fijian politics, and otherwise just getting to know one another.  There was a bit of fund-raising involved as well; the village had a list of fees for some of their tourism endeavors.  They have set aside an area of the reef as a marine park and have started a nursery of giant clams as a present and future tourist attraction.  We paid the fee and later in the day snorkeled the reef, much like any other reef we could have snorkeled for free, but the wire frameworks housing the baby giant clams were interesting to see, along with the larger giant clams strategically spotted throughout the coral.  It was a worthwhile expense to support the ecological efforts of the community to preserve the marine environment.