The GVI marine research team here on the Tovoto base in the Yasawa’s have had a great couple of weeks. On top of our regular activities of training and surveying, the unusually calm sea conditions have meant that we’ve been able to go on some excellent fun dives. In the past two weeks we’ve seen sharks, turtles, sea snakes, lobsters and eels, as well as the usual hundreds of brightly coloured fish and coral.
So far the best two (though there are lots to choose from) have been at the dive sites called Bonzai and Cathedral. Bonzai is a deep dive site where whales have recently been spotted. It is a beautiful wall dive 7km straight out into the ocean. To the right is a colourful reef wall while to the left and below is the deep blue ocean. Because of the depth below and good visibility the feeling of flying is particularly strong here. Before getting in the water we spotted something whale-like near the surface so the anticipation on the dive itself was almost overwhelming. Sadly we didn’t see any whales, but it was still an amazing dive. While we’re on the subject of amazing dives, Cathedral has to get a mention. We’ve been twice in the past two weeks and it is without doubt the best dive site I have ever been to. The abundance, size and variety of the fish there surpass all others I’ve seen. On top of that it’s a shark feeding site which means it literally is shark infested! On our first dive there we must have seen about 30 sharks: black tips, white tips, grey reef sharks and two 3 metre bull sharks. After diving there, the name becomes clear – just as the massive cathedrals of old would inspire people to believe in God, coming face to face with an adult bull shark suddenly makes prayer seem like a much more appealing pastime.
In spite of all these fun dives, the marine team has still found the time to do plenty of work. The team has been split into two with Andrea, Jacson and Phoebe doing rescue diver training and Nicola and I collecting data on surveys. The rescue training has been taking place on the picturesque blue lagoon beach under the supervision of our training and safety officer Ron. With his stage name of Alice, Ron seems to particularly enjoy his role as panicked diver. I’m still doubtful whether there’s ever been such a merciless panicked diver as Alice. Her devastatingly precise flailing limbs rarely leave the rescuer with a mask or a regulator by the end, but in their place is a newly found sense of caution when diving near Ron. Nevertheless, the rescuers usually manage to subdue Alice and still have time to relax on the beach before heading back to base.
Surveying has been equally exciting. Surveying usually consists of laying down a tape measure and recording what sort of life is around. On one memorable survey, I was tapped on the shoulder by my buddy Nicola, only to look up and find myself eye to eye with a large Moray Eel. After doing a small panicked diver impersonation of my own I managed to continue with the survey, albeit from a distance. Unfortunately the eel seemed to have a black sense of humour and took particular joy in disappearing for long stretches of the survey, only to reappear out of an unlikely hole that was invariably somewhere close to my head.
Last but certainly not least, the whole marine team were lucky enough to participate in a traditional Fijian fish drive day called aYavirau. These events are rare and only happen on special occasions. For nine years the area surrounding Yaromo (Honeymoon Island) has been a marine protected area and yesterday for the first time it was opened for this one time only fishing event. To catch the fish, a large circular barrier of vines is held in the water and slowly, over a period of hours, the circle is made smaller.
Overseeing and organising this is the head fisherman who stood astride at the front of his boat (with a machete, by the way) shouting his orders. Already a pretty scary figure, our Fijian Marine Research Officer Tai tactfully told us that the chief had the right to spear us (that’s right, throw a spear at us!) if we were in the way. Understandably, we marine volunteers did our best to keep a low profile. When the circle a was tightly closed a small amount of duva (a poisonous root) was placed in the water. After that the marine research team had the task of measuring and identifying all of the dead fish. While not exactly what I was expecting to be doing on my marine conservation trip, it was good fun. Fishing is a vital part of Fijian life and this was a great chance to see such a real and genuine piece of Fijian culture that you wouldn’t normally see as a tourist.