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A SMALL BITE OUT OF BLIGH

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

While most divers head to Fiji to see sharks, this South Pacific nation has so much more to offer, as Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose discovered in Bligh Water.

 

Surfacing after another magic dive in Bligh Water, we couldn’t imagine how anyone could not fall in love with the colourful reefs of this region of Fiji. However, the man who this body of water was named after certainly had no love for the area, and in fact Lieutenant William Bligh feared having to sail through this area at all, and not because he was worried about hitting these colourful reefs.

 

The year was 1789 and Bligh had just been thrown off his own ship by most of his crew in the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. The mutineers were not completely heartless as they deposited Bligh, and 18 men still loyal to him, in a 23ft long launch with a few supplies. The mutineers didn’t really think any of Bligh’s men would survive in the small boat as they had to pass through the dreaded islands of Fiji.

 

At the time the Fijians were reported to be savage cannibals, so the islands were completely avoided by European sailors. But with Bligh deciding the quickest route to safety was to sail to Timor, they had to make the first European voyage through the islands of Fiji. In a remarkable feat of seamanship, Bligh and his men not only safely made it through the Fiji islands without being eaten, or hitting a colourful reef, but also made it safely to Timor, a voyage of over 3500 nautical miles!

 

Today the islands of Fiji have a completely different reputation, with Fijian’s some the friendliest and most welcoming people on earth and the islands a haven for sun seeking tourists. And while Bligh may have rushed through the area now bearing his name, divers linger in this area as long as possible to explore some of the richest and prettiest coral reefs in the South Pacific.

 

Over the years we have visited Fiji many times, but have always headed to Beqa Lagoon, lured by the area’s incredible shark dives. But a recent invitation by Tourism Fiji to dive Bligh Water with a group of travel agents and travel writers was too good to miss. The only problem was the limited time to explore this area, only three days to get a taste of Bligh Water.

 

After overnighting in Nadi, our group depart the city in the morning for the three hour drive to the small town of Rakiraki, on the northern tip of the main island of Viti Levu. While it is possible to explore Bligh Water from a liveaboard vessel, with the 120ft motorsailer Nai’a exploring this region on seven to ten day trips, most divers use the land based operations at Rakiraki. During our short stay we had the chance to stay and dive with the two premier dive resorts in the area, Volivoli Beach Resort and Wananavu Beach Resort.

 

Arriving at Volivoli Beach Resort at lunch time, we quickly checking into our hillside bure, then devoured a very filling meal in the large restaurant complex beside the pool. This resort is owned by the Darling family and it was recently rebuilt after suffering extensive damage from Cyclone Winston in 2016. Set on a peninsula, each comfortable bure or villa has commanding ocean views of Bligh Water.

 

With lunch out of the way it was time to dive, so we made our way to the dive shop operated by Ra Divers. We quickly had our gear organised and boarded one of their dive boats for our first dive at Golden Dreams.

 

Ra Divers have over fifty dive sites they visit in Bligh Water, and fortunately very few suffered damage from Cyclone Winston. Golden Dreams is located on Sailstone Reef, the closest reef to the resort, with the site a series of large coral heads rising from 80ft to 20ft. To avoid the current, typical in this area, we jumped in behind the reef.

 

At first the coral was very average and so was the visibility at only 30ft after recent heavy rains. We followed our guide through a series of channels, the current getting stronger in each channel. With a macro lens on the camera we spent most of our time with our heads down looking for subjects, finding nudibranchs, gobies and commensal shrimps. When we finally looked up we realised we had entered a garden of paradise as all around us were incredible corals sprouting from the walls of the coral heads.

 

Spinning around we could see gorgonians, spikey soft corals, sea whips, sponges, ascidians, whip corals and black coral trees – a kaleidoscope of colours that was simply stunning. And adding extra colour to these coral gardens were the dense schools of basslets, damsels, fusiliers and other reef fish.

 

We almost wished for a wide angle lens, but when the guide pointed out a group of ghostpipefish we knew we had made the right lens choice for this dive. We had never seen a ghostpipefish in Fiji before and here were six of them in one small area, a mix of robust and ornate species. Later Nick Darling, the owner of Volivoli, informed us that they get a good variety of macro critters and even have a resident frogfish on their house reef. He also showed us pictures of the rare and undescribed hairy ghostpipefish that is often seen in the area, which turned us green with envy.

 

It was a wonderful dive and a great introduction to the riches of Bligh Water.

 

The next day the weather was perfect to head further offshore and dive Vatu-i-Ra Reef in the passage. It took over an hour to travel to this remote reef, but it was well worth the travel time when we saw the calm blue water.

 

We geared up as quickly as possible, eager to explore Mellow Yellow. Once in the water we found the visibility over 70ft and before us a tower of coral. We quickly found many beautiful soft corals that just got better and better as we headed towards the current side of the pinnacle. Entering a gutter, that split the pinnacle in two, we found it completely lined with soft corals in almost every pastel colour imaginable. But the best corals were on the outer side of the pinnacle, the side swept by currents and covered in gorgonians and radiant yellow soft corals.

 

With so many colourful corals, and also swarms of basslets, photography was simply a matter of pointing the camera and hitting the shutter. You just couldn’t miss. While the corals kept us captivated, we did notice a good variety of reef fish, pelagic fish and reef sharks when we looked around, but didn’t bother chasing any of these creatures for a photo. The wonderful corals also continued on top of the pinnacle, which was covered in a healthy coverage of hard corals and populated by masses of damsels and basslets.

 

The next dive at Chile was just as good with this collection of coral heads also covered in exquisite corals. A highlight were the walls covered in delicate yellow fern corals, a variety we had never seen in such abundance. These two dives left us gobsmacked, we had seen lovely corals before, but not so many concentrated in such a small area.

 

After lunch it was time to pack the bags and move accommodation, fortunately not too far as Wananavu Beach Resort was only in the next bay. This resort has traditional style bures set throughout a pretty garden beach side setting. We dropped the bags in our room and headed to the dive centre for a late afternoon dive at Amazing Maze.

 

This was another wonderful dive site on Sailstone Reef and fortunately the visibility had improved and was now 50ft. Thinking the visibility might still be down on this inshore site we had opted for a macro lens once more, which allowed us to photograph the gobies, anemonefish, nudibranchs, lionfish and other small critters. However, this was really a wide angle site with the maze of coral heads covered in beautiful gorgonians and soft corals. We played follow the leader at this site, and were very happy that we did as it would have been very easy to get lost in this maze of caves, swim-throughs, gutters and ledges.

 

The next morning we got to sample some very different dive sites at Midway Reef. The visibility wasn’t the best on the dive at Rob’s Rock, only 40ft, but the fish life easily made up for this. Exploring this site we found another collection of coral heads rising from 80ft, and once more the corals were fabulous. But we were more impressed with the fish life, encountering grey reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, Maori wrasse, sweetlips, mackerel and schools of trevally, snapper, fusiliers and barracuda.

 

We also found the top of one coral head engulfed by a cloud of baitfish. We sat amongst the fish, watching them swirl around us and also darting amongst the corals when bombarded by a passing gang of trevally.

 

Our final dive in Bligh Water was at Wheatfields, a towering coral head that left us wanting more. This wonderful dive site had it all – the magnificent corals, sharks, schooling fish and some great macro critters. Rising from 100ft, we circumnavigated this large pinnacle, but spent most of our time on a small side pinnacle washed by the current. This was where the best corals and fish action could be found, with schools of bannerfish, barracuda, trevally, fusiliers and a few lingering grey reef sharks.

 

While we spent our time admiring the fish and corals, our guides were busy pointing out smaller critters to the other divers, showing them nudibranchs, longnose hawkfish, moray eels, blennies and even a pygmy seahorse.

 

Our bottom time, and our stay, ended all too quickly in Bligh Water. This quick trip might have only been a bite size portion of this incredible dive destination, but it was enough to show us the riches of this area and entice us back to explore more of this amazing part of Fiji.

 

Getting There

A number of airlines fly into Fiji, via Asia, Australia and the west coast of the USA, with the two main airports in Nadi and Suva. From Europe the quickest flights are via Singapore or Hong Kong for a connection with Fiji Airways. Pickups from either Nadi or Suva can be arranged with the resorts at Rakiraki.

Visas

Nationals from most countries are granted a free visa on arrival.

When to go

Year round, but the wet season, November to March, can have rougher seas and reduced visibility, and also the chance of a cyclone.

Diving

The water temperature in Bligh Water varies from 25°C to 29°C, with most divers using a 3mm wetsuit. Both resorts we stayed with at Rakiraki have professional dive operations that visit over 50 dive sites in Bligh Water. The resorts also have package deals on diving and accommodation.

 

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