FIJI (out of Suva on the Fiji Aggressor) - November 4-11, 2017

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

We didn’t get the trip we expected, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.

I’ve only been to Fiji once before and that was back in 1991 in the Matagi/Taveuni area, a totally different part of Fiji than where we were this time. So I’m not sure what the difference of geography means in terms of what you see underwater. My recollection of the 1991 trip was that there was LOTS of red. The fish were red, the hard corals were red, and the soft corals were red. So I expected a lot of red here and that wasn’t the case. That’s not a bad thing, just different.

Something else that might have enhanced the difference was the weather. As I’ve said for years, the enemy of good diving is wind. Rain, we can handle. Wind is a different story. And we had wind here in Fiji, at least for the start of our trip. They’d actually had it come up a few days before we arrived so that meant choppy seas, sometimes limited visibility, and an altered itinerary because some areas were simply not diveable. More on all of that in a bit.

Our group this time was nine strong: Donna & Cecilia Groman, Karen Norris & Craig Gelpi, Harry Kreigh (who went to high school with me in Dover, DE, and was my tennis doubles partner to boot), Lou Weisberg (who was also on the 1991 trip), Marilyn Dahle, and Laurie Kasper & me (Ken Kurtis).

Getting to Fiji is pretty easy as Fiji Airways has a daily non-stop from LAX that leaves late evening and arrives in Nadi, Fiji, eleven hours later which is early morning plus another day there. Once through Immigration & Customs (took us about an hour), we found our van driver outside for the 120-mile trip around the southern end of Vitu Levu from Nadi to Suva, which is where we were to board the Fiji Aggressor. That drive takes close to four hours (with a bathroom/snack/souvenir stop along the way). So we arrived at the Aggressor bit after noon. The original plan was to board and depart.

But the weather changed that. Captain Joji Tavura let us know that he wanted to wait about seven hours in the hopes that the wind (which was gusting up to the 30mph) would die down a bit and that would make for a smoother ride over. So we spent Saturday afternoon at the dock in Suva. This didn’t cost us any dive time at all as even had we left on schedule, the diving wasn’t going to start until the next morning anyhow. So instead of arriving on-site around 6PM, we arrived around midnight. No biggee, although it was quite a bouncy crossing.

The Fiji Aggressor is one of the smaller vessels of the Aggressor fleet, holding only 10 divers total. As Aggressors go, the boat was okay, but not phenomenal. There are definitely some design/structural limitations as well as it could use a little TLC. (After writing this, we've learned they're going into drydock January 6-13 for some unspecified repairs so hopefully they'll make other improvements too.)

It’s 101 feet long and 22 feet wide which is fine for the number of people on board. (There’s also 5-6 crew.) The main boat deck consists (front to back) of the open bow area, the master stateroom, small-ish salon/sofa area, serving table, dining area (single table that seats everyone – that was nice), and then an open-ish area that has a charging table (240v Australian plugs – they also have 110v but they're also Australian plugs so you need to bring plug adapters with you). This all leads out to the covered back assembly deck which has a photo table (we only had three photogs but this table would get quite crowded with more photogs &/or bigger camera setups), gear hanging area, and then you go down some steps to the stern dive deck platform area which is where tanks/weights/BCs/regs/fins live and which is the entry/exit point for many of the dives.

The lower boat deck houses the other four deluxe staterooms, each identical, which have a lower double bunk and upper single bunk plus en suite bathrooms. One comment/complaint was that the upper bunks are difficult to get into because there’s no step or ladder to help you up. You basically have to stand on the lower bunk edge and launch yourself up, hopefully not stepping on your roomie in the process. A small step built into the side wall (as many Aggressors with a similar bunking style have) would be quite helpful and an easy fix.

The upper boat deck has the wheelhouse, some crew quarters, and a very small sundeck that we didn’t use at all. While not off limits, the upper deck is fairly useless in terms of passenger comfort.

Aggressor corporate really needs to get their act together on what’s in their “Know Before You Go” pamphlet. These are supposed to give you most of the pre-trip info you need but the one for the Fiji Aggressor has numerous inaccuracies. Some are relatively minor, like stating that meals are served buffet-style when in fact they’re served. Others are more important, like omitting that you need to have an adapter plug to use the 110v outlets, which will totally screw you up if you can’t recharge batteries, laptops, etc. due to the lack of proper pluggage. Others are comfort-related, like stating that there are bathrobes in every cabin when there are not. Some are just silly, like that fact that the website pix are of the boat when it was the Island Dancer II, not the Fiji Aggressor.

The  most important inaccuracy seems to be the itinerary. There’s no question our trip itinerary was altered by weather as we only dove in the Kadavu area, some of which was not very exciting or enticing.  But the website text states that you would normally go to Gau (Nigali Pass), Wakaya, and Kadavu. However, the graphic that accompanies that indicates that you would only go to Kadavu and then loop back, as we did. And that’s a huge difference because it sounds like the diving in Gau and Wakaya is a bit more exciting and big-animal oriented than it is in Kadavu (although we had great dives on north Astrolabe Reef which is the extreme NE corner of Kadavu). So this is something the corporate honchos really need to get corrected IMHO.

That all being said, we want to sing the praises of Captain Joji and the crew. They always seemed quite willing to do whatever it took to maximize our enjoyment of the trip, especially given the limitations imposed by the weather. And I’m convinced they would be doing this on any trip, not just on ours. So if you come aboard this boat, know you’ll be well taken care of.

One thing they could improve on, however, was in pointing out critters during the dive. They got much better at this by the end of the trip (since I kept asking at each briefing “And what special critters might we find?”) and I understand why they might be more focused on navigating around the reef rather than critter-hunting. It's all due to the underwater terrain.

Even though some of the dives, especially in the early part of the trip, were somewhat ho-hum, the underwater topography was always amazing. What was most amazing was that there are, at just about every dive site, numerous large mounds/mountains of coral that might rise as much as a hundred feet from the bottom to close to the surface. So while many typical reefs in many dive locations are fairly uniform and you’re going out and back or just drifting along with the current and looking at a sloping reef or wall, these were sometimes like navigating a maze. And since many of the dives start and end at the boat (as opposed to using a skiff – which we did on occasion), navigation becomes a more critical  part of the dive guide’s responsibilities.

One way to envision what this all might look like to think of taking ten of those red Solo plastic cups that are so ubiquitous. Turn them upside down and spread them out a little bit. These now represent various coral mounds at a given dive site and the plan is to weave and navigate through them around the whole site, and end up back where you started. So when you look at it in that context, you can see how it’s easy for a guide to shift focus from critter-hunting to boat-hunting because the last thing you want is to make the entire group do a long surface swim back to the boat because you didn’t navigate properly.

BTW, note that there’s no real requirement that you stay with the guides. If you want to tool off on your own, that's fine. They generally had two guides on every dive for us, so many times we split up and dove as two small groups.

We definitely started off on a low note. Besides the rough ride over, our “checkout” dive was at a spot called Namara Island and we anchored in water that was 90 feet deep, a bit deeper than you’d think an initial dive would be. And it was a fairly crappy dive. Scattered rocks, mostly covered with sand, limited visibility, and not a lot to see. To put it in perspective, on most dives when I have a camera, I normally take about 125-150 shots. On this dive, I took 24 images.

Things got a bit better as the day wore on, but we started with a pretty low bar. Joji kept apologizing for conditions, which were obviously beyond his control, and he did his best to find us the best sites available. But (if you look on a map) we were on the northern side of Kadavu, and basically moving from east to west. The diving and the conditions got a bit better as we moved west and as the week wore on, but we also knew that the best diving was actually in the northeast, at the north Astrolabe Reef area, so it was a bit frustrating to be forced to move away from that.

One spot we hit that was interesting is called Mellow Yellow for all of the yellow soft corals that populate the dive site. Truly amazing and really pretty, even though we still didn’t have a bright sunny day or incredibly clear water.

The soft corals – in every color and hue you could possibly imagine – were stunning. Although I didn’t see as much red as I’d initially remembered from our 1991 trip, I did see yellow, lavender, purple, green, orange, and others. Really nice.

And in that vein, one of the crew members made an interesting comment. They’d recently had on a group from Germany who complained about how they didn’t see any sharks or big animals. (We didn’t see many sharks until we got up to north Astrolabe the last two days. More on that in a bit.) He said, “You don’t come to Fiji to see sharks and big animals. You come to see the soft corals and the small animals.”

Now that may well be true, but again going back to how they could clean up the website to better reflect what you will see, it starts off with “Drift dives with eagle rays, manta, turtles, sharks and giant groupers are also on the itinerary.” Again the caveat is that the weather may have prevented us from seeing these, but we didn’t have any eagle rays, we didn’t have any mantas, we had a few turtles (less than 5 in 22 dives), and we had only two or three sharks in the first four days. So if you come to Fiji expecting to see all of that, at least as far as our trip was concerned, that wasn’t the case. I suspect that these are things we would have seen had we been able to go to Gau & Wakaya, so you should confirm those are on your planned itinerary.

And before I forget, underwater the conditions varied. We generally had around 80ºF water temps, though we had some dives around 78ºF and one time my gauge was showing 76ºF. I wore a 1.5mm Pinnacle Shadow, initially with a 1mm Tilos hood. I switched to a 3mm Tilos hood midweek and was much happier with that combo. Others in the group wore everything from 3mm to 5mm to 7mm to t-shirts. But the water was certainly a tad on the cool-ish side.

Namara Island aside, visibility around the Kadavu sites was 40-80 feet and up at north Astrolabe more like 80-100 feet. Even though we had choppy water conditions, we didn't have an issues with surge or heavy currents underwater. Most of the dives started and ended at the boat, but a for a few dives we loaded into the rigid inflatable skiff (well-suited for the number of divers) which then took us to an entry point and waited for us to finish the dive. And a couple of times we live-boated it as the FA backed in close and we jumped, and then the skiff picked us up at the end.

None of this should indicate we didn’t see cool stuff. And, as the crew guy pointed out, we certainly got our fill of soft corals and smaller critters. As I said earlier, the soft corals were simply amazing. You’d swim through what seemed like forests of them at times. And although I don’t get as excited about coral varieties as I do about fish varieties, the hard coral was also quite stunning. There’s lots of it, it all looks pretty healthy (minimal bleaching), and the coral mounds/mountains are very impressive.

The fish life was also pretty good. One of my favs – and one of the hardest to shoot – was the Lemonpeel Angelfish, which is a bright yellow with iridescent blue around the eyes, operculum, and fin margins. Really pretty but really skittish so a challenging photo subject. They'd look at you and almost immediately flee, which is understandable when you take it from their perspective. They see a big dome port on a housing that looks an awful lot like an eyeball staring at them, and they don't want to stick around to see what animal owns the eye. (But I eventually found a couple of fearless ones.)

We had a nice break on Tuesday evening with a village visit. I didn't note the name but it was in the middle of Kadavu. We were on the island for about two hours and got a tour of the village (everyone's got a solar panel to power their modest homes), including the school. Then most of the villagers sang to us, and performed some dances (including mock warrior ones), while we all drank in a kava ceremony.

I realize kava's the national drink of Fiji and it's supposed to be a great honor to be offered kava and all of that good stuff, but at the risk of sounding like the pampered ugly American, I still think Fiji is perpetuating the ultimate prank on the world as kava, to me, looks and tastes like dirty dishwater. It certainly doesn't help when you watch the kava-master make the stuff and he uses his hands to wring the juice out of the kava plant and it looks like he's wringing out a dishtowel. Needless to say, we survived and did so without causing a major international incident.

But I do have one complaint about the village visit. On-board, Joji explained to us that we were expected to make a "voluntary" contribution of at least $15/head for the village visit. Now I don't have an issue with paying for the visit. The reality is $15 isn't going to hurt anyone who can afford a $4,000 trip and the villagers can probably put that money to good use. But this should have been disclosed pre-trip in the "Know Before You Go" literature. Again, it's a small thing, but something that Aggressor corporate can easily fix.

Our fortunes and diving started improving Wednesday. We started at the wreck of the Voyager (not the Star Trek one) which has been down around 10 years. It's a 150' long freighter, lying on its side. Somewhat interesting but I was surprised at how relatively devoid of coral growth and fish it was.

But we followed that with an excellent dive at Labrynth which, as the name implies, is a series of channels that cuts in and out of the main reef. Due to some camera issues, Marilyn and I fell way behind the main group and ended up diving a different - and shallower - part of the reef and we had a fabulous time. In fact, one of the joys of this dive was the second half where - instead of going back exactly the way we came - we moved about 50 feet off the reef into the surrounding rubble field and made our way back through looking to see what there was to find. And we were treated to a juvy Leopard Blenny (a special treat), plenty of Fire Dartfish, Fiji Bicolor Fangblennies (they're yellow with tail streamers), juvy Yellowtail Coris, juvy Clown Coris, Shrimpgobies with their blind shrimp buddies, and a whole lot more. Plus there were some stunning soft corals around too, especially when set against the now-bright-blue ocean outside the reef. (You can see many of these pix on the SmugMug page for this trip.)

By Wednesday night the winds had calmed down enough that Joji was confident we could make it over to the northern Astrolabe Reef area the next day and that was simply fabulous. Not quite night-and-day but close. Fabulous soft corals, numerous sharks and other large animals, some turtles, two Zebra (leopard) Sharks, and a whole lot more. Plus I saw some fish I've never seen before, including a Blackspot Angelfish (you can always tell an angelfish because they all had a bard coming off the gill cover), numerous Bird Wrasses, and one of my favs to shoot, the very colorful and sometimes cryptic Harlequin Filefish.

And we had an amazing - but brief - encounter with a herd of Bluefin Trevallies. They can get to be three feet long and sometimes form small schools as they hunt on the reef. Well, we saw the mother of all schools because there must have been at least a thousand of these guys, flying by us at high speed at a spot called Denali Pass. It was all I could do to get my camera up and squeeze off a couple of quick shots. They were gone that quickly.

But they must have circled around because while we were all exchanging glances of marvel at what we had just seen, they came down a channel from behind us and zoomed by us again. Really incredible to see that many fish of that size moving in unison as they were. You can see a so-so picture of the encounter on the SmugMug picture page.

Fortunately, we were able to get in seven dives over the day and a half that we spent in the Astrolabe area. Visibility was generally 100 feet and there was very little surge, but we encountered patches of some of the cooler water here. And it was certainly nice to end the trip was some very good diving, and more like what we'd hoped to encounter, than ending on a down note.

The ride back to Suva was a bit bouncy and slow (due to the swell) and what should have been about a 3+ hour crossing took closer to 5 hours. However . . .

It's very easy for any of us, on any trip (here or abroad), when the captain says it's too rough to go here or there to think that they're just making up some excuse and trying to save fuel. As I've been writing this trip report (it's now Wednesday afternoon, November 15), I received word that another Fiji liveaboard, the Fiji Siren, has sunk and been lost at sea. Fortunately, no lives were lost and there were no injuries to passengers or crew. The Siren left out of the northern tip of Vitu Levu (we left out of the SE corner), and worked waters that are somewhat further north than where we were. But I've also got to believe that whatever happened to the Siren that caused it to sink, it must had been some of the residual wind/waves from what we experienced just a week earlier. The ocean, as the saying goes, is an unforgiving mistress.

So all in all, it was a good trip, but not the trip we'd hoped for. While we'd certainly give the crew a 10, if we were rating the trip overall, accounting for diving/boat/food/etc., it would probably come in around a 6.5, and most of that downgrading is site-related due to weather.

As I mentioned much earlier, I also got word this morning that on January 6,2018, the Fiji Aggressor is going in for a week of "unscheduled drydock repairs." I'm not sure if this is just to correct a winch issue that we experienced or if they'll be doing other improvements as well, but I certainly intend to send them a laundry list of to-do items.

So if you're thinking of this itinerary for 2018, it certainly sounds like you'll get an improved boat and hopefully better weather than what we experienced. I would definitely consider going back again and will look forward to the day when we can experience something closer to the trip we thought we should have had.

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