Charting New Reefs in the Lau Group of Fiji"
Brandon D. Cole and Melissa Singh
(Reprinted with permission from Scuba Times magazine)
"Inner space ... the final frontier. To boldly go where no one has gone before, to seek out strange new life forms..." Star Trek's prime directive seems somehow quite appropriate to describe the lure which has brought us to the remote northern islands of
the Lau Group in the far reaches of eastern Fiji to explore and name new dive sites. Whereas the rest of Fiji has been well known to the diving world for many years, Lau, aptly nicknamed the "Exploring Islands," is truly ripe for discovery.
Dan Grenier, owner and operator of Crystal Divers, briefed us on his usual methods for finding new sites. After attempts at studying reef contours and depths on nautical charts and guesstimating the currents and the optimal lunar circumstances (do fish pay any attention to these?), we decided a certain rock on the edge of the map looked like a keeper.
"Dive Guinea pigs," we plunged backwards out of the "deep blue" and lapis lazuli waters. Hundreds of unicornfish swept by, moving in effortless synchronicity like a giant Chinese dragon writhing and twisting through a New Year's parade. Then the tuna appeared. Inhaling bite-size fusilier fish, they swirled around us in pure mercurial motion. Adrenaline pulsed through us as we flirted with decompression and the tuna.
As we ascended to hover for our safety stop, the tuna continued to flash beneath us, sirens calling us back to the edge of our limits, to the site we fittingly named Outer Limits.
Predicting which seemingly nondescript patch of wavy ocean hides a great dive site is by no means an exact science; however, sometimes you get lucky (i.e. Outer Limits); sometimes you don't (i.e. Dirt Reef). It's all part of the spirit of adventure.
Another phenomenal spot is the Tongan Express in the middle of the Tongan Passage. One of the few openings in the reef cradling Vanua Balavu, it was the preferred thoroughfare for both European trading vessels in the 1800's and the canoe-powered armadas of
fierce Tongan raiders wielding clubs and bent on subjugating Fiji. With a huge volume of the lagoon's water funneling through this narrow gap during tidal exchanges, the Tongan Express proved to be just what the name implies, a thrilling, high speed ride.
This spot offers yet further evidence of why Fiji has been proclaimed the "soft coral capital of the world." Tufts, clumps, bushes and trees of these enidarians painted all colors are in full bloom during peak current. Huge schools of bannerfish and moorish idols dance as one in the water column. In the sun-dappled splendor, a most impressive strand of giant golden sea fans stretched on seemingly forever, not a single one showing signs of fin harassment.
Hard as it may be to pull your eyes away from the reef and its residents, it pays to turn around and scan the open water too. On one lucky day, Dan sighted a truly rare beast, king of the pelagic kingdom, a sailfish in full magnificence racing past on the Express.
As we raced back from the Tongan Passage, we came across another rare beast -- a proud Tongan king. It was Joe (our resort concierge) enthroned upon his palatial "floating restaurant," a half-submerged raft of doubtful sea-worthiness. Two loyal subjects, fellow guests at the resort, occupied plastic lawn chairs at his side. Everyone was laughing and happily catching fish on hook and line, gobbling down their charbroiled sea delicacies, bananas and cassava root all cooked on an oil drum hibachi. King Joe grunted with pleasure as we scrambled aboard, holding forth a blackened fish with stubby soot-stained fingers.
We thanked him with a hearty Tongan "Mal a lele" and reverently squatted down to devour the ash-sprinkled trout with our fingers.
The Tongan influence in Lau is evident not only in the names and language but also in the food, decoration, and the people themselves. With Lau's chain of nearly 100 islands situated roughly halfway between the Kingdom of Tonga to the east and the main islands of Fiji to the west, this neighborly weaving seems only natural. The Lau group is in fact a Tongan peace offering made in the bloody warring days of the past.
Those days have long since vanished, leaving only a peaceful island paradise where strangers are welcomed with open arms and eloquent speeches in broken English. At Lomaloma Island resort, the ever-smiling Fijian staff greets us by name while Tongan style "mekes" delight us by night with song and dance. The resort's manager, "Auntie" Lynette, fascinates all with her island lore and whips up her fish curry, taro leaf soup, and coconut cream pie to boot.