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​Shallow-Water Wonders in Fiji, Soft Coral Capital of the World

By Roger Harris

Naturalist Roger Harris shared with us the following detailed trip report and photos from an Oceanic Society snorkeling expedition to Fiji in 2018. For more information, departure dates, and reservation information, see our trip page: Snorkeling in Fiji: Rainbow Reef, Taveuni, and Beyond.

A colorful reef scene in Fiji. © Roger Harris

Sunday, October 7, 2018: Nadi - Viti Levu Island –Taveuni Island, Fiji

After an early breakfast and a shuttle to the Nadi International Airport, a high-wing de Havilland Twin Otter provides stunning aerial views of Viti Levu Island as we take off for Taveuni. In the lowlands below emerges a patchwork small cane fields and other agricultural plots, each with a homestead. The flight carries us over the azure waters of the South Pacific with dramatic views of the fringing reefs surrounding the islands.

Upon landing at the tiny Matei Airport, a van takes us along the scenic west coast of Taveuni Island. We pull over to see a sizable roost of big fruit bats hanging upside down in a grove of trees. Typical of Pacific Islanders, native Fijians traditionally ate fruit bats, and some Fijians still do to this day.

Further down the road we drive around a ragged rugby field to a kiosk marking the International Dateline and a photo op with one foot in yesterday and other in today. This is one of the very few places in the world where the 180th meridian makes landfall.

Next, we stop in Waiyevo at the historic Wairiki Catholic Mission. Mass is being held at the big church building. The Fijians inside sit cross-legged on straw mats, as the church does not have pews. By late morning, we arrive at the Paradise Taveuni Resort. We are greeted with a flower lei and shown to a gazebo by the sea, where we have light refreshments and an orientation by resort manager Flo, maître d’ Max, and dive master Tina. We each enjoy a most relaxing complimentary foot massage. After being shown to our respective bures with private indoor and outdoor showers, we have lunch. Some of us get swim fins and other equipment from the dive shop.

The weather deteriorates to a torrential rainstorm. Nonetheless, we continue under the gazebo with our briefing for a snorkel at the house reef with guides Jesse and Sony. Before we enter the water, Jesse tells how Hurricane Winston impacted the house reef, leaving only rubble in February 2016. The coral has since been slowly restoring, both on its own and with help by a restoration project.

Serendipitously, the rain abates by the time we get into the water, and our guides show us how the restoration is done. We are in the shallows for about an hour, and eventually the sun makes a cameo appearance. On the south end of the house reef are some Porites coral heads festooned with Christmas tree worms in a fantastic profusion of reds, oranges, whites, blues, and yellows. A menacing-looking giant moray eel is spotted lurking in a rock crevice. Later we find some lionfish, as well as sea cucumbers in various sizes and colors.

Our first day in paradise concludes with a happy hour accompanied by an introductory presentation on reef ecology by Oceanic Society naturalist Roger Harris.

Monday, October 08, 2018: Taveuni Island, Fiji

We wake to a sunny day. Some of us glimpse a large sea turtle, likely a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) out in the Somosomo Strait. At breakfast, a pair of Vanikoro Flycatchers chase a Common Myna. After outfitting up, we board our boat for a 45-minute cruise to the famed Rainbow Reef. A boil of small fishes appears on the sea surface with large fishes jumping at them, attracting a few Great Crested Terns and two Brown Noddies. Our snorkel at the appropriately named Coral Garden features an impressive array of corals of many vivid colors, along with a giant clam, a lobster, and a whitetip reef shark.

We reposition for a second snorkel at the Cabbage Patch, so-called because of the green corals resembling giant cabbages. The fish here are even better with clown-, angel-, and butterflyfishes.

The wildlife viewing continues even as we eat lunch—Pacific Swallows fly around and a Collared Kingfisher perches by the swimming pool. In the afternoon, we take a guided tour of the lodge’s farm where they grow much of the vegetables that we eat, along with pigs, chickens, and some medicinal plants. By evening, we don our sarongs for a traditional meke and sit down for a lovo oven feast of pork, chicken, and beef with roasted taro, cassava, pumpkin, and spinach. Young men play guitars and sing. Then two young girls dance. After we are invited to partake in the kava ceremony.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018: Taveuni Island, Fiji

At breakfast, a Reef Heron flies by offshore. Then we board the Taveuni Explorer. Most of us enjoy the top deck on the cruise to the Rainbow Reef, passing a Red-footed Booby, two Brown Boobies, and a flock of noddies.

Our first snorkel is at the Nuku (sand) Reef site, which is really good. Among the fish seen are a regal angelfish and a jeweled boxfish. A basket star, usually hidden during the day, is seen ever so slowly moving across a coral head. Soft corals are abundant along with feather stars and other invertebrates.

The second snorkel site, known as Corner Reef with a wall going down to deep water, is even better with a large moray eel and a good-sized giant clam. This is our fourth snorkel site, and we are still seeing many new species of fish such as the bicolored angelfish. Both the corals and the fish are pronounced the best of the trip so far. Most interesting are the various green-colored hard corals. A burst of sunlight makes the tropical colors even more vivid.

By midday, we cruise to Kioa Island. We wade ashore in the shallow water, where we are greeted by the village kids playing on a beached skiff. The crew brings us packed lunches from the resort. We make a visit to the local school, then the assembly hall where over fifty islanders enthusiastically greet us with song, drumming, and dance.

Villagers on Kioa Island. © Roger Harris

A local woman takes the time to tells us the story of her village. The people living in this community are Polynesian, unlike the native Fijians who are Melanesian. They originally came from the tiny island state of Tuvalu from the north to work in the coconut plantations. They subsequently bought this island and founded a village here. The cultural performance, which we enjoyed immensely, is their way of preserving their culture.

Toward the end of the performance, our group joins in the dance. A fun time is had by all. Afterward, the village women spread out the wears of hand-crafted baskets and other woven products, shells, and decorated bark cloth for us to buy. The prices are reasonable, and we are happy to help support the village.

On the cruise back to our island, we relax on the top deck and pass a manta ray, its “wing tips” cutting the water.

A Red-shining Parrot. © Roger Harris

Wednesday, October 10, 2018: Taveuni Island, Fiji

After breakfast and a cruise on the Taveuni Explorer to the Rainbow Reef, we arrive at Fish Factory Reef. A flock of noddies and Black- naped Terns work the chop on the outer reef. A nudibranch, brightly colored in blue and white stripes, is a highlight of the morning.

Repositioning, our second snorkel is at the Fingers Reef. Here there is a considerable amount of coral rubble, but the fish are excellent including anemone fish. Some of us see a white-tipped reef shark and a black-tipped reef shark.

In the afternoon we visit a local farm which is maintained as a wildlife sanctuary with interesting ornamental, edible, and medicinal plantings. We see the Crimson Shining-parrot (Prosopeia tabuensis), the stunning Many-colored Fruit Dove, (Ptilinopus perousii) a colony of orb-weaving Nephila spiders with conspicuous bright yellow abdomens, a bright orange land crab climbing a forest tree, and two Phallus mushrooms.

Lucky for us, today happened to be Fiji Day, a national holiday, and the staff held a celebration in the evening.

Thursday, October 11, 2018: Taveuni – Matei – Nadi – Pacific Lagoon – Beqa, Fiji

After an early breakfast, the staff assembles to give us an endearing farewell of song and hugs. We transferred back to Viti Levu Island, where we boarded a bus, driving past small plots of sugar cane being harvested. By mid afternoon, we arrive at the Pearl Resort at Pacific Harbor for a late lunch, and embark upon the boat C-Harley. The jagged outline of the tropical island of Beqa soon appears ahead through the mist.

Upon arrival at the Beqa Lagoon Resort, we are greeted by a guitarist and a half dozen other staff welcoming us with a song. Each of us are warmly greeted by the manager and given a shell lei. We are then introduced to marine biologist and conservationist Sefano Katz and his colleague Elle Brighton. They are with the Pacific Blue Foundation, and Sefano is the principal investigator for their Beqa Lagoon Initiative.

Then we are escorted to our individual bures, which are palatial and handsomely decorated with Fijian carvings. Marine toads serenade us with their gurgling mating calls in the rainy night.

After dinner, we are entertained by a six-man troupe of muscular Fijian fire dancers. They are quite accomplished dancers and their feats with flaming torches are… well, not something we would recommend you try at home!

Friday, October 12, 2018: Beqa, Fiji

Back to the Ocean! Our first snorkel of the day is at Star Reef, a patch reef not far from the resort. The top of the reef is quite shallow affording us with perhaps the best views of fish and corals of the trip so far. Of course, having the sun out helps too. Sefano and Elle keep up an educational commentary of what is below.

The patches of bright white corals are indicative of predation by the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), and a few of these spiny, invasive creatures are spotted. Damselfish are seen tending their algae gardens. Some of us briefly find ourselves up close to a school of barracuda.

Next, we cruise up to the northern portion of the barrier reef to Shark Reef. A large green turtle briefly shows itself at the surface. True to the reef’s name, we all get to see at least three whitetip reef sharks. Also seen are anemonefish and showy yellow boxfish, and a vividly patterned marine flatworm.

After a late lunch and a chance to refresh at the resort, Roger, Sefano, and Elle take us on a low-tide walk out on the house reef. Brittle stars are ubiquitous in places. Hermit, fiddler, and other crabs scurry along. A few different species of sea cucumbers filter the sand with their tentacles. Patches of exposed rocks are literally paved with marine snails.

The bird life in this area is equally as abundant and diverse. Great Crested Terns call as they forage over the water along with a single Brown Booby. A pair of Reef Herons perch high in a seaside tree. As we walk, we come upon a freshwater creek, where it empties into the sea, and find a few remarkable mudskippers, little fish that actually come out on land.

We return to the resort by dusk, and the wooden drums are already announcing the meke, a demonstration of traditional dance and song by the local villagers. A lovo feast follows with a delicious spread of roasted pork and chicken, fish poached in coconut milk, and cassava breaded beef. A dish made of ferns, a green bean salad, roast taro, a Fijian version of fish ceviche, and spinach stewed in coconut milk are among the accompanying side dishes. For dessert, a choice of tropical fruits, chocolate mousse, cassava cake, sweet bread with coconut, plantains in syrup, and various other pastries.

Saturday, October 13, 2018: Beqa, Fiji

By the time we board the C-Harley, the cloudy skies of the early morning have opened to bright sun, which stays with us for the rest of the day. Looking to the west, we can see that the big island of Viti Levu is enveloped with clouds and rain while we are in the sun. We first cruise north along the coast of our island, Beqa, to the northern part of the Beqa Lagoon for our first snorkel along the inboard portion of the barrier reef at the Sulphur Passage. We allow the current to carry us along the reef, and there is a bit of a chop from the wind. Snorkeling is so good today that we extend our stay in the water to nearly double our usual time. Whitetip reef sharks are seen here and will be spotted on the other sites today.

With the sea breeze picking up, Captain Livai takes us back south along the coast of Beqa Island to a patch reef within the lagoon for a shorter but excellent snorkel.

Heading further south, we cruise to the Sand Bar which is only now emerging as the tide recedes and have lunch aboard our boat. Brown Noddies and Great Crested and Black-naped Terns rest on the now expanding patch of sand surrounded by turquoise waters. We take a skiff, which the C-Harley has been towing, to the expanding sand bar for a short exploration.

Our final snorkel of the day is on the fringe reef of Ugaga Island, which is arguably the best to date. In the deeper water, we see spotted sweetlips.

A hell's fire anemone. © Roger harris

By the time we cruise back to the resort, it is late in the afternoon. Some of us elect to swim the house reef to the shore rather than be shuttled by the skiff. They see a scorpionfish, a nudibranch, and the highly venomous hell’s fire anemone, ending a most rewarding day.

Sunday, October 14, 2018: Beqa, Fiji

Leaving on the C-Harley, we again opt for the fringe reef at Ugaga Island. Even though it is a return visit, we continue to see new fish species, some exquisitely colored.

Repositioning, nearly 20 Pacific common dolphins are spotted, their dorsal fins cutting through the water. Our second morning snorkel is back at Star Reef. A sizable white-tipped reef shark is spotted. This patch reef has an unhealthy abundance of crown-of-thorns starfish, a major predator on coral. Sefano demonstrates how to kill a starfish and turn it into food for the fish. A rain squall passes, but we are already in the water, so it has little consequence for the snorkel. After lunch at the lodge, we have a brief but heavy downpour. A small Indian mongoose scurries across the lawn. This introduced carnivore looks like a demonic squirrel on steroids. It is a predator on native birds. Soon the rain stops. Some of us go on an afternoon plant walk and mangrove planting with Sefano, Elle, and Roger. It is a small effort, but perhaps years from now there will be a lasting legacy of some mature mangroves protecting the shore and providing shelter for wildlife. Meanwhile, some others of us snorkel the house reef, finding an octopus.

Later, Sefano gives an excellent presentation on coral reef ecology and conservation. Before dinner, a chorus from the local village entertains our group. We are much moved by the quality and spirit of the performance.

Monday, October 15, 2018: Beqa, Fiji

It has showered through the night providing a pleasing rhythm of rain on the roofs of our bures and a refreshing breeze. The day is cool, cloudy, and with scattered showers. Boarding the C-Harley, we cruise west in lumpy seas. A spinner dolphin swims briefly next to the boat as we near Yanuca Island. Pulling into a sheltered cove on the leeward side, we have two morning snorkels. A few octopuses are seen and even videoed moving across the reef and rapidly changing colors.

The cruise back to the resort is a slog against bouncy seas, but all of us weather it well. Half of us elect to get off the boat and have lunch, while the rest elect to swim back through the house reef. They see yet another octopus, a moray eel, and bommies (coral heads) covered with anemones and their attendant clownfish.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018: Beqa – Pacific Lagoon – Nadi, Fiji

After breakfast, some of us check out of the resort and say goodbye. The rest of us have the morning through lunch at our leisure. A few stalwarts make a last snorkel in the house reef where they are rewarded by seeing Picasso triggerfish, a green nudibranch on a sea cucumber, and a school of long-jawed mackerels straining the water with their open mouths and swimming in undulating synchrony.

Author

Roger Harris is a long-time Oceanic Society naturalist with 30 years of experience working as a guide. In addition to working with Oceanic Society, Roger has frequently worked as a naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions and the National Audubon Society. As a naturalist he has led eco-tours in Honduras, Belize, Kenya, Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos, Baja California, and SE Alaska. Roger is also a professional conservation biologist specializing in endangered species, wetlands, and native habitat restoration. He earned a graduate degree in ornithology from U.C. Berkeley, and is both a NAUI diver and an expert world birder.