A Reef of One’s Own: Colourful Fish and Friendly Locals in Fiji

Local communities are stepping up to protect their famed reefs in the island nation.
Children snorkel in Fiji
Children as young as four or five years can snorkel in the shallow waters around many of Fiji’s reefs. At virtually every dive site, there is a variety of fish including the scissortail sergeant fish seen here. Photo: Pete Atkinson/Getty Images

I hear the low tut-tut-tut of a ceiling fan. Opening my eyes, I find myself looking through a mosquito net at a lilac-streaked sky. My attention moves quickly to the tranquil turquoise waters of the South Seas. Not a spot of white surf is visible. I feel rested, but I also feel slightly cheated.

A few hours earlier, my guide had taken me snorkelling near an islet in Fiji’s Somosomo Strait. The ocean floor was littered with small piles of broken white coral, looking eerily like bones. The reef seemed degraded after being struck by a cyclone a month before my visit. George, the guide, had pointed to a ball of thorns sitting on a coral. When we surfaced, he told me it was a very destructive species called the spiny crown-of-thorns starfish. They are coral predators and can crunch up vast amounts of healthy coral in a short time. We spotted a long, yellow trumpet fish but just when things began to look interesting, a large wave lifted and tossed me five feet away. George looked into the distance and announced that the sea was getting too rough. We quickly abandoned our snorkelling. Five hours later, as I admire the stillness of the water from the comfort of my bed, I’m still a little resentful about the weather.

Although I’m not going to dive, I’m eager to experience the world of soft coral that has made this island nation a world-renowned diving locale. I’ve been told that Fiji has managed to preserve its vast and varied reefs through sustainable practices, and I want to see the results of this conservation and understand how they’ve made this work.

Underwater Fiji

Research suggests that when the giant triton, a large predatory snail is overfished, the population of crown-of-thorns starfish (left) increases. Crown-of-thorns starfish are destroyers of coral reefs, as they eat living coral; Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world. The bright plumes of carnation tree coral (centre) are a warning to fish not to eat them as they may taste bad or be toxic; Tiny, warty sea slugs feed (right) on decaying plant matter and algae and keep the ocean clean. Photo: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock (starfish), Rosenberg Steve/Perspectives/Getty Images (orange coral), Reinhard Dirscheri/Getty Images (sea slug)

Fiji has about 330 islands and Taveuni is the third largest. Do Cammick, owner of the Taveuni Island Resort where I’m staying, had sympathised with my disappointment at the aborted snorkelling trip, and suggested a massage as sweetener. Under the gentle hands of Salot, the soreness of my 32-hour journey from India and the regret had begun to melt away. Little wonder that I had fallen asleep so soundly.

The glow of dusk has cast a saffron tinge on the neatly trimmed lawn, the multi-coloured croton hedges, the spiky purple moses-in-the-cradle plants edging the patio. The same spectacular view greets me at the resort’s restaurant. When I ask Do about the battered coral and crown-of-thorns starfish, she doesn’t seem very concerned. “This is the soft coral capital of the world,” she points out. “The coral will regenerate. The crown-of-thorns starfish are blooming now, but they will soon disappear.”

The Lavena Coastal Walk on Taveuni Island goes through tropical jungle, past waterfalls, and along the beach. Photo: Niloufer Venkatraman

The Lavena Coastal Walk on Taveuni Island goes through tropical jungle, past waterfalls, and along the beach. Photo: Niloufer Venkatraman

Do and her husband Ric came to Taveuni from New Zealand 40 years ago and never left. The Cammicks set up Fiji’s first dive centre and were recently inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. They explored the Somosomo Strait and pioneered scuba diving on the island and at the 30-kilometre-long Rainbow Reef and White Wall nearby. This iconic reef is awash with magnificently hued soft corals, stunning hard coral, and a variety of marine life—manta rays, barracudas, whitetip sharks, and leopard sharks. Having lived here this long, the Cammicks are confident the depleted coral I saw is just part of nature’s cycle.

The next evening I take a boat across the strait to the island of Vanua Levu. I’m here to visit the Namena Marine Reserve, where, I’ve heard, a community-based marine conservation project has created Fiji’s largest marine protected area and done wonders to rejuvenate the aquatic life of the region. Sirilo Dulunaqio of the Coral and Wildlife Conservation Society who works with communities in Namena and elsewhere, tells me that conservation is not a new concept to Fijians. Traditionally, clans in Fiji would enforce temporary fishing closures of designated areas when fish stocks appeared to be running low. “When a chief passed away, part of the reef near the village was considered out of bounds for 100 days,” he says. When an important chieftain died, even larger areas would become completely tambu (taboo). “Conservation practices derived from today’s scientific knowledge match traditional practices of Fijian communities,” he says.

Tropical flowers, Fiji

From hotel resorts to jungles, colourful tropical foliage and flowers are in abundance. Photo: Holger Leue/Getty Images

Helen Sykes, who is on the committee at the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Protected Area Network (FLMMA) tells me that these ancient concepts of conservation have been enhanced by modern organisations. Her organisation has been persuading local communities to extend fishing bans for more than 100 days. At Levuka on Ovalau Island for instance, the community kept an area closed for more than a year as a dedication to the departed chief. Once the year was over, it was declared a permanent marine protected area like at Namena, and villagers are now proud of it.

At Namena where I am going the following day from my resort on Vanua Levu, not only is there a permanent fishing ban, “the community has also instituted a dive tax that charges tourists per dive and is pooled for community projects”, says Dulunaqio. The aim of conservation projects is to make sure every village has one protected area. “People start seeing underwater life they’ve never seen before,” says Dulunaqio. “They recognise that they can leave some areas alone, there are always other areas to fish in.”

Kayaking in Fiji

A kayaking trip is a spectacular way to visit Fiji’s hidden and unspoilt islands, beaches, and caves. Photo: John Borthwick/Getty Images

As I wait for the boat to take me to Namena the next morning, I see plenty of dead coral on the shore. Just then, news comes in of a weather alert. It’s a big blow for me to hear that no boats can go to Namena that day. I’m leaving the next morning for the main island Viti Levu’s Coral Coast. To make me feel better, the resort manager suggests a night snorkel. At 7 p.m. with waterproof torch in hand, I head out with Johnny Singh, the resort’s marine biologist. As it turns out, the water is murky, and though I attempt to snorkel in several different directions, I see very little. I wonder if there is a larger conspiracy at play.

Twenty four hours later, at the village of Votua on the island of Viti Levu, I’m part of a kava ceremony with the chief Ili Mebeki Turaga and Victor Bonito, an American researcher. No discussion in Fiji can begin without kava so, I watch David Tevita, also from the village, mix grog (powdered kava root), with water and swirl it around. The intoxicating liquid that results from this, looks like dishwater and does not have a taste I recognise. It’s passed around and sipped.

Kids and kava in Fiji

Children in Fiji’s villages (left) learn to forage for wild edibles such as seeds and nuts from the time they are very young; When invited into a Fijian home, it is customary to take fresh kava or yaquna root, which will eventually be dried and made into grog powder to create the ceremonial kava drink (right). Photos: Niloufer Venkatraman (children), Danita Delmont/Getty Images (kava)

Votua has a large marine protected area nearby. We discuss how this community has worked to conserve the ocean around them. The village has fish wardens to patrol the waters, inspect boats, and check licenses to ensure that no one is overfishing or breaking the rules.

Degei Waeisoui

Degei Waeisoui welcomes patrons to his beachfront Eco Café. Photo: Niloufer Venkatraman

Among the men in the room is Degei, a muscular gent with matted hair and a Rasta look. His ready smile gets us talking. Degei lives on the fringe of Votua village with his Italian wife Fabiola. They run a small, ocean-front, shack-style restaurant called Eco Café, the kind I’m very familiar with in Goa, but have surprisingly not seen at all in my week in Fiji. It’s a charming space, but it’s getting late and I have only a few minutes to look around.

I’m scheduled to go to the Sigatoka River the next day, but what I really want to do is return to Degei’s shack on the beach and convince him to take me to the marine protected area that I’ve been hearing about all week. The next morning, I ditch all planned sightseeing and head to Degei and Fabiola’s café. He agrees to take me to the marine park for a swim. Peering out and reading the ocean, he says we must wait for two hours, by when the tide will be just right. In the meantime, I look around. Almost everything I see—the shack, their home, the furniture in it—has been handmade by them. I play with a kitten, listen to the children calling out, and then walk down to the beach where Degei is sweeping trash that has blown up near his home.

Just then, two boys come around asking if they can use his swing. That’s when I notice the solitary rope, with a knot, hanging from a tall coconut tree. Degei says they can, but in exchange they must walk the village beachfront and bring him a garbage bag full of trash. The kids readily agree and run off. Degei suggests I take a swing on the rope. I haven’t picked any trash, but I’m allowed to swing. He pushes me high; I tilt my head back as I soar through the air, licking the salt that has settled on my lips, feeling a tug of nostalgia.

Later, when the tide is right, we start walking down the beach. My guide Ryan doesn’t snorkel so I tell him we will be back in half an hour. It’s a kilometre-long walk down the hot, coarse sand beach. Fabiola and Degei talk at length about their vision for a clean and sustainable society. They are somewhat isolated from the village. They live an alternative life, run a little business on the fringes—their politics and way of life different from that of the community. They homeschool their child; other young people from the village also live with, and appear to be looked after, by them.

We enter the water. Almost immediately I see not one, or two, but dozens and dozens of varieties of fish. The floor is covered with coral. Hard and soft, white and coloured, big and small. A giant sea cucumber appears from nowhere and startles me. We laugh at my reaction. Degei, who has no mask or snorkel, takes us deeper and deeper into the ocean. He has been swimming in this area since he was a child and knows exactly where he is going. The water barely gets more than five feet deep, and every inch of it is alive with underwater life.

I follow Degei as if he were the Pied Piper, totally mesmerised by what I see beneath the surface. Later, when both Fabiola and I get cramps in our toes and calves, we decide it’s time to get out. We’ve waded so far in, it takes us 15 minutes to reach the shore. When we get out, we learn we’ve been in the water for four hours. My guide has probably filed a missing persons report by now, I say half-joking. “He’s Fijian,” Degei replies. “He lives on Fiji time.” Unperturbed by my long absence, Ryan is enjoying a siesta.

Clownfish, Fiji

Percula clownfish are most often spotted along with anemone, which look like flowers with tentacles, but are actually fish-eating animals. Photo: Sebastian Burel/Shutterstock

Fifteen minutes later, I dig into a whole fish cooked in an aromatic coconut cream, served with yam, and other root vegetables. Degei talks, the warm ocean breeze relaxes us. I think about the schools of common damsel, angel and butterfly fish, and the other rare species that Degei had pointed out all afternoon. For four hours I was spellbound by the variety I saw. After a while, my eagerness for the names of fish had evaporated. It really didn’t matter. I felt light headed, swimming on and on, absorbing the magic. I noted the vast difference between this densely populated marine park and the other reefs I’d seen in Fiji. Every inch of the marine protected area was thick with coral and fish. Even the sea cucumber were numerous, not a common occurrence given their high market value. A huge clownfish had seemed to look at me, its lips moving back and forth, and for a moment I’d imagined it was trying to speak. A rush of skinny blue fish had scuttled out in a synchronised swim. Distracted, I’d tried to follow them when a pair of humphead banner fish brushed past my arm. That moment of contact cleared away the week’s disappointments.

I swam up to Degei and Fabi who were admiring a large, pink soft coral. Its polyps were swaying dreamily in the water, inhaling and exhaling, while tiny fish darted in and out of the tentacles. They were feeding, swimming, playing—content in the crystal clear knowledge that the future of this sublime spot on the planet was well secured.

Appeared in the November 2013 issue as “A Reef of One’s Own”. Updated in November 2016.

The Guide

Orientation

The Republic of Fiji is a collection of about 330 islands in the Koro Sea, in the South Pacific Ocean. Fiji’s closest neighbours are Tonga in the east and Vanuatu in the west. Fiji lies about 3,100 km east of Sydney, Australia and 2,000 km north of New Zealand’s North Island. The International Date Line passes just east of Fiji, as well as through Taveuni, its third-largest island. Fiji’s capital is Suva though the chief international airport is in Nadi, both on Viti Levu, the main island of the archipelago.

Getting There

From India the best way to fly to Fiji is via Hong Kong. Fiji Airways operates non-stop flights five times a week between Hong Kong and Nadi, but expect an 8-12 hour layover in Hong Kong. Other flight connections from India to Fiji are via Australia or New Zealand. Travellers using this route will need to obtain an Australian or New Zealand transit visa in advance from India, and make several flight changes. 

Getting Around

From Nadi to Taveuni it’s a short flight in a sma­ll­er 18- to 42-seater aircraft. There are also overnight ferries that make the journey. There are no direct flights from Taveuni to Savusavu on the south coast of Vanua Levu. The best option is to get a ferry or speedboat from Taveuni’s Korean Wharf to Buca Bay/Natuvu Bay and then a taxi to Savusavu or your resort; this gets you across the Somosomo Strait in about 2 hours. From Savusavu it’s an hour-long flight back to Nadi.

Seasons

Fiji experiences balmy, tropical weather throughout the year due to its location in the South Pacific Ocean. In summer (Nov-Apr) the maximum temperature is around 30°C and lows are about 21°C, accompanied by high humidity. Summer showers are frequent, and the likelihood of a tropical cyclone high, especially during December and January. In the dry season (May-Oct), temperatures range between 29 and 17°C. July and August, when humidity is at its lowest, are considered the winter months and the peak tourist season. Water temperature (between 23 and 26°C) is ideal for swimming, snorkelling, and diving throughout the year.

Visa

Indian nationals can get a visa on arrival in Fiji at no cost. A passport with blank leaves that is valid for six months, proof of funds, and return tickets are required. 

Stay

Many large, luxurious resorts cater to tourists, offering all kinds of amenities that will ensure travellers never leave the hotel. However, at every location there are also local homestays and smaller lodges run by locals. Often these are not listed on the Internet but can be booked when on the ground. Most resorts, hotels, lodges, and guesthouses offer discounts for longer and off-season stays.

VITI LEVU

Matanivusi Surf Resort is a small, boutique resort in the Pacific Harbour that is not just for surfers. It is situated on the beach, at the edge of a rainforest. Rooms are designed to be naturally cooled and aesthetically pleasing with stylish use of glass and mahogany (www.surfingfiji.com; doubles from ₹30,000 including meals, contact the resort for recent rates).

Beach House is a cosy, frills-free accommodation option that caters to budget travellers to the Coral Coast. Its location right on the beach, close to good snorkelling and other activities, makes it a popular backpacker pick (www.fijibeachouse.com; doubles from ₹5,114; dorms and cheaper options also available).  

VANUA LEVU

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort is a 17-acre property in Savusavu. This family-friendly, ecologically conscious resort provides daytime nannies and an array of facilities for children, as well as a range of activities for adults (www.fijiresort.com; doubles from ₹71,773).

Daku Resort overlooking Savusavu Bay is set in tropical gardens and offers yoga retreats and wellness plans along with all other facilities typical of a Fiji resort. The restaurant caters to all kinds of tastes including vegetarians and vegans (www.dakuresort.com; doubles from ₹8,589).

TAVEUNI

Taveuni Island Resort has a stunning cliff-side location. Its luxurious ocean-facing bures (Fijian cabins) lie within immaculately trimmed lawns and neat hedges. All the amenities you could possibly want in a tropical resort are available (and much privacy too), though the highlight is the personalised service and food (www.taveuniislandresort.com; doubles from ₹34,649).

Coconut Grove Beachfront Cottages is a small, cosy resort with friendly staff. It has just three cottages on a small beach, with a coral reef nearby (www.coconutgrovefiji.com; doubles from ₹13,399).

Underground Barbecue

A lovo is a traditional Fijian barbecue feast created in a cooking pit in the ground. A fire is started in the pit and rocks are added to it. After this, a variety of meat, fish, and root vegetables like dolo and cassava are wrapped in coconut and banana leaves and placed on the hot stones to cook. Banana leaves add to the steaming process and wood gives the food a smoky flavour. The pit is piled high with more banana leaves, coconut fronds, and earth, and everything is left to cook in the mound for a few hours. If you’re on Fiji’s Coral Coast, pre-order and try the lovo at Eco Café at Votua Village.

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.

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