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Snorkeling in Fiji: Trip Report

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 2017. For more information, departure dates, and reservation information, see our trip page: Snorkeling in Fiji: Rainbow Reef, Taveuni, and Beyond.

Palm trees and newly planted mangroves at Beqa Lagoon Resort. © Roger Harris

Saturday, September 23, 2017 | Nadi Beqa, Fiji

The five of us who arrive early in the day meet in Nadi for a van drive across Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian islands. We pass through interesting villages of one-story frame houses and expanses of pan-tropical vegetation. Some sugarcane is being harvested. We see Common and Jungle Mynas, Red-vented Bulbuls, and a Swamp Harrier; only the latter is a native bird.

By noon, we arrive at Pacific Harbor for a 50-minute cruise on the Beqa Bull Shark to Beqa Island. A dingy picks us up from our mooring about 200 feet offshore, where we are greeted by a large green turtle. Onshore, a guitar player and 7 others sing a welcoming song.

After warm bulas and a shell necklace for each of us, our hosts at the Beqa Lagoon Resort serve lunch and then show us to our bures, luxurious and spacious suites nestled in the lush tropical vegetation. We are all offered complimentary foot messages at the spa.

Accommodations at the Beqa Lagoon Resort. © Roger Harris

By late afternoon, a second installment of four intrepid travelers has arrived. We meet by the resort pool for introductions as the sun sets and the South Pacific sky explodes in luminescent hues. Five of us are from California/Arizona, plus a couple from Minnesota, a solo traveler from Honolulu, and a UK expat from Paris. Resort staff have made a giant bonfire by the beach and shoot off fireworks.

We are joined for dinner at the resort by Stefano Katz. From Israel and born in Ecuador, Stefano has been on Fiji for 2 years, doing biodiversity studies of the reefs, working with local communities, and living in the village. He heads the Beqa Lagoon Initiative, a project of the Blue Pacific Foundation. Co-worker Katrina also joins us. She is from the UK and finishing an MS at the University of Copenhagen. They tell us about their research and answer questions about snorkeling.

Sunday, September 24, 2017 | Beqa, Fiji

This morning we board a snorkel boat with Captain Bill, diver Joe, and mate along with guide Stefano. The weather is a bit overcast; a breeze ripples the sea. Our first 1-hour snorkel is at Shark Reef near the Beqa Passage. Stefano does not just identify critters, he also explains reef processes. We spot first one and then two more hawksbill turtles and some small whitetip reef sharks among the myriad of colorful tropical fish. A Brown Booby and an Eastern Reef Heron fly overhead.

A green turtle rests beneath corals in Beqa, Fiji. © Roger Harris

The breeze picks up and we abort plans for snorkeling Pearl Rock due to deteriorating sea conditions. We relocate to a calmer, shallower reef for another 1-hour snorkel with very good corals, especially table corals. Next, we go to a picnic spot on a beach with tables and enjoy a good hot lunch boated in from the resort. Later, back at the resort, most of us relax for the rest of the afternoon.

Before dinner, Stefano gives an excellent presentation on reef ecology and conservation. A choir of about 25 singers from the neighboring Raviravi village follows, filling the dining room with beautiful harmonies.

Monday, September 25, 2017 | Beqa, Fiji

After breakfast at the resort, we board the snorkel boat C-Harley with three crew and Stefano. A 1.5-hour/6.5-mile cruise takes us out to Frigates Passage, where the barrier reef meets the Pacific Ocean. Way out to sea, we see surfers on the famous breakers. We make a 1- hour snorkeling drift dive along the coral wall and see the “tri-tip special”: silvertip, blacktip reef, and whitetip reef sharks.

A giant clam on the reef. © Roger Harris

Soon the wind stiffens. Taking in spray, we cruise to Yanuca Island. Our 1-hour snorkel is at the sheltered and shallow fringe reef of Bati Luva. This is a tambu (taboo) area, but the no-take prohibitions are not well enforced. We find a tub of sea cucumbers harvested by the locals to sell to the Asian market. Fish and coral diversity is excellent. Among the many corals, including some delicate rice corals, we see moray eel, anemonefish, and damselfish.

Stefano locates a crown-of-thorns starfish hiding in a crevice. Nearby are some whitened coral heads where the starfish had eaten off the living polyps. One coral head, the one most recently attacked, still had mucus on it from the starfish’s stomach. Stefano also shows us a coral exuding mucus to remove sediment from the nearby shore.

Crown-of-thorns starfish. © Roger Harris

We enjoy a picnic lunch ashore under a gazebo with restrooms maintained by the local village. The resort pays the village a fee for its use. Fiji Woodswallows fly among the palm trees. After lunch, we do a third snorkel, walking down the beach to an adjacent fringe reef with similar good corals and fish. Back in the boat, we cruise back to the resort on Beqa Island, through bouncy seas taking in spray.

At the resort, some of us chance to chat with a Norwegian man who just completed what he describes as the best dive in his life, an exhilarating rush with 5 tiger and 7 bull sharks. He had to hit the massive tiger sharks to keep them from running him over. Just seeing his photographs were enough to get the adrenaline running.

This evening we gather by the fire pit. Some 15 Fijian men from the local village, including some resort staff, demonstrate the firewalking ceremony. With apparent casual aplomb, they slowly walk over fire-hot rocks. Next, Stefano gives a short presentation on the Beqa Lagoon Initiative of the Pacific Blue Foundation. The presentation on conservation efforts describes the work with the local villages on Beqa Island. They are building on traditional communitarian values to enhance conservation practices. This is truly a “hope spot in a biodiversity hotspot.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 | Beqa, Fiji

This morning Katrina joins us as our guide on the snorkel boat. A 1-hour cruise in choppy waters passes through a feeding flock of Great Crested Terns. Later we see some Brown Boobies. Arriving at the barrier reef off of Bird Island, our first 45-minute snorkel challenges us with cool, choppy water and somewhat impacted corals from past storm surges.

We see a school of barracudas, the deep blue-and-green male Pacific bird wrasses, and the outrageous regal angelfish adorned with a cacophony of colors. As we swim back to the boat, a flock of terns passes overhead and screams as if to protest our intrusion into their feeding grounds. A short cruise takes us to an excellent reef for a 1-hour snorkel with good coral, fish, and other invertebrates. The water is calm and the sun is bright, illuminating the natural rainbow of colors of this South Pacific reef.

A vibrant coral head at one of Beqa's reefs. © Roger Harris

Our 1-hour cruise back to the resort area on Beqa Island traverses choppy seas. After considering the option of going for another snorkel, most choose to take the skiff into the resort. However, three of us get dropped off at the outer part of the “house reef” for the resort to swim back to shore on our own. The house reef is as good as any we have seen. Right before the shore is a band of low-growing seagrass, which is an interesting new habitat populated by lizardfish and psychedelic blue starfishes among the bright green vegetation.

After a hot lunch at the resort, the afternoon is free. Some of us go out for a snorkel nearby in the small boat. Others opt for messages at the spa or just lounging about the resort. In the evening, Stefano joins us for our farewell dinner at the resort.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 | Beqa - Taveuni, Fiji

Fortified by a hot breakfast at dawn, we make our departure on the C-Harley across to the main island of Viti Levu. It is only seven in the morning when we land at Pacific Harbor by the Pearl Resort. A giant metal sculpture of a Resplendent Bird of Paradise adorns the hotel’s front; the hotel is owned by Papua New Guinea, and the bird is their national bird.

A van takes us to a small airport near Suva, the capital of Fiji. We board a 1982 de Havilland Twin Otter for our 1-hour flight to Taveuni. This 19-passenger STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) utility aircraft has high-mounted wings for optimal sightseeing. The Twin Otter is the internationally preferred bush plane because of its reliability and safety. Even the US Air Force’s sky diving team uses this workhorse plane.

We land at the tiny Metei Airport, basically a single wood frame building. A scenic drive takes us along the Taveuni Island coast. Arriving midday at the Paradise Taveuni resort, we are greeted by resort staff and given flower leis. Owner Terri Gortan, from Australia and now a naturalized Fijian citizen, introduces us to the incomparably gracious guest services manager Flo, who expertly gives us a thorough orientation. Meanwhile we get complimentary foot messages, a cold towel, a fruit drink, and a water bottle with our name on it. Remarkably, staff learns all our names. After lunch, we are escorted to our bure suites with broad picture windows and walls of native volcanic basalt to relax. Much appreciated is the private outdoor shower, in addition to the indoor one.

Soni plays guitar as the sun sets at Paradise Taveuni. © Roger Harris

We watch the sun go down over the ocean, while Soni gently plays acoustic guitar and sings. Then we have a delightful group dinner at the resort’s Ocean View Restaurant. After a restful afternoon and dinner, we meet at the dive shop for a 45-minute night snorkel on the house reef. Each of us gets a “torch.” Sio leads, and Christina does sweep for one of the most interesting dives of the trip.

The corals, impacted by Hurricane Winston 20 months ago, are just beginning to regenerate. We are fascinated with the various feather stars waving in the water, many fish, and just the thrill of snorkeling at night. We see pufferfish, a lobster with huge antennae, hermit crabs, squirrelfish, goatfish, and a squid. Back at the dock, staff greet us with mugs of hot lemonade and towels.

Thursday, September 28, 2017 | Taveuni, Fiji

This morning we board the resort’s Taveuni Explorer dive boat with captain, mate, and dive guides Sio and Christine. The comfortable boat has a top deck, canopy, and a marine head. We are provisioned with towels, water, snacks, and beer.

A 45-minute cruise in the Somosomo Strait takes us to the famous Rainbow Reef complex. Our first hour snorkel is at the Cabbage Patch, so called because of the huge green cabbage coral. Sio and Christine brief us on the dive with a chalkboard schematic of the snorkel location.

Christine gives a pre-snorkel briefing at Cabbage Patch reef. © Roger Harris

The easy 1-hour snorkel sports very good fish (e.g., Moorish idols) and coral (including soft corals). After a short cruise, we have another 1-hour snorkel at the Free Way Reef for more good coral and fish, including pipefishes, cleaner wrasses, and bird wrasses. Back at the dock, staff greet us with fresh fruit smoothies. One of us skips the snorkel outing and instead goes on an interesting garden walk, where the resort grows its own organic produce, chicken, and pork.

Brightly-colored Christmas tree worms protrude from the coral. © Roger Harris

Lunch is back at the resort’s restaurant. Three of us opt for an afternoon house reef snorkel with a guide. The rest of us return to our bures to relax. Not only had housekeeping tidied up the rooms, but they tastefully festooned our bures with fresh hibiscus and other cut flowers. Various cultural demonstrations are available as staff prepare for tonight’s traditional feast: husking coconuts, climbing a coconut palm, and preparing the pit lovo oven heated with hot stones.

Sunset from Paradise Resort, Taveuni. © Roger Harris

At dusk, we gather at the gazebo by the sea cliff for sundowner cocktails. (I have a “banana-rama” with rum and ice cream – an adult version of a milkshake.) Soni serenades us on his guitar, mixing traditional and popular songs along with a few he penned himself. Tonight, our group joins the other guests at a long table for a Fijian meke celebration. Staff sing and dance for us between courses of lovo-cooked chicken, pork, and beef. This is followed by being invited to dance with the enthusiastic staff, followed by a kava ceremony.

Friday, September 29, 2017 | Taveuni, Fiji

Boarding the Taveuni Explorer with guides Sio (infectiously giggling as if he has nitrous oxide in in dive tank) and Christina, we cruise to our first 45-minute snorkel at Storm Warning. The shallow reef teems with colorful fish along with hard and soft corals.

After a rest and snacks, we make a second 55-minute snorkel at Nuku Reef. Schools of parrotfish are eating the coral and algae; cleaner wrasses are removing ecto-parasites from larger fish; three small whitetip reef sharks show themselves; an octopus is glimpsed by some before it hides under a coral ledge. A highlight is the exquisitely jeweled spotted boxfish.

A spotted boxfish. © Roger Harris

Lunch is back at the resort. After, four of us join the dive boat for an afternoon snorkel just up the shore from the resort, seeing some sea snakes and nudibranchs as well as fish. The rest of us have the choice of a village tour, a cave tour, or just resting. A humpback whale is spotted in the channel overlooking the resort.

Before dinner, owner Terri gives a fascinating presentation on Typhoon Winston, which wrecked the resort on February 2, 2016. She tells how everyone pitched in to rebuild Paradise Taveuni even better than the original.

Saturday, September 30, 2017 | Taveuni, Fiji

A Sacred Kingfisher flies by our breakfast table overlooking the sea. We board the Taveuni Explorer early for the island-hopping tour with resort owner Terri Gortan as our guide. Her three adopted Fijian children, their friend Noah, and two other guests from the hotel round out our entourage.

A 45-minute cruise returns us to the Rainbow Reef complex for guided snorkeling with Sio and Felix. The first 1-hour snorkel is at Coral Garden with good hard and soft corals and fish. We see schools of fusiliers, giant clams, and a lobster.

Sio gives a pre-snorkel briefing at Free Way Reef. © Roger Harris

The second 1-hour snorkel is at the Free Way Reef, also with good fish and corals and brilliant sun. Highlights include seeing a lionfish, then two moray eels, and then watching an octopus change color and—after a considerable wait—watching it slip out of its hiding hole and briefly swim before returning to its refuge.

A moray eel at Free Way reef. © Roger Harris

At Kioa Island, we wade ashore for a picnic lunch on the beach lawn. The community moved here from a Polynesian island 70 years ago. Now they are preparing for a weeklong anniversary celebration where the president of Fiji and the foreign diplomatic corps are expected as guests. The chief, Eddie, takes us on a guided walk through the village. Some of the young boys are playing an informal game of rugby. Fiji is the proudly the current world rugby champion. At the island community hall, we are given floral wreaths to wear on our heads and treated to an impressive traditional meke performance with about 25 men and women sitting on the floor singing, 8 men drumming, and about 12 dancers. After, the village women display woven baskets, placemats, and decorative bark cloth to sell.

A traditional meke performance at Kioa Island. © Roger Harris

Back on the boat, we return to the Rainbow Reef complex for a third snorkel of the day and the last official snorkel of this trip at the Fish Factory Reef. By now the sun is low and the wind has picked up. While fish are abundant here, the coral is not in good shape. Among the critters sighted on this 50-minute snorkel are unicornfish, a giant parrotfish, and a glimpse of a sea turtle.

Sunday, October 1, 2017 | Taveuni, Fiji

After breakfast, two of us stay at resort to take the garden tour and get complimentary full body massages. The rest of us visit Bouma National Heritage Park with guide Wani. A van drive around island takes us to an easy 15-minute walk to the Tavoro (a.k.a. Bouma) waterfalls. The path is flat, through an area landscaped with ornamentals, leading to the first 24-m-high falls. Most of us hike to the 15-m Middle Bouma Falls on a well-maintained trail with steps/handrails, but steep up and down through native forest. On the return hike, some of us swim the lower waterfall’s plunge pool. Amongst the tropical vegetation, we see a Fiji Goshawk, some non- native marine toads, skinks, and a Streaked Fantail.

Bouma falls in Bouma National Heritage Park. © Roger Harris

After a picnic lunch under a gazebo overlooking a scenic river, we continue for photo ops at the 180° Meridian Line sign, “where today and tomorrow meet.” A short stop at the Holy Cross Church and the Wairiki Catholic Mission, built in 1907, completes today’s tour.

Resort co-owner Allan Gortan offers us complimentary champagne sundowner drinks on the lawn and tells us more about the typhoon and the cleanup. Our last group dinner is a festive one with lots of boisterous laughing.

Monday, October 2, 2017 | Taveuni - Nadi, Fiji

After breakfast and check-out, we are treated to an affecting goodbye ceremony with the staff singing a farewell song. The Taveuni Paradise is aptly named.

After a wonderful time with new friends, it is time to leave for a van ride, then an island hop plane, then an international flight home…and on to new adventures.

Learn more about Oceanic Society’s snorkeling trips to Fiji here.

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.