Diving and divine digs in the Yasawa Islands
(again, more pics to come once better internet)
The weather was wild for the first day or so on Drawaqa Island. As previously mentioned it’s more or less one fairly steep hill with a narrow spit of sand jutting off and surrounded by a sizable reef. My bure faced the windward side which on the day I arrived meant sizable waves pounding in and a heavy breeze into the front ‘door.’ Bure can apparently mean very different things at different resorts but at the barefoot manta it was a solid roof with thatched top and side enclosed by canvas very similar to the Manitoba parks yurts. My ensuite was more an ‘outsuite’ with a screen door at the back of the bure leading to an open air shower with trees growing through it and a toilet with a hint of a roof.
After being welcomed and given the brief intro I wandered the resort for a bit and found the dive shop where I made some provisional plans based on the weather and got the lay of the land for snorkeling. I decided to just borrow equipment as mine was still packed up and quickly threw on a suit and got in the water. The leeward side of the island was amazingly calm for being roughly 200 feet away from where I’d been before and even with a heavily overcast sky and not much sun the visibility was amazing. This resort is particularly focused on marine conservation and in between the existing reef you could see their various projects for reef extension and stabilization and a couple cages where they were trying to get giant clams re-established.
The reef itself was fantastic and teeming with life, tons of hard corals… bright yellow and transluscent gar, parrotfish, angelfish, a large wrasse, trevalley and a whole bunch of things I hadn’t seen since my days diving the great barrier reef. I’m reasonably certain I caught a hint of a small reef shark as well but it was right at the fringe of visibility so I can’t say for sure. The reef is so huge and protected that you can actually snorkel right around the point and come back in on the northward facing beach if you want making for a really nice long and mostly leisurely snorkel. I don’t think it’s really possible to convey just how much this put me into my ‘happy place’ but as I flopped down in my private hammock on my private beach access (la-di-da) I was more relaxed that I’ve been in years.
Unfortunately we were still getting the same system that was pounding the mainland so the wind was wild the rest of the day. Rain occasionally reared for a few minutes and the staff ended up closing a couple the shutters as we ate dinner. I admit despite the fact that I’d had a lovely snorkel I was starting to worry that the weather would be like this my whole stay and would curtail diving partially/completely. Overnight was worse. I’d left just the screen door shut on my bure wanting to watch the waves come in but got a rude awakening around 3 am when I realized my feet felt damp and the downpour I’d heard earlier had really been splashing inward to the point where the blanket on the edge of the bed had gotten rather soaked (along with some of my gear.) So after a frantic scurry and some reorg I managed to get back to sleep and thankfully the crashing downpour didn’t return and force me to actually close the canvas flap because…
I woke to glorious sunshine! It was still heckin’ windy but the sun was flitting in and out of clouds and the water was shining that crystal green blue that you normally only see in postcards. Getting out of bed and walking the ten steps or so to the beach I could easily see fish flitting in and out of the rocks and coral and then was startled to see a school of flying fish launch themselves repeatedly out of the water running from some form of predator. On the beach itself there were a few lizards playing and as I looked closer a number of hermit crabs emerging as well. It was a fantastic start to the day.
Unfortunately it was also still too windy for diving at any of the good sites. The dive shop woman flat out told me that the one place they could safely dive that day was basically a glorified snorkel and that there were marine warnings out that the wind could get much worse so they couldn’t safely do anything. Thankfully the forecast for the next day looked better and I still had two more nights before moving to the next island so I filled my morning and afternoon with another snorkel, a long read in my hammock and a long walk around the most accessible parts of the island. They’d unfortunately warned us that while they normally did a cliff walk/hike for sunrise/sunset they’d cancelled it for the time being as the rain had made it a bit dangerous.
The food at the Barefoot Manta was quite good. It’s an enforced meal plan thing which I’m normally never a fan of but with the restort being the only thing on the island it’s not like you can pop down to a mom and pop place instead. Meals varied between a buffet with a wide variety of choices or more often a selection of 4-5 dishes, usually a curry or stirfry, seafood and a couple vegetarian/vegan options. Portions were sizable especially for me as I’ve gone back into my usually walk around a bunch, don’t have a massive appetite travel mode that I really wish I could trigger back at home.
The end of that night was my first exposure to the Fijian kava ceremony. Once the domain of chiefs alone the sharing of kava is now a ceremony by which you’re welcomed to a village if you visit and politeness dictates that you quaff at least one bowl (usually a coco shell) though it keeps going around and around until all gone. The drink itself is created by soaking the pounded root of the plant and has numbing/sedative qualities. It has started to be exported and you can find kava bars/extracts elsewhere around the world now, but apparently the local stuff has more of an effect. After the first bowl my tongue had definitely numbed a bit… after the four or five more ‘high-tide’ bowls I was handed most of my mouth was tingly. I’m guessing it also had something to do with the fact that when I retired to my bure at about 8:30 as it had started raining again I failed spectacularly at staying awake to watch the show I fired up on my laptop. Based on life thus far I’m guessing early wakeups and dozy nights are going to be the norm though. I have yet to sleep past 7 or even need my alarm.
When the next morning dawned something seemed different as I opened my eyes. It took me a few moments to realize that the rhythmic pounding of the waves was now more of a gentle lapping. Ninety minutes later two young Swedish ladies had joined me and our crew was skimming us across the waves to my first ever wreck dive. The sea and sky were meeting in a union of just about every shade of blue you can imagine and steep coasted islands poked up here and there covered in lush greenery. You find yourself hoping you can trust in the encyclopedic reef knowledge of the staff that pilot the boats because as you sit there flying along you can very clearly see how narrow a channel you’re sometimes passing through. The whole archipelago is a maze of reefs and shelves with the occasional deep blue gap.
Once we arrived at the buoy about 300m offshore we started prepping then eventually rolled into the water. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough weight at first to get me down and while we were solving that problem the two ladies and the second staff member were not paying attention and drifted off with the current. Honestly it wasn’t a great job by the staff member there as there was clearly a mooring line to follow down but based on a subsequent dive he was probably more concerned with one of the two women who was not especially mobile underwater due to a disability. Still, after we patrolled for a bit looking for them we went back up and the dive lead had me wait while he searched for them where he thought the current had carried them. By the time they came back up they’d used their entire air supply circling around in a deep channel. At that point I assumed my dive curse had continued on from Portugal/Vietnam but nope, once he changed out his tank we went down alone together.
The wreck itself was an old fishing boat, sunk purposely to form the base of a new reef. This was only about ten years ago so while marine life is abundant it was still very clearly a wreck even from a distance. Known as ‘Glory Wreck’ it’s base was at about 25m (~80feet) in that tide and we started by swimming around the perimeter with Lai my divemaster showing me where it was moored down and how there were mantis shrmp all around the base. These ridiculous tiny shrimp can scoot around at high speed and wallop things with their claws with the force of a handgun bullet. At the same time we saw the slowly building clusters of marine life on the hull. A few clusters of fan coral, sea cucumbers moving along the edge and school after school of various small fish running about to and fro.
Swimming upward we snuck onto the deck amidships and started a number of large trevally feeding on something clinging to the base. The wreck was definitely already a fish garden and was amazing to explore, especially as we swam inside the upper deck and were surrounded by clouds of thousands and thousands of tiny fish (blanking on name.) It’s always been a bucket list item to do a wreck dive and while this was on the simpler side I’m definitely going to get my wreck diving certification some day and do one of the really cool ones like the scuttled WW2 ships or the like.
Once back on surface we scooted back to the resort on the windward side, the waves had risen a bit but we seemed to be within an outer barrier and outside the inner reef. My Swedish companions were heading out on that day’s south-ward departure but were sneaking in another dive (or a first real one I guess) before that departure. I was mildly torn. I wanted to do another dive that day but wasn’t super enthused about getting stuck with them if they were in trouble again my wreck dive having already been a few minutes longer than it should be. However the shop couldn’t tell me what exactly the 3pm dive was going to be and as they were a couple people certifying that day I worried I’d get stuck on a new certified (or about to be) person’s first real dive with the accompanying super fast air usage.
I should explain though. At most places you’d just stay out and do the two dives but here all the resorts seem to have only a couple boats they use for everything. That means a dive trip goes out at 9, makes sure it’s back at 11 so the boat can then be used to run out and ferry folks in from the catamaran that comes from the port as it does the northbound swing. Then we take another trip out and the boat is back for 2pm when the boat is coming back southbound. There’s only one boat a day so if you miss it you’re in trouble.
The divemaster for the lodge happened to have returned on the boat from his days off and was going to run the second dive so I stuck with the devil I knew. (The staff member who’d gotten lost with the girls was nowhere to be seen and I imagine was in trouble since he probably should have surfaced with them after getting detached from us)
The dive itself was gorgeous and trouble was at a minimum though the lady in question still ended up slower and Lai stayed with her alone while the dive master lead the rest of us. A pinnacle in somewhat more open water this time it was a spur of coral covered rock almost reaching the surface at the ebbing tide. Soft golden fan coral everywhere gave it the name golden gate as further down the pinnacle there was a gorgeous swimthrough with fans everywhere. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the bigger species he’d suggested we might see but it was still a superb dive for the ground life.
If you’ve never done a dive but you’re one of those people that gets famished after swimming… let me just say that diving is 3x worse. Thankfully the kitchen still had some lunch left when we got back and I treated myself to a strawberry coconut smoothie in celebration. It had been 6? years since my last good dive and here I’d had two great ones in a day with most of my trip left to go.
The rest of the day passed in somewhat of a blur. I chatted with an Aussie doing his dive certification and was kinda shocked when I found out he was from Brisbane. I know Fiji is closer but man you have such good places to do it so close by. He was an interesting dude though, an engineer by trade now studying to be a science teacher and with a firm opinion on everything and everyone. I hope the weather holds for him and he gets to do some real dives after the boring certification go down/come up stuff. The rest of the time I spent either sitting by the beach or just enjoying some hammock time with my latest book.
This was an amazing three days but I was ready to check out my next home further north in the Yasawa chain where more diving and a cave adventure beckoned.