Diving in paradise: Fiji comes back to life

The Twin Otter plane swooped low over emerald-green forests and turquoise lagoons, our pilots appearing to be relishing the journey, in no rush to get to their destination. After two long, hard years without tourism, who could blame them? Fiji had just reopened, and everyone seemed to have taken on the role of impromptu welcome party, simply glad to be able to show off their island nation to the world once more.

The very name had evoked in my mind that mid-century notion of paradise both pristine and remote, though in truth, Fiji had long ceased to be all that inaccessible. Commercial tourism began in the 1960s, and over half a million tourists were arriving every year by the new millennium. Pre-pandemic, tourism contributed about 38 per cent of Fiji’s GDP so, desperate to restart the industry, the authorities set out a robust vaccination campaign, with the tagline “no jab, no job”. With nearly 70 per cent of residents fully vaccinated, and a suite of Covid safety protocols in place, the country finally threw its borders open to visitors on December 1.

Our first port of call was Viani Bay, tucked away on the eastern spur of Fiji’s second island, Vanua Levu. There are no roads in or out of the horseshoe bay; all of its roughly 100 residents trek over the nearby hills on foot, or motor in and out by boat. We chose the latter, skipping over the waves from the airstrip on nearby Taveuni island at first light, a flood of moonlight giving way in quick succession to vermilion, orange, and sapphire blue skies.

Early morning on Taveuni island © Alamy

I suspected the long journey would be worth it. Viani, after all, is perfectly situated for diverse looking to access Fiji’s famed Rainbow Reef, first mapped by Jacques Costeau and now one of the world’s prime examples of the soft-coral ecosystem. In normal times, the reef would be teeming not just with fish, but with divers from across the world. But in these early days of Fiji’s tentative reopening, we would have this bucket-list dive site virtually to ourselves.

Home for the first week was the Viani Bay Resort, a three-bungalow operation that stands in stark contrast to the large, luxurious resorts on Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. The trickle of tourists returning to Fiji was still a far cry from the days of mass tourism, a model that many had already begun to question because of its environmental impact. I wondered if locally rooted, low-impact, high-value operations might show the way forward for a nation rightly eager to harness its natural riches.

Viani Bay, home to a low-impact dive operation
Viani Bay, home to a low-impact dive operation

The resort, which also brands itself the Dive Academy Fiji, was created by Marina Walser and Jone Waitaiti, business partners who had met on Germany’s frigid (and in my mind, utterly inexplicable) scuba diving circuit. Marina, tired of a long career in the corporate world, had wanted a change of scenery that involved better weather and diving; Jone had longed to return to his native Fiji.

Map of Fiji

Marina told me of the long journey to making their dream a reality. Camping on the beach for nearly a year, they had worked with local tradespeople to put up wooden bungalows, built in the traditional Fijian desk style. Slowly winning the trust of the community, they’d built a successful, sustainable, dive operation that lasted three years. Then the pandemic hit and Fiji shut down, forcing them to survive catering to local visitors and the occasional yacht. Later on, I’d discover that many of Fiji’s tourism workers had returned to their villages, making ends meet through farming, fishing and government relief. While much of the world moved online, many Fijians had quite literally gone back to their roots.

Traditional bure-style bungalows at Viani Bay Resort
Traditional bure-style bungalows at Viani Bay Resort

We were the first group back since the big reopening, and what the resort lacked in outright luxury was more than made up for with personal touches. For one, there was the food: seasonal, locally sourced and tailored to guests’ dietary preferences. Our plant-based diets seemed to pose no problem, and we quickly became acquainted with the scandalously overlooked delights of Fijian cuisine. Generous three-course meals featured taro, breadfruit, pumpkin and Fijian spinach, interspersed with Indian-influenced soups and curries and seasoned with local fleur de sel and wild chillies. Coconut-milk ice cream was a regular, welcome feature, cutting as it did through the summer heat.

All the more remarkable was that these beautifully presented dishes were prepared not by professional chefs from the big city, but by women recruited and trained locally in tiny Viani Bay. That this was the first job they’d held in their lives was impossible to tell. The same ethos of opportunity for the community animated the dive operation; the dive guides, knowledgeable and meticulous, were from local fishing families and had received scholarships that covered their certification as dive masters.

The coral colors of Rainbow Reef
The coral colors of Rainbow Reef © Alamy

A week flew by, dictated by the rhythms of sun and sea. We would rise early, feasting on fresh fruit as dive guides pored over tide charts to pick out the day’s sites. This patient approach yielded fabulous results; plunging in just as a nutrient-rich current roared to life after two days of quieter seas, we saw the Great White Wall of soft coral in full bloom and swam through eerie forests of sea fans. Afternoons were spent alternating between paddleboards, hammocks and beach volleyball with a band of local kids. The sun would set as dinner was served; the bugs would emerge; and rather than fight them fruitlessly, we’d retreat to our bungalows, in bed by nine and up at sunrise to dive once more.

The Rainbow Reef is not immune from the pressures of warming seas and overfishing that afflict reefs across the world. El Niño of 2014-16 hit the South Pacific particularly hard; but I was glad to see Fiji’s reefs bouncing back. The ghostly signs of bleaching were mostly in retreat, and the colors of the coral and the fish shone through the blue.

Dive Academy Fiji's Jone Waitaiti gives a pre-dive briefing on the Rainbow Reef and its Great White Wall

Dive Academy Fiji’s Jone Waitaiti gives a pre-dive briefing on the Rainbow Reef and its Great White Wall

Conservation-minded operators like Marina and Jone weren’t taking this rebound for granted. They had persuaded locals to cut back on fishing, enticed by the promise of well-paid jobs for the community at the resort, and had worked with the authorities to establish a coral nursery to replant nearby reefs. Divers were encouraged to visit the site and assist with the replanting. Was all the expense and effort worth it? “Looking at all the locals who we have trained to become diverse . † † and the excitement of every local who we take to the reef, we can strongly say it does,” Marina told me. “And the guests turn into ocean ambassadors too.”

The second leg took us back to the beaten path on Viti Levu. We spent a day in the capital, Suva, staying at the colonial-era Grand Pacific Hotel that has played host to celebrities and heads of state including the Queen. The opulent hotel was quiet, but the rest of the city was abuzz. With a population split roughly equally between indigenous Fijians and those of Indian origin, there is a trilingual culture (virtually everyone speaks English, Fijian and Hindi) unlike any other in the region.

But Viti Levu was also the gateway to Fiji’s infamous shark diving. Our guides (and guardians) for the cage-free dives were from Aqua Trek, an operator based in Pacific Harbor with an all-local dive team armed with underwater shepherds’ crooks to gently nudge sharks away if they got too close to their curious, defenseless visitors.

Plunging into Beqa lagoon off the island’s southern coast, dozens of reef, nurse and lemon sharks circled around us, mere inches away. But the stars of the show were the bull sharks. Displaying none of the raw aggression they are famed for, the muscular figures largely ignored us, far more interested in the fish heads in the feeder and the schools of fish all around the reef.

This feeder, filled with discarded tuna heads from a nearby processing plant, is what has made the shark dives controversial. I will admit part of me — the part with an academic background in conservation biology and a preference for leaving nature alone — was skeptical. But Jona, our affable dive guide, had a heartfelt take that won me over: “Before we began the shark dives, I remember locals would hunt sharks to make a living. Now, we’re able to show our community that they’re worth protecting.” Studies have found that sharks are not permanently attracted to the area and that supplementary feed only constitutes a small part of their diets.

Uneasy as it may be for purists, the results have been striking. Over the years, the villages adjacent the lagoon relinquished their fishing rights in exchange for a levy paid back to the community and jobs with dive operators; in 2004, a marine protected area was declared, and later expanded to a 30-mile “shark corridor” along the coast. Fish populations have rebounded, with the main threat now coming from foreign fishing vessels rather than Fijians.

A bull shark in Beqa Lagoon

A bull shark in Beqa lagoon © Tim Rock/Polaris/eyevine

To my mind, Viani Bay and Beqa offered two distinct, but distinctly pragmatic, models to prove that nature can be worth more alive than dead. Both were works in progress and had each been rattled by a global pandemic, but they seemed far and away better options for people and the planet than the unchecked destruction that is too often the default.

As Fiji emerges from its pandemic-induced slumber, questions of sustainability will come to the fore. For one, there is the undeniable fact that the South Pacific is a long and carbon-spewing flight away for most visitors. But Fiji is a developing country at the coalface of rising seas that has done virtually nothing to contribute to the climate crisis. In the absence of large numbers of altruists willing to part with their money via video link, inviting visitors to experience its natural wealth first-hand remains Fiji’s most obvious way to fund conservation.

Perhaps places like Fiji deserve a notional carbon budget that they can use to justify bringing in sustainable numbers of visitors independent of their personal carbon footprints. Perhaps the developed countries that are most culpable can first do their part and pay their fair share to help fund adaptation in poorer countries. Funding the protection of natural carbon sinks certainly provides a climate service to the world. In any case, we will need to work urgently to decarbonise aviation so faraway places can remain connected to the rest of a net-zero world.

But even if the carbon question can be squared, unchecked mass tourism could threaten the very ecosystems Fijian are seeking to protect. “We’re no longer looking at pure volume coming in,” Brent Hill, chief executive of Tourism Fiji, told me, pointing to Fiji’s renewed focus on attracting higher-value tourists and dispersing them across the archipelago’s 330 islands. “If people are really engaged with Fiji’s environment . † † and they’re doing things like planting coral or mangroves when they’re here, they’re going to protect it, come back and spend a fair bit more as well.”

I had seen first-hand what chasing “pure volume” looked like when I lived in southern Bali and worked on its catastrophic plastic and waste problem. As I wound my way back down the coral coast to Nadi, I left hopeful that Fijians would be able to chart a different path, for the sake of their people and the island nation’s rare natural treasures.

Siddarth Shrikanth is the author of ‘The Business Case for Nature’, to be published by Duckworth next year

Details

Entry restrictions from some countries remain — for details see mcttt.gov.fj. The Viani Bay Resort (diveacademyfiji.com) has bungalows for two from FJ$580 (£200). Aqua Trek Fiji (aquatrek.com) offers shark dives from $180 per person

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