When I saw an advert in the Fiji Times a few months back calling for expressions of interest fort a local diving liveaboard trip on the NAI’A I opened up my laptop and sent an email. I had heard a lot about the NAI’A itself, the diving, the crew, etc, and my friend Sam (who helped me set foot in Fiji) had worked aboard the NAI’A as cruise director for three years. Amanda and I really wanted to go on a trip designed for locals and with the adjusted local rates, that might be a great chance to do so!
A few emails back and forth and a few weeks later it was clear that Amanda and I would be joining the first-ever “locals only” trip! From her homeport in Lautoka, the NAI’A would steam up the Bligh waters towards the Namena Reserve just off Namena Island, and then back towards the Vatu-i-Ra seascape to Lautoka. In five nights and six-days, we would cramp in as many dives as possible.
Last year, when I joined a three-week diving expedition along the Great Sea Reef organized by WWF. the Ministry of Fisheries and the Institute of Applied Science,(great article with my images here), I saw the NAI’A anchored right next to the Bai Ni Takali that would become our home for the coming weeks back then. We were still joking then how everyone would have preferred the NAI’A for the diving trip but we had to make do with the governmental transport vessel and two village fibers (which worked out well in the end!).
In total, nine guests (eight divers and one snorkeler) found their way on the first local charter plus the cruise directors Jemma & Scott, and the crew consisting of nine people with Captain Sue piloting the vessel. It was quite a surprise to me to meet Nikki on the NAI’A with whom I spent several days diving on a liveaboard in the Great Barrier Reef in early 2015! How crazy is that!?!
After settling in and listening to a thorough briefing on the safety procedures, the plan for the coming days, and everything else that was needed to know we headed out for a check-out dive so everyone could get comfortable with their gear and the vessel procedures. The NAI’A operates two great skiffs that are used to get close to the dive sites and enter the water via a backroll. After this dive at Samu Reef just outside Lautoka, we quickly headed back to port and later left steaming north towards the Bligh waters, a large amount of water between Viti Levu and Fiji’s second-largest island Vanua Levu.
There is a great and funny trip report on the NAI’A blog, so head over there and experience the trip through Jemma’s and Scott’s eyes. This post will concentrate more on the photo and video side of the trip. As some of you might know I switched to an Aquatica housing a few months back after I wasn’t too happy with my BS Kinetics housing that I used for my D7100 back in the day as well as the D810 upgrade after that. When I got the D850 I wanted to switch to another housing manufacturer and ended up with the renowned Canadian Aquatica housings.
Initially, I had some issues with the flash trigger (it somehow ignited my strobes in weird and unwanted intervals) and one of the knobs in the housing seemed a little short to change from auto to manual focus when the camera was in the housing, but I was also able to fix that. Now I simply love the ergonomics, the housing, and the overall shooting experience giving me the freedom I need to compose images and shoot video.
I wasn’t on assignment and was thus able to shoot whatever I liked and however I liked it. I changed between three lenses on this trip: the Nikkor 16-35mm f/4, the 16mm f/2.8 fisheye, and the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8. With 3-4 dives a day I was constantly busy changing batteries and/or lenses, charging in the meantime, and swopping full SD cards. I love underwater photography and all it comes with, but there is always a lot of behind-the-scenes work that people tend to forget.
On day two or three we were invited to visit Namena island, which was a welcome little outing for the whole group. We had an alternative dive lined up but all of us ended up exploring the little island off Vanua Levu. I used the chance to advance my Fijian bird portfolio with a few gems that I do not come across ordinarily. I managed to photograph juvenile and adult red-footed and brown-footed boobies, two super beautiful white-tailed tropicbirds (which I had never seen before), and to my surprise, Amanda and I found two banded rails just before leaving back to the boat (which delayed everyone a little – sorry! 😉
That same evening I also put up the drone for a few quick images but the day had been long, the batteries needed to be charged and imaged downloaded and on top of it was it almost time for the tasty vegan food that Chef Villiam kept preparing for Amanda and me (and according to the others their food was fantastic, too)! We enjoyed a few sundowner drinks on the deck before heading back down in the cozy lounge to enjoy the dinner and great chats.
Most of us ended up doing 17 dives with the following itinerary:
List of dive sites:
My favorite dive site was Mount Mutiny: we hit it early in the morning with calm seas, hardly any current, beautiful sun rays coming through and I finally, finally saw some adult scalloped hammerhead sharks! Everyone seemed to spot a different amount when they graciously swam past us in the blue: Scott counted eight, I saw four and Amanda only observed one. But we were all happy to have seen any!! Having worked with the babies for almost a year during my master thesis research here in Fiji, hammerhead sharks have become my favorites among this elusive group of animals. The smallest I ever measured (before releasing it again) was only a little over 30cm in length! A newborn pup indeed and one of the cutest things out there I guess!
I had my 16mmm fisheye on my D850 for this dive and while I still managed to shoot some great images of the corals, a giant lobster and the very curious whitetips reef sharks, the hammerheads were too far away to get any decent footage of. I have yet to wait for that but it is all about goals in life 🙂
We had many beautiful dives and the coral cover on some of the sites was simply mindblowing. With large fields of soft corals, it was clear why Fiji is also called the “soft coral capital of the world”. Another great site was Grand Central where we encountered some of the bigger stuff, such as a school of barracudas and giant trevallies, several mean-looking patrolling dogtooth tuna, grey reef sharks, and a number of whitetip reefies. I found it a hard dive to shoot images on although it was the only that we ended up diving twice. I tried it once with the fisheye and the other with the wide-angle but the depth, the animals, and the topography of the site made it very challenging.
Then of course there was E6, a wonderful photogenic site filled with overhangs and little canyons that make it a perfect spot for some great modeling pics with Amanda. Again, people tend to forget how challenging that can be and I am super happy to have Amanda for these shots. She is a fantastic model underwater (and above) who understands photography and knows how to situate herself for these shots. Without her, those images would not come to life!
These are just a few examples and experiences with many more on the other dive sites that I enjoyed just as much. hard to pick the “best” as there is something cool to see on all of them. I really enjoyed putting on the macro for a few dives as well and shift my eyes from the seascape perspective towards a more detailed look into the crevices and spending much more time in smaller areas.
When we steamed back to Lautoka on the last day, we had days behind us that were filled with joy and excitement and all had a wonderful time. Everyone made new friends on this trip (or met old ones) and we farewelled each other saying we would meet again on another trip sometime soon. It was a wonderful experience and I would recommend the NAI’A wholeheartedly and without any doubts to any diver out there. Crew, food, vessel land diving was superb! Vinaka to everyone involved and sota tale!
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.