Day 1,177 - Drawaqa Is, Yasawas, Fiji (17° 1S 177° 1E)
12:10hrs - August 20th 2010
Close Encounter

It was a little over ten years ago when I spotted my first manta ray, and although it was housed in a giant aquarium at Paradise Island in the Bahamas, my first encounter with the largest of the ray family was nothing short of awe-inspiring. And for over a year, since we entered the South Pacific, we've searched for the opportunity to swim with them, to have a close encounter with the illusive Devil Ray (a name derived from their distinct horn-shaped pectoral fins), but unfortunately, from the Tuamotus to Tonga, the manta rays have continued to elude us, that was until yesterday.

Anchored off Drawaqa Island in the Yasawas - a chain of volcanic islands that form Fiji's western perimeter, we had timed our arrival to coincide with a short
twelve-week window when manta rays come to the area to feed in the plankton-rich waters that funnel between the islands. So at high tide, and aided by the beating drums resonating from the nearby Manta Ray Resort - a sign that rays had been spotted in the area, my nephew and I raced over in the dinghy to investigate. We dropped the anchor in shallow water and swam out to join the two boats and a dozen snorkelers already in the area.

The water was 60 feet deep and so blue and clear that it seemed to radiate light from its depths, and that's when we saw them, three shadows suspended below us, gliding effortlessly on the invisible tidal current.

It was as if we had entered another world, a quiet world of weightlessness and magical creatures. One of the manta rays veered away from the others and began a slow ascent, climbing to the surface towards us with open mouth, the distinct slits of 10 gills visible inside its enormous cavity, like an empty ribcage void of vital organs. It glided closer - 30 feet, 20 feet, 15 feet from the surface, and then, slowly, near the pinnacle of its loop, it arched upside down, its soft smooth belly reflecting the sunlight and flashing bright white against the deep blue water of its world. I moaned inside my snorkel, amazed at the performance as I watched the manta slowly descend to complete its aquatic loop-to-loop. The other mantas were feeding now too, filtering hundreds of gallons of seawater through open mouths, performing the same endless graceful somersaults, the contrasts of dark shadows and flashing white shapes meeting as the rays crossed.

I dove down, timing my descent to meet the manta as it swept up towards the peak of its climb. Suspended 20 feet below the surface the ray glided quietly below me, just 6 feet away, observing me as it completed its turn, then slowly sinking to begin another. I watching the rays swim up toward me again, aware of me, but seemingly unconcerned by my presence, I stayed with them until my lungs burned for oxygen.

I surfaced for air in the middle of what reminded me of the scene from the movie Titanic, just after the ship went down - a mass of thrashing bodies turning the water white, all kicking, splashing and paddling at the surface. A boatload of tourists had just been delivered by the resort, forty more snorkelers formed a tight formation, like a school of fish all drawn together and driven by the same force - to get a glimpse and perhaps a photo of the giant rays. Everyone was so excited that snorkeling etiquette was abandoned as the eager group scrambled to keep up with the mantas.

The rays fed for 30-minutes, completing endless sweeping loops underwater to the thrill of all, and I spent as much time with them as my lungs would allow. But even at the surface, amongst the noisy flogging gasping masses, being slapped in the face by the occasional rogue flipper, or torpedoed by a surfacing snorkeler, couldn't break the spell of an experience that was simply magical.



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Day 1,176 - Drawaqa Is, Yasawas, Fiji (17° 10S 177° 11E)
09:23hrs - August 19th 2010
Good Times in Fiji

Wow, I’m in Fiji! Actual Fiji, with sea and sand and everything you could possibly want from the South Pacific. I’ve been here with my very tolerant aunt and uncle for just over a week now, having arrived at
Nadi International Airport at the very unreasonable hour of 5am last Monday.

The weather here has been fantastic, although the blazing sun and high temperatures (generally several degrees higher to those one experiences in London) managed to burn me quite nicely within a few hours of my arrival, meaning that over the past few days I have been slowly but surely shedding flakes of skin all over the boat.

Anyway, the journey so far… Nobody seemed to want to do anything too active on Monday, what with me
in my jetlagged state and my relatives having woken up at 4am to collect me from the airport. Still, we took a trip into the town centre where we stocked up on provisions and had lunch – I tried a goat curry, which turned out to be very pleasant, although the deceivingly small green peppers craftily placed in front of you at the beginning by the sadistic restaurant owner should be politely avoided at all costs if you are planning on enjoying the rest of your meal. We spent the evening at the local Hard Rock Café, at which I was somehow persuaded into standing on a chair and singing YMCA with the waiters (actions and everything).

On Tuesday it was a short sail from Port Denarau to Musket Cove. The wind was strong enough to for us to raise the sail, and we spent a very enjoyable morning cruising along with the wind behind us, while I practiced my knot-tying and worked on my burn. Musket Cove itself was a very nice little resort, and we spent a few days exploring the coral reefs nearby. The fish there seem to be used to a regular supply of fresh tourists and will swim right up close to you, especially if you bring with you slices of bread, which they will quickly devour right out of your hand. I also had my first scuba diving experience, during which I saw a small shark and a fantastic sea turtle. The golf course on the island provided an afternoon of great comedy, as we stumbled our way round the 9 holes, getting well over par, and the prospect of not knowing where the ball was going to go making the game all the more exciting.

After a few days we continued on to the relatively uninhabited islands of Nevadra. After 5 hours of motoring (the wind had dropped down to a measly 4 knots) and passing the island that was apparently used in the movie Cast Away, we dropped anchor in a spot between a couple of exquisite islands that turned out to be extremely tricky to reach, given the layer of coral that almost completely surrounded the beaches. It was there that I landed my first fish, which we filleted and ate that evening. A bonfire on the beach the next evening was also great fun, and we were able to sit back and toast marshmallows as the sun set.

We have now moved on and are anchored off of Drawaqa Island near the Manta Ray resort, where we plan to dive with 12ft rays tomorrow. I have another couple of weeks here and am looking forward to them immensely.

Day 1,165 - Port Denarua, Fiji (17° 46S 177° 22E)
19:53hrs - August 8th 2010
The Other Side of Fiji

This feels like a lifetime away from the Fiji we have been seeing since we got here but we are now in
the marina at Port Denerau near Nadi, and I guess this is the Fiji you see if you fly here for a holiday.

The marina is close to the international airport, several 5-star hotels and is home to the Mega Yacht crowd.  Bright yellow ferries shuttle holidaymakers from one lovely resort and activity to another in their quest for the perfect South Pacific experience, and the Hard Rock Cafe set in the snazzy port complex lures overheated westerners into their familiar air-conditioned bars for cool drinks and loud music.

But apart from the obvious lure of ice cream and Hard Rock Cafe cheese burgers, we are actually here
at the marina to pick up one of our impressively intrepid nephews - Jono, who is flying all the way from London for a month long Fiji visit on Dream Time. We have cleared out the aft quarter berth so he can have his own cabin to escape to when Auntie C and Uncle N drive him mad, and Cap’n Nev has devised endless amusing distractions, including the requisite brightwork to keep him entertained, he may even
be persuaded to compose a blog or two, watch this space!

I have to say I am enjoying all this western decadence, we been playing tennis and even played our very first 9 holes of golf the other day, very entertaining, but I am also looking forward to getting back out to the empty anchorages, uninhabited islands and curious fish again, so as soon as we get Jono
and a few more BBQ supplies we’ll be off again. Yasawas here we come!