The Time before Mr. Perkins Ran Away

There are stories we have yet to tell from the time before Mr. Perkins ran away, the type of stories we all hope for on a cruise in Fiji. We were still five aboard Anthea and were focused on making our way eastward, against the trades, to the beauty of Fiji’s farther shores. After the glorious snorkeling and birdwatching at Namena, we made a fast but wet passage, close hauled to close reaching, to the garden Island of Taveuni. There we picked up a mooring at Paradise resort and spent three days taking care of the basics – provisioning, laundry, trash disposal, and buying fuel – while analyzing the weather for a window to sail to the fabled Lau group on the eastern edge of the nation. We cooked up a scheme for beating into moderate to rough seas in 20 knots of trade winds, for we had just made our way eastward in such winds, and Anthea responded like a sleek tiger dashing across a rocky plain. But after talking with an Australian couple who had surfed their way back from Vanua Balavu, the northern most island in the Lau group, we came to our senses.

Cruisers often say that gentlemen (and gentle people of all genders, I might add) don’t go to windward in more than 15 knots. We’re happy to beat into 20 knots, as Anthea is perfectly balanced with a double reefed main and single to double reefed jib in such winds. But only in 1 to 1.5 meter seas. Out in the broader ocean, beating into 3 or 4 meter seas is another story all together. It’s a pounding that is hard on the boat and much, much harder on her crew. So we abandoned the plan for the Lau and focused our sights nearby – Viani Bay and the famed Rainbow Reef snorkeling, Taveuni’s northern tip for kiteboarding and hikes to beautiful waterfalls, and the protected anchorage of Albert’s Cove on Rabi Island.

During our three rainy days at Paradise resort (the garden island gets more than its share of Fiji’s rain), taking care of basic needs, we met delightful staff who shared their experiences of weathering Cyclone Winston and stories of hybrid Hindu and Fijian gods. One man, John, was in a cyclone shelter with hundreds of people when a man entered in shock. When John asked him what was wrong, he said his cousin, who was blind, was home alone in a neighboring village. John, along with several other young men, dashed into the cyclone force winds and made their way to the house of this man’s cousin. They found him sitting in the middle of his home, alone, and together they weathered the force of the storm. From another staff member who loved history and mythology, we learned of a Hindu snake god high in a cave in the hills; we also learned that the octopus deity protected this area of Taveuni from the neighboring shark deity who tried to conquer these lands. When I saw an octopus while snorkeling off the resort, I felt quite protected!

Several times at the resort we looked for a break in the weather, gathered our snorkeling gear and set out in Hektor. The rain water cascaded off the black volcanic rock along the shore, leaving a lens of cool fresh water hovering over the warmer salt water below, reminding us of snorkeling Niue. There, as on the southern tip of Taveuni, no rivers muddy the coastal waters, so visibility below the fresh water lens was spectacular. All along the black rocks baby corals were growing – greens, pinks, purples, spikey and flat, orange sponges and black and gold fans – I felt as if I was in a coral nursery, for there was not a dead or bleached coral in sight, but neither was there a large plate or reef. Some rocks were so densely covered with diverse specimens that it looked like a miniature coral garden. Others were sparsely spaced, but healthy. All around us our brilliantly colored tropical fish friends darted about. We ventured into rocky pools along the edge of the shore, letting the waves gently rock us in and out, moving with the schools of fish, then, chilled from the cold fresh water lens, we turned and swam a bit offshore into the warmth of the salty sea. While not the high drama of old growth coral reefs, and while lacking the sparkle and shimmer of sunshine on scales, just being in the water with our fishy friends and seeing coral growing, rather than dying, buoyed our spirits.

With good snorkeling weather arriving we left Paradise and headed for Viani Bay, a short hop across to the southern shores of Vanua Levu. A sweet, light air sail along Taveuni’s coast turned into a motor as we left the shore breeze and were smack in the lee of the garden island, its high peaks blocking the trades from entering the protected waters inside Rainbow reef and the inner sanctum of Viani Bay. But the motor got us to where the sun shone daily, while clouds dumped their rain on Taveuni and the high peaks of the big island.

Once anchored, Anson and Devon set up the spinnaker pole for a rope swing, and we frolicked in the clear waters around Anthea. With whoops of joy we launched our bodies off Anthea’s toerail and swung out for a plunge. Tens were awarded for legs held above head and hands and for fancy spins and jumps. I set the bar low, with legs dangling and dragging in the water followed by an inglorious flop.

For the next several days we ventured out to the famed Rainbow reef for snorkeling. Apex, a Fijian man who grew up in this bay and worked for one of the resorts, noticed us circling the region in our dinghy; he brought us aboard the resort’s launch and dropped us off in the most healthy patches of coral. Later he directed us towards the famed cabbage patch.

This first day’s snorkel was the most magical – clear water, large schools of fish along the edge of the reef, and stunning coral. Unlike the long, flat reefs of Dreammaker, this reef was comprised of multi-level coral mounds with sand in between. Each mound had its unique architecture comprised of a whimsical blend of plate corals, staghorn antlers, globular mounds, gentle rounded fingers, small red fans, black fans, delicate cabbages, soft purple and red coral blooms, anemones, brain corals, leather corals, and more. Shallow dives revealed fish passages among and between these species. Fish were everywhere, wearing their shimmering scales in rainbow colors, darting, chasing, grazing, cleaning, and some, like the clownfish, staring at us with such seriousness that we felt a kinship grow. Purple and lapis anthias rose above white coral spikes, while turquoise chromis schooled nearby. Parrot fish, groupers and snappers were the bigger fish, with the occasional white tipped reef shark patrolling the waters.

Some areas of the reef were dominated by massive plate corals in pastel green; other regions were comprised of greyish blue mounding coral interspersed with burnt orange, corduroy-textured, brain coral, evoking 1970s décor. Following Apex’s directions, we found the field of old growth green coral, 40 feet below us, growing in spiraling formation reminiscent of cabbages. We had visited this dramatic site last year, and seeing it again, this time with better visibility, was like seeing an old friend.

Apex came to Anthea that afternoon and we made a plan for a return journey to Rainbow reef and then a trip to the White Wall. That famous dive site would be out of reach for all but Anson, but with his freediving skills he hoped to get a peak of the soft white corals covering the plunging reef wall along the straits between Vanua Levu and Taveuni. We invited the Australian couple to join us. While we tried a few new spots on Rainbow Reef, we ultimately re-visited the sites we enjoyed before. They are simply the best.

By the time we made it out to the open waters off the White Wall, the wind had picked up and the current was swift. Andrea, Mark and I jumped off the boat and swam over the top of the reef, hoping to see larger fish and new sights; Devon and Anson plunged in along the famed wall. The experience felt much more like survival snorkeling than pleasure. The top layer of reef was damaged and barely re-growing, so there was little for the three of us to see. The waters felt quite sharky as we hovered over the depths, but not far from the shallow top, waves broke over the exposed reef. The shallows were not our friend. So we simply treaded water while waiting for Anson to have his glimpse. With Devon as safety, Anson dove against current three times. He got the tiniest taste of the beauty, but the current was so strong he was unable to access the meditative space and relaxed muscles essential for long, deep free dives. Exhausted, we all climbed aboard Apex’s skiff and collapsed upon our arrival at Anthea.

P.S. We’re slowly catching up on our blog while enjoying the stunning beauty of Vanua Balavu in the northern Lau group, all thanks to Mark’s amazing success with Mr. Perkins. More stories to follow.

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