Rainbow Reef, The Corner: A scuba diver and an aggregation of scalefin anthias, chromis and butterflyfish swimming over the colorful soft coral reef
Bula! Fiji is one of only a few dive destinations that I have returned to on multiple occasions. The country’s amazingly colorful coral reefs, abundant fish life and beautiful landscapes, as well as the warmth and caring of the Fijian people keep me coming back. This Pacific island nation officially reopened its borders on December 1st, 2021, and my wife and I were fortunate to visit in early March 2022. On this adventure, we dove the Bligh Waters, Beqa Lagoon, and Rainbow Reef—three of Fiji’s premier dive locales spread across their 300 plus islands.
The fabled Bligh Waters are located off the northern edge of Viti Levu island. Named for Lieutenant William Bligh of the English Royal Navy, who, along with 18 loyal crew, sailed through these seas in 1789 on a 23-foot (7-meter) launch, cast adrift following the infamous mutiny on the Bounty. Volivoli Beach Resort and Ra Divers have been diving the area for many years and took great care of us during our stay.
Golden damselfish swimming among large colonies of dark green black sun corals and colorful sea fans, Mount Mutiny, Bligh Waters
Fiji has been dubbed the “soft coral capital of the world” and many of the iconic dive sites within the Bligh Waters substantiate that moniker. We had the pleasure of diving sites such as Mount Mutiny, Purple Haze, Vatu Express, Maytag, G6, Instant Replay, and one of my personal favorites, Mellow Yellow. As the name implies, golden soft corals blanket its two submerged pinnacles while contrasting red and purple sea fans and green sun coral formations break up the scene, providing shelter for aggregations of vibrant reef fish.
An aggregation of scalefin and bicolor anthias fish above yellow soft corals, gorgonian sea fans and green black sun corals, Mellow Yellow, Bligh Waters
Most of these dive sites lie within the 42-square-mile (110-square-kilometer) Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park, which was established in 2017 as a means of protecting the area’s abundant biodiversity. Visitors are charged a modest FJ$15 (~US$7) annual fee that helps sustain the park’s management. Vatu Island, located at the northern end of the park, supports notable colonies of seabirds as well as nesting hawksbill sea turtles. On a three-tank dive day, divers can wander the sand after lunch surrounded by hundreds of terns, gulls and frigatebirds.
Soft corals sustain themselves on passing food particles in the water column, and when the current is running, they inflate their bodies to maximize surface area and increase their chance of catching a meal. Successfully diving soft coral is all about managing the current. The trick for the dive operator is to find a dive site with enough water movement to open up the corals but not so much energy that divers are whisked away without a chance to appreciate—much less photograph—the scene. It is a delicate balance of timing that requires close attention to the tides, the evaluation of conditions once on-site, and of course years of experience.
A colony of pink soft corals, extending into the blue water, to feed in the current, Garden of Eden, Bligh Waters
During the pandemic, one of the owners, and his now 12-year-old daughter, made over 100 shore dives and discovered a whole new world of muck and critter diving. I made a check-out dive upon arrival and in just 30 minutes, I saw multiple pipefish, shrimp gobies, clownfish in anemones, juvenile filefish, brilliant tube worms, and one very shy yellow seahorse. Fiji will forever be known for its phenomenal coral reefs, but it is always nice to have options, and I think a little critter hunting in the muck is a great way to spend the afternoon and practice your macro photography.
A tomato clownfish hiding in its bubble-tip anemone
Traveling around the eastern half of the island on our way to Pacific Harbor, we bade farewell to the Bligh Waters. Arriving at the islands southern perimeter, known as the Coral Coast, we found our new home situated at the water’s edge, on a private inlet, surrounded by remote tropical jungle. The picturesque, secluded grounds of Waidroka Bay Resort conveyed an immediate sense of peace and tranquility.
The majority of scuba diving on the southern coastline occurs within the confines of Beqa Lagoon, which is protected by a sizable offshore barrier reef. The underwater topography is striking, predominantly comprised of pinnacles, bommies and walls punctuated with hard corals, sea fans, and somewhat less frequently than the Bligh Waters, soft corals. The branching hard corals attract a variety of reef fish, which pulse into the water column in search of food.
A scuba diver swimming beneath an underwater arch covered in soft corals, Golden Arch, Beqa Lagoon
A scuba diver peering through the gap between a pair of large red sea fans, Caesar’s Rock, Beqa Lagoon
On our first dive, we dropped in to explore the Tasu II shipwreck at a site called 7 Sisters. In addition to its seven namesake pinnacles covered in hard corals and sea fans, we found the former 200-ton Taiwanese fishing vessel sitting upright on the sandy bottom, encrusted with marine life. Even larger sea fans awaited us around the pinnacles at a site called 3 Nuns before we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the beautiful, uninhabited Yanuca Island. At our final dive site, appropriately named Golden Arch, we discovered a large swimthrough, capable of enveloping multiple divers, extensively cloaked in yellow soft corals. Several smaller arches in the rocky terrain provided a wider array of gaudy soft corals, along with a myriad of sea rods, sponges and sea fans to round out a great day of diving.
A sicklefin lemon shark, accompanied by juvenile golden trevally and pilotfish, Beqa Lagoon
Another of the main attractions in Pacific Harbor is its world-renowned shark diving, and excitement levels were high as we pushed off from the dock for a two-tank dive. Submerging to 60 feet (18 meters), the group knelt in an arc behind a short rock wall as numerous sharks circled the bait canisters suspended in front of us. Several healthy bull sharks kept our heads on a swivel, while a lemon shark, with juvenile golden trevally escorts, paid particular attention to my strobes as nurse, reef and blacktip sharks stayed close by in hopes of a free meal. Animated voices filled the air back on-board as we replayed our exhilarating encounters, and after a surface interval, we were all psyched to get back in with the sharks for round two. I had hoped one of the semi-resident tiger sharks would make our acquaintance, but alas she did not materialize.
A bull shark swims through an aggregation of pilotfish, snapper and other reef fish, Beqa Lagoon
The coral coast may as well also be known as the adventure coast. We spent a refreshing day inner-tubing the Navua River, and visitors can also partake in river rafting, jet boat safaris, cave tours, waterfall hikes, jet skiing, dune buggy treks, zip-lining, sky diving, cultural tours, wildlife parks, golf outings, paddle boarding, and surfing. Additionally, on the grounds of the resort we had access to a slack line, volleyball, a swimming pool, jungle hikes, kayaks, SUPs, yoga, darts, and a pool table.
After several days of diving along the Coral Coast, we returned to the international airport in Nadi for the short flight up to the island of Taveuni. The 70-minute plane ride on-board a small 19-seat puddle jumper offers incredible aerial views of the Bligh Waters, Rainbow Reef and Vuna Reef. Landing at the northern tip of what is also referred to as the Garden Isle, we hopped in a van for the scenic ride down to Paradise Taveuni Resort at the southern end of the island.
Blue chromis and three-spot dascyllus swimming over hard corals, Paradise Taveuni house reef
The island of Taveuni is separated from the much larger island of Vanua Levu by a narrow body of water called the Somosomo Strait. Beneath the surface exists a compilation of dive sites famous for their multicolored soft corals, collectively known as Rainbow Reef. This includes the acclaimed Great White Wall, which is consistently included on lists of the world’s top 10 favorite dive sites. This towering vertical wall, comprised solely of white soft corals, is only accessible twice a day during slack tide when the current slows just enough to allow divers to drift past while the soft corals are still fully engorged.
Looking up at the large expanse of white soft corals, Great White Wall, Rainbow Reef
The transit from the resort to Rainbow Reef is anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes depending on the destination. The resort’s location also offers divers the unique opportunity to dive Vuna Reef, which is a mere 5 to 10 minutes farther south. Divers have unfettered access to sites such as Fish Factory, Yellow Fin Wall, Pinnacle, Incredible Reef, and Orgasm.
Pulling away from the dock for a two-tank dive on Rainbow Reef, we headed north towards Purple Wall. Nearby to the Great White Wall, this site showcases a robust fusion of hard corals with a variety of purple soft corals across an expansive vertical structure. Gliding past the reef, we marveled at the vast purple canvas as hundreds of cautious anthias came out to say hello. It was a lovely start to the day, though dive number two at a site called The Corner was even more impressive. This spectacular mix of hard and soft corals, in a kaleidoscope of colors, warranted the title of “Rainbow Reef” all on its own, and the fish life on this particular dive was truly remarkable.
A large colony of cabbage coral, Cabbage Patch, Rainbow Reef
If you somehow tire of colorful soft corals, ask about diving Cabbage Patch at the far northern end of Rainbow Reef. This site contains one of the largest colonies of cabbage corals I have ever seen. The house reef at Paradise Taveuni is also spectacular, boasting a resident blue ribbon eel, multiple species of clownfish in anemones, scorpionfish, parrotfish, lizardfish, nudibranchs, giant clams, and countless brightly colored chromis, anthias and fusiliers swimming among the branching corals. At night, an entirely different cast of characters emerges from their daytime hiding spots, making this a great place to grab a flashlight and explore after dark.
Pink anemonefish shelter in a large carpet anemone as scalefin anthias swim overhead, Rainbow’s End, Rainbow Reef
A pair of reef lizardfish, Lone Rock, Rainbow Reef
Underwater Photography Tips for Fiji
The visibility of Fiji’s tropical blue water often exceeds 100 feet (30 meters) during their dry season from April to October. The water temperatures are warmer during the November–March rainy season with the chance for increased particulate matter and lower visibilty.
- Even when blessed with beautiful visibility, strobe positioning is still paramount to help avoid backscatter
- A wide-angle zoom lens, fisheye lens or a wide-angle conversion lens are a must for photographing the stunning reefs and fish life
- Once you find a strong composition, calmly hold position if possible and let the reef fish get comfortable with your presence, so they ultimately swim back out into the blue and fill the negative space
- An underwater model helps add scale and interest to the scene but may require extra patience for the fish to get accustomed to multiple strangers in their space
- Macro photography subjects are available on most dive sites, making a conversion lens advantageous, though the current may not always allow for delicate, up-close work
- I dive with a muck stick, even when shooting wide angle, to help maintain position without touching the reef
A typical aerial view of the stunning Fijian Island chain
Matthew Meier is an award-winning commercial photographer specializing in underwater and nature, as well as architectural and product photography. His images have been published in books, magazines, and ad campaigns as well as displayed in art galleries, museums and private collections. For the past 13 years, Matthew has served as a contributing editor, photographer and travel writer for X-Ray International Dive Magazine. Based in San Diego, he is available for assignment work and his photographs may be purchased as fine art prints and licensed for commercial and editorial usage. www.matthewmeierphoto.com
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