By Jim McNish
And then the rain came. Out here you can really feel the power of raw nature and as we sat eating dinner in the thatched dining area. It felt as though a fire hose had been opened full bore and was being trained right on us. The 42 mm of rain in a little over an hour, and the strong winds that came with it, left us aghast. It was the first time I’d felt anything even approaching cold since we had arrived. Half of the team had taken a day trip to Levuka on Ovalau island a short half hour hop away. They said that at one point Jone, the boat captain, had considered turning back as the rain had been so strong it hurt and they could not see more than 10 feet in front of the boat. Levuka, I am told, is nothing to write home about – a one horse town which had at one time been the colonial capital of Fiji but is now little more than a single short row of shops. Jen managed to get a skirt made during their short visit there. Only $5 for the material and $7 dollars for the manufacture and all completed within two hours. The other team members mooched around, used the internet café or sat drinking fruit smoothies as the showers passed by. Because of the rain they had unfortunately been unable to take the hour long climb to the highest point of the island which, we are told, gives remarkable views of Motoriki, Leleuvia and the surrounding islands. Maybe next time.
On the way home they were joined by another pod of spinner dolphins that rode the bow wave for most of the journey. A few of the team slid into the sea, fully clothed, to swim with them, but the animals stayed just out of reach. They returned dripping wet but happy.
That night Craig and I discovered that while we may have the most picturesque home on the island it is also the least water tight (especially as we had left both windows open). The ends of our mattresses were sodden, but being blokes we just flipped them over and slept on them regardless, knowing that the sun would dry them out in quick time the next day.
On Wednesday our work began in earnest. Each of the volunteers was assigned to a team with ‘housekeeping’ responsibilities. Four of us are responsible for cleaning the dive shop every day, four others keep the classroom clean and are required to log data regarding the marine life seen on each dive, while the remainder of the group are in charge of climatology readings – checking the rain gauge and thermometer, estimating cloud cover, wind speed and direction and the state of the water surface four times a day. Each team will rotate weekly so that everybody gets a go at each duty.
Before the excitement of the visit to Bao Island we had begun our fish spotting training via lectures and snorkeling trips onto the reef to see the way each species moves (when we can find them). The format is that one of the marine biologists – usually Tristan or Ruth, as Helen is busy training the Open Water divers – will run through the list of targeted fisheries or invertebrate species that we need to monitor, using a laptop and a projector in the classroom. For each fish species we are shown a photograph – some their own, others from reference works – and run through the distinguishing characteristics such as body shape, markings and the typical environment in which they are found. On our first foray around the island tragedy struck – I had taken my camera out of its underwater housing as it was low tide, but as I pulled it from my pocket to photograph a swimming eel I managed to drop it into a rockpool and killed it. I think I had managed to take four shots with it and it was doubly galling as this was the replacement for the last camera that had been killed in similar watery circumstances. My pleasure at being given a guided tour by someone with such depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject was replaced with annoyance at yet another example of my own unthinking idiocy. I should be used to it by now. Ho hum. Thanks, however, to the generosity of Alison I am using her spare camera so now all I need to do is train the flaming fish to sit still while I take their portraits. So far I’ve taken about fifty shots of the space in the ocean where a fish used to be and maybe three decent ones of slow moving butterfly fish.
We are starting to get into a routine of island life now. Each evening we are briefed on the following day’s activities and divided into relevant groups – either student or qualified divers, or all of us in the classroom studying fish, corals or invertebrates. Lectures take place at different times each day and are interspersed with diving or snorkeling. One person is designated as boat marshal for the day and one as shore marshal, keeping in contact by mobile phone and ensuring the safety of everyone in the water. Divers must assemble at the dive shop half an hour before any scheduled dive, to give us time to kit up, check our tanks, regs and gauges, load up the boat and get under way. We are not quite operating as a well oiled machine yet – someone always forgets something and has to scoot back to their bure for water or sunscreen or a dive knife, so the best we have managed so far is a mere twenty minute delay from the planned departure time. We will get slicker as we get more familiar with everything I am sure.
The diving itself is awesome – and I mean that not in the way our American compatriots describe everything from the blood red sunsets to a cold beer, but in the literal sense of inspiring awe. Table corals six metres in diameter teeming with life, walls and drop offs where turtles and sharks loom out of the blue, parrot fishes and wrasses fighting the unceasing battle for survival while thirty or more species of butterfly fish flitter in and out of the fingers of the fire corals and anemone clown fish give you the skunk eye as you drift by.
Once again I am sitting on my home made armchair writing this on my day off while recovering from a very minor hangover, brought on as a result of last night’s party held to celebrate both the passing of the Open Water dive training by all four candidates and the fact that it was Saturday night. I would go into forensic detail about the whole thing, particularly Scott, the physics student’s, pole dancing, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that. (It fills me with horror every time I think about it). The good times were tempered, however, by the sad news that one of our crew was to leave us the following day due to a family emergency back home. We are all hoping that she will be able to rejoin us before the end of our expedition and since she left this afternoon there is a very subdued atmosphere across the island.
I have just heard the conch shell being blown, which means it is time for lunch. Tune in next time for another exciting episode of Survivor, Fiji…