June 20, 2010
Drop Zone to me means Alex Gray antics, Cheyne Magnussen’s smiling supercharged surf sessions, and endless amounts of waterborne adventure. This time I’ve got a wing-girl in Maria Del Mar, a Puerto Rican reggaeton dancing damsel that’s always up for a good time. The four of us showed up in Fiji, piled our boardbags high on a small rental car and lashed them down with surf leashes since no one thought to bring any board straps. We made a few circles ‘round a roundabout to fully admire a Hindu temple then found our way to a dirt road that led us to Seashell Cove – home base for the first few days of surf and diving adventures.
I’ve heard from too many people that Cloudbreak is one of the best waves in the world. Despite several trips to Fiji I’d never surfed it and was in denial. Yesterday Maria and I sat in a boat over the incredibly clear water fringing Tavarua Island freaking out – dancing, shaking, and yelling – while the rest of the group took their sweet time. Finally, all loaded up, we powered out to the outer reef and scrambled over each other to dive in and paddle out to butter smooth head high peeling blue lefts that barreled over hollow reef. Four hours later, the four of us had had more waves than we ever could have hoped for and I can now agree that Cloudbreak is one of the best waves in the world.
June 21, 2010
The only thing I really want to see underwater is a shark. I like colorful coral, schools of fish, turtles and all that but honestly I’m down there for the sharks. After the incredible shark-swarming dive experiences of Drop Zone Tahiti it’s a little hard to get excited about a couple of three foot white tip reef sharks. Last October I did a trip to Mexico that included swimming with whale sharks in the Bahia De Los Angeles and then one of the peak moments of my life; getting up close and personal with great whites off Guadalupe Island (See video from this trip here). When I was told that we would get a chance to dive with tiger and bull sharks on this trip I got really excited, and then a little disappointed that we’d have to wait until the second half of the trip to do it.
Diving off Seashell Cove with Scuba Bula the last couple of days was fun. We swam through a few underwater arches and explored some reef crevices, but I’ll admit I was a little bored. These dives just seem like warm-ups and time-killers until we get to meet the big toothy critters.
Now cruising aboard the Tui Tai to a dive site called Rainbow Reef that has been dubbed “the soft coral capital of the world”, I’m content. It might have something to do with finally getting a real cup of coffee after days of instant imitations. It’s too windy to surf so we’re preparing for a day of three dives followed by a village visit. All that sounds good but once again it’s hard to take my mind off those sharks we’ll get to meet in a few days.
June 22, 2010
Bede Durbidge is one of my favorite surfers. Good looking, great surfer, super nice guy. So when we were paired up to dive together for his second dive after certification I was excited for both of us. We were supposed to dive the Great White Wall named for its special collection of white soft coral but there was so much to see at the start of the wall that we never made it past the first swim through. Filming the Drop Zone means that while you’re diving you’re working. Sometimes that’s walking back and forth on the beach with your board but yesterday it meant swimming back and forth through a cave that started at 40ft deep and let you out at 60. Each loop for the camera revealed some new detail within the cave culminating in a pantomimed conversation with a cute little yellow fish that was not afraid of us at all. Fiercely dedicated to defending its territory the palm-sized golden yellow little guy even charged at Bede as if it was planning to bite his regulator.
Post-dive we cheered for Cheyne as he was hoisted midway up the mast by the crew. He then carefully scurried out along the slippery metal spreader to jump. The guy is fearless so I knew it was intense when he seemed a little sketched. He had to wait up there for at least ten minutes for the cameramen to get their equipment together, the anticipation building. Cheyne jumped and the spectators went crazy, so Alex got inspired to get up there and jump off too.
PADI superstar and one of my personal role models Kristin Valette pulled out a couple stand-up paddleboards and we took off over the flat water into the sunset. After red wine and lobster by candlelight on the beach, I fell into bed exhausted, gently rocked to sleep by a calmly rolling sea. Good day, good night.
June 22, 2010
I like sea critters, particularly large toothy sea creatures that let you swim with them. Manta Rays don’t have teeth but still easily fall into the large sea creature category. Yesterday afternoon we loaded into boats and set off towards the reef hoping to find a few mantas to swim with. The choppy seas made us less than sure we’d get our chance, but Cheyne, Alex, and Bede back-rolled overboard armed with weight belts, spear guns, and a hunger for sashimi. Maria and I stayed dry with our eyes peeled to the water around us looking for shadows below. Surprisingly, Bede and Alex came up cheering and pointing. “There’s heaps of mantas right here!”
We motored over but by the time Maria and I jumped in with the boys, the mantas were gone. Back in the boat, shivering in the wind under a cloudy sky, I was ready to head back to the Tui Tai for a hot shower. Kristin Valette the optimist suggested one more pass along the reef and just then our dive guide spotted a manta not too far away. I jumped in eagerly with Justin our still photographer and Scott the video guy. Soon a big black shape emerged from the darkness below me and I was surprised by the size of it. I’ve seen a manta before in the Maldives, but this guy was much bigger, easily 6ft wide from wingtip to tip and our guide called it a small one. He was cruising just above the sea floor about 40 feet below me, and after all the kicking to keep up, I was winded. Justin was at my shoulder, camera ready, pointing down and motioning me to dive down alongside but I just nodded and waited. Up ahead the reef grew a little closer to the surface and as the ray swam up over it, I swam down for a quick moment of synchronized swimming. The ray looked over at me for a moment and then swam off. We found it again and I got one more chance, this time lasting a little longer. It was just enough for Justin to snap a few frames of the Manta and I side by side, swimming together. I spread my arms out to the side in my best effort to imitate its graceful wing-flapping swim. Finally I pulled myself back onto the boat incredibly grateful that we’d taken the chance on one more pass. It was definitely worthwhile.
June 23, 2010
I like to get barreled. In fact lately, improving my tube-riding skills has been my main focus in surfing. There’s nothing better than positioning yourself inside of a wave and then coming out unscathed. I don’t even mind crash tubes where you get a short view before the inevitable pounding. But that’s over sand. Pulling into big tubes over shallow sharp reef is an entirely different thing. It’s scary.
I had surfed Frigate’s Pass before and it was thick and sketchy. I was a little nervous about surfing it again, especially since Bede had checked the swell models and said it would be pumping. Motoring out to the break the wind made whitecaps on the surface of the sea and I figured it would be blown out and no good. Once we turned the final corner around one of several small islands, we could see that the wind was actually offshore. The reef was still far off but we could see a succession of waves peel along and spit powerfully, indicating big hollow waves. I was instantly really nervous.
We scrambled over each other to pull out boards, put in fins, and apply sunscreen as the boat rocked in the rolling sea, then hopped from the big boat to a dingy to jet out to the surf. The boys were frothing and screaming but Maria and I were nervous. We took our time getting out there. I was still psyching myself up when Maria spun and went on a mid-size wave. The boys on the inside were hooting and she pulled out with a smile. “It’s not that bad,” I thought to myself. I stroked into the next one and tried to stall for a tube that didn’t materialize then nearly spun out on my bottom turn. I flipped my board over and saw I was riding a twin-fin. Oops! In my haste to get out there I must not have screwed my middle fin in all the way and it had fallen out.
I switched boards and caught another wave that didn’t tube, but helped my confidence a bit. Maria and I nervously paddled around looking for smaller “cute” ones while dodging the gnarly sets that the boys tackled fearlessly. They were laughing and high fiving. It was awesome to watch and I started getting frustrated with myself. I wanted to laugh and high-five after pulling out of a big bomb. “Screw it, I’m going!” A set approached and Alex and Bede each took one, but there was one more coming and only Maria and I still in the lineup.
“You going, Maria?”
“No, you go!”
I turned and started paddling. It was big, but it had a nice tapering shoulder and I was determined. I paddled and paddled and right before I started to think about standing up, there was so much water moving up the face of the wave, the only way to get into it would have been to throw myself over the ledge. I hesitated for an instant, saw Cheyne spinning around on the inside, and pulled back to let him have it. The wave barreled down the reef and he ended up getting pounded. I felt really happy about my decision not to go and then even more timid.
Maria and I were sitting a bit further in from the boys and Scott Smith our water filmer suggested we try to take off on some of the inside ones. Just then we saw a set approaching, one of the biggest of the afternoon. “Shoot!” I started paddling frantically straight towards the horizon while Maria took an angled path more towards the channel. I yelled at her to go straight ahead as we both duck-dove the first wave. The next one was bigger and already starting to break so that it was clear we wouldn’t have time to get under it. I was only about ten feet further out than Maria but that made all the difference. We both bailed our boards and swam for the bottom, but I popped up outside and she got dragged in. There were three more waves behind that one, all breaking a little further out. Each time I dove for the bottom and looked up to see churning whitewater above me. On the second one I felt my leash pop and break. Without my board dragging behind me I was able to dive deeper and get under the wave cleanly. After I’d made it through, I looked back and couldn’t see Maria anywhere. I was shaken up, without my board, and getting pulled up the reef and out to sea by the strong current, but I was ok. The dingy came and picked me up.
On our way to the other side of the reef to look for my board I saw Maria climbing into the other dingy where the photographers were sitting and I was relieved to see that she seemed ok. The boat guy took me inside of the reef and we waited a few minutes for my board to wash in. We spotted it, collected it, and then started heading back to the big boat. On our way I noticed a big brownish white object floating on the inside. It looked like a big tree at first, then the back of a whale. Finally I realized that it was a boat upside down. “That’s weird,” I thought. It turned out our boat had flipped taking out two photographers, two cameras, and poor Maria who had just climbed into it thinking she was safe! See below for a few aftermath moments…
June 24, 2010
Bull sharks are amazing. I’m on my third beer – a new type called Vonu which is much better than the standard Fiji Bitter – and it’s still hard to process the feeling of kneeling on the ocean floor 86ft below the surface while staring down an approaching bull shark. I added quite a few shark varieties to my list the other day which now includes whale, great white, white tip, black tip, grey, lemon, nurse, and bull. We had hoped to also encounter the illusive tiger, but at least I have a reason to return. Even without the tiger shark I was not disappointed.
Bull sharks have that classic shark look. Close your eyes and imagine a fat scary shark and that’s a bull shark. I had several swim right at me, our eyes locked, that came within a couple of feet to my face before turning to make another circle. I wasn’t scared. I did feel a few moments of adrenaline as my body reacted to the sight of a big predator headed straight at me, but it was fleeting. The enjoyment was too great. The only problem was that the dive was too short. Twenty five minutes of bliss then a big Fijian was giving me an aggressive thumbs up sign (probably because I had already ignored the last five “head to the surface” signs he’d given). I just didn’t want to leave.
We had two dives, the second at 60ft. In between dives I told the master that I am obsessed with sharks and had done multiple shark dives. I was hoping it would lead him to pull me closer to the sharks. Once the feeding started I was chosen first to kneel next to the feeder. The sharks made circles, took the tuna head on offer then swam right past me as he chewed and swallowed. It was awesome watching such a powerful creature that is so linked to man-eating and fear swim right past me, peacefully.
The sharks got closest to Cheyne. Either they liked the red hair or they could sense his fear and needed to look him over closer to see why he was afraid. After a few incredibly close passes, much closer than to anyone else, he gave the camera the “I’m over it sign” and cruised back to a safe distance.
I could go on and on about how much fun it was and how much I wish we got another chance. I could have stayed down there with the sharks all day…. but my beer is getting warm.
for more stories and photos from Drop Zone Fiji, check out the Drop Zone Fiji blog!
Special thanks to Air Pacific, Body Glove, PADI, Scuba Bula, Tui Tai, Beqa Resort, Seashell Cove, Tavarua, and the beautiful people, waves, and sea creatures of Fiji!