The experience of being the first to dive an untouched, unseen section of the third largest barrier reef in the world located of the coast of the Mali Islands in FIji.
I have always loved being in the water more than any other place in the world. I developed a love for the sea at a young age and have been obsessed with the water and everything in it. I was scuba certified at age 12 and have been diving ever since. I have always dreamed of going to the South Pacific because of the dive sites there. They have some of the most famous reefs in the world that are said to be teeming with exotic fish and corals. In the time leading up to the trip I did research on the different species of fish, corals, and live rock that live in the waters of Fiji. I am fascinated by marine life so doing this type of research is something I thoroughly enjoy and every minute I spent doing it the more excited I became to experience it for myself.
After around two weeks of living on Vorovoro we were given the option to go on a two tank dive out on the reef. I was so excited because after snorkeling around the island I had been getting a little discouraged due to the amount of coral breakage, bleaching, and various other boat related damages done to the reef. I had done research on this reef so I already knew that it was the third largest barrier reef in the world, however, I did not know that it was 99.9% unexplored. I assumed because of its status as a protected area that most of it had been explored I had no idea that the area that we would be diving had potentially never been seen before. I have been on over 50 dives but most have been with a large group in a very touristy setting. So the thought of being one of 3 people to ever see this dive site immediately thrilled me. I always hate seeing the mark of humans of reefs. Signs pointing out where a turtle might be or dive instructors chumming up waters to draw sharks in extremely irritates me. Manipulating the experience so that tourists go home and rave about having seen a shark or a turtle is not what diving should be about. Don’t get me wrong I love sharks and turtles as much as the next person but its more enjoyable to see them in their natural habitat going about their business, not being lured in by dive masters trying to feign a natural encounter.
The boat ride out to the reef was crazy. There were large waves breaking over the top of the reef and we seemed to be in the middle of the ocean. We could see Vorovoro and the other islands in the background but if something were to happen we were far enough away from everything to make me a bit nervous. We assembled our gear and got ready to hop in. The second I put my head under I was blown away. This reef was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. Their were soft coral structures that were absolutely massive with no signs of bleaching or other coral diseases like I spotted in the coral around the island. The reef seemed basically untouched. As we descended deeper along the wall of the reef we continued to see incredible corals and live rock. We saw many small fish and a few large ones but not as many as I would expect to see on a reef that was thriving as much as this one.
There was a large anemone with a bonded pair of tomato clownfish which are my absolute favorite species of fish so I was very excited. We moved along the wall some more and were greeted by two turtles. Turtle sightings are a good indicator of a healthy reef. Another indicator of a healthy reef is sharks. We stopped to take a photo in front of this giant wall of bright yellow branching coral. As we turned around we saw six white tip reef sharks. I have seen sharks on dives before and am not usually fazed by them so I was fine. It wasn't until six more sharks showed up that I started to get a bit nervous. These new sharks were grey reef sharks which tend to be larger than the white tips and a little more aggressive.
Reef sharks tend to mind their own business and are not known for being aggressive, but still being one of three divers with twelve sharks basically surrounding you makes it hard to remain completely unfazed. We descended to the sea floor and got behind some rocks and observed the sharks doing their thing. I realized then that I had not washed my swim shirt after helping to gut fish, so I was surround but twelve sharks with a swim shirt covered in dried fish blood and guts. Now I was nervous. A large grey reef shark started swimming right towards me and I’d be lying if I said I wasn't scared out of my mind. The big guy darted away after getting, in my opinion, a little too close for comfort.
That dive site was named “Tigers Cove” as a tribute to our school Auburn University. The fact that I am one of very few people to have ever seen that site is very special. I love the sea and I love Fiji, and these reefs are so unique and spectacular I’m sure there are many people who would love this experience. Part of me wants the world to fall in love the same way I did, but another part is thrilled at the thought of keeping this island and this reef an untouched, beautiful secret.
For more information about the Fiji/New Zealand Study Abroad program, come by the Office of Global Education located in Spidle Hall room 232, or e-mail Kate Thornton.