When you think of visiting Fiji, you probably envision those picturesque bamboo villas elevated on stilts over water. Or reality TV shows where demented singles are locked away in a mansion to fulfill their most lascivious desires. Or a potential location for an opulent season 3 of White Lotus.
You see those advertisements calling you to Fiji saying things like, “Paradise awaits, now running this special for $99 round trip” to lure travelers to come visit. That was the vision I had in my mind when I started tracking this resort-dive destination. Oh, and that someone was SURELY going to try and set up my dive kit for me here…
What I didn’t know was there are 330 islands that make up the nation, with one third being totally un-inhabited. Over 1.3 million square kms of the South Pacific Ocean, Fiji is a vast place with so much to encounter. Across this series of islands are traditions, cultures, dive sites you can only explore if you somehow manage to make your way to one of the most remote parts of the South Pacific.
Back to those ads. They show you a tourist’s paradise—an easy, carefree, relaxed experience. But if you get to the bowels, the depths, the guts of Fiji, there’s a whole other side wanting to come out and crawl all over you. That was the Fiji I was going to see, even though I had no idea of it quite yet.
I made three stops on this expedition: The Lagoon, Rainbow Reef and last but not least, Nadi’s finest hospital bed.
There are three islands that make up the lagoon—Yanuca, Davui and Beqa. 30km of barrier reef protect this lagoon and on the islands are lush jungle as far as the eye can see. I went to meet up with researchers stationed at Pacific Harbor and learn a bit more about what they were studying there: bull sharks. I was going to see the last remaining native Fiji bull sharks left and learn firsthand about this apex predator up close and personal. Literally.
Bull sharks are fast, agile and aggressive. They’ll eat pretty much anything in their way. So, naturally, I sign my life away on a consent form and descend 30m into open waters where bull sharks are being tagged for research. Cool cool cool.
I was meant to remain horizontally still and perch behind submerged rock formations. This would let the sharks pass in front of my face as I witnessed the researchers gather samples. A wave of discomfort swept over me as I was told we should expect up to 40 sharks in the water with us. It became clear to me that this many sharks could mean only one thing: they were going to either chum the water or feed them directly.
The wild is meant to be observed, not to be tampered with. But the issue when conducting research like this is that we need to get just a bit closer than we would otherwise. There are methods and ways to do this effectively without disrupting nature. But the practices here that I was about to experience were different. The sharks KNEW we were coming when they heard the boat’s engine. We descended into the water and there were already tons of them waiting … PATIENTLY.
I can at least say I left the experience with some pretty awesome footage on the GoPro and a newfound ability to stay extremely still. But I also left with some confusion surrounding the ecological ethics here. Should these sharks be fed to maintain the indigenous and dwindling population? Or should nature be left to its own devices to regulate as it does? While the shark’s endangered status is partly due to human activity in the first place, maybe it is our prerogative to clean up the mess we’ve made. However, something about the anticipated feeding time off that boat just felt unnerving to me.
I drove close to three hours from The Lagoon to the nearest airport, hopped on a spotter plane that flew dangerously low for some epic views and made my way to the magical Taveuni island. This island is actually a volcano that is known for its plantlife, which is why it's called “The Garden Island of Fiji.” With 75% of the 20,000 on the island being Fijians, they are working predominantly in either agriculture or tourism.
The women on the island were the best. They told dirty jokes, played pranks on me, and treated me like a sister. They wanted me to come out and party with them every night. I sadly had to decline their invitations, as I was rooted from long dive days. They called me lame, which was fair enough. Turning down a party invitation is always kind of lame … especially when living on a tropical island.
Home to the one-and-only Rainbow Reef, diving is the thing to do around here. For seven days, I embarked on 23 back-to-back, mind-blowing dives in the soft coral capital of the world. From macro scouting, to pilot whale tracking, to walls of white coral running all the way down to 65m, to incredible color variety in the corals, this place is heaven on earth for us divers. The water was flat and flawless, with 30-40m visibility every day. I couldn’t get enough. Even though the diving left a lasting impression, something else did a better job making its mark on me.
I was bitten so many times by mosquitos, that I ended up in a local hospital on yet another near-death bed.
After those seven perfect days out on Rainbow Reef, I started to feel weird during my last dive. Really weird. My local besties told me I looked pale and horrible (thanks friends), and what followed was dizziness, fever and extreme fatigue. With zero WiFi or cell reception on the island, there was no Dr. Google happening here.
I stumbled to my hut and rolled into bed, hoping I could ride it out. After about what seemed like an eternity, my fever was raging, I’m throwing up and yep, I’m gonna say it because it’s an integral part of this story: I shit myself. The first time I can say that’s happened in the whole of my adulthood. A blended laugh/cry session riddled with extreme concern at this point, I realize it’s probably time to go to the hospital. As I practically crawl out of my hut, my local friends support me on my long trek back to Nadi for some hospital time. And they tell me it’s been a full 24 hours since I last left my room.
The flight from Taveuni to Nadi was 1.5 hours. Then, a kind taxi driver took me to the hospital and waited for me to make sure I was ok. Fearing another “accident” might occur in front of other human beings, I’m clenching every part of my body for dear life—shifting from profusely sweating or freezing cold depending on the moment—laugh/crying all the while.
So the prognosis in the end? I was ultimately told that I had come down with a good old fashion case of the Dengue Fever. The proof to them was in the mosquito bites spread all over my legs, which the doc said “happens all the time here.” They also told me the Dengue would run its course in 5-7 days. I never could’ve anticipated that my expedition would end like that. After all the cars, boats, flights, hikes, treks to get around, I thought for sure a transit accident or diving mishap was more likely to knock me out. But no, it’s always the bugs with me! It was the god damned bugs…
So if you don’t mind living fully on “island time" with lengthy and hectic transportation to get from place to place, Fiji is a good stop for your dive bucket list. If you want to see some of the most incredible soft coral in the world, make your way to Tavenui. The Lagoon probably is not for the faint of heart—pending your opinions on shark feeding. But if this story can lend a single piece of advice, make sure you take the time to connect with the locals if you find yourself in Fiji.
Despite my grim encounters along the way, I’ve got to say, my time spent with them was definitely one of the highlights of the entire journey. They will show you uncharted territories, bring you into their inviting culture, and crack a very dirty joke with you. Most importantly though, they might save your life if shit (literally) hits the fan!