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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fiji; Heading South in the Yasawas (7/2-7/5/09)

Leaving Blue Lagoon and still buddy-boating with The Dorothy Marie, we returned to Somo somo to meet up with Baraka.  They were heading north and we were heading south.  It had been weeks since we'd seen them so we arranged a rendezvous. We arrived to find Tom and Dawn from Warm Rain alone in the anchorage.  After we got settled Baraka soon arrived and we all got together for sundowners on Warm Rain. We four American boats had the anchorage to ourselves. The waters in that bay had calmed considerably since our last visit, and the skies had cleared so we made plans to hike over to the other side of the island and snorkel the wreck.  The next morning after a leisurely breakfast we all dinghyed to shore.  Armed with snorkel gear, appropriate clothing, plenty of bug spray and gifts for the family who lived there we set off for the trek across to the other side of the island.  We arrived to find an elderly gentleman and his daughter-in-law on an absolutely beautiful homestead.  There were two or three well-kept buildings on lovingly cared for grounds.  They welcomed us and chatted with us for a while.  We all presented them with goodies; tea bags, sweets, toys for the grandchildren and so on.  The man pointed out an orange buoy about 150 yards off the shore (it was a shallow bay), telling us that it marked the area of the wreck.  All we knew of the wreck was that it was a WWII Spitfire fighter plane that had gone down and at low tide could be found in about 15 feet of water.  We excitedly disrobed and donned snorkel gear and set off for the orange buoy.  We found the buoy and swam in grids for quite a while before someone shouted, "Over here!"  Over there was a part of the propeller sticking straight up out of the bottom sand and a piece of the small "wing" at the tail of the plane.  We were still excited but a little disappointed that there wasn't more.  Eagerly we continued to swim a grid pattern but with no more success.  Finally getting chilled and a bit weary we started back toward the shore.  When Frank and I were in the shallows and began to walk, Sally suddenly began shouting for us to come back.  She had found the fuselage!  Thanks to Sally, herself having given up the hunt chasing down a cuttlefish with her camera, she accidentally swam over the actual plane.  It was not as close to the orange buoy as we'd thought yet we didn't care; we had found the plane!  Time and the saltwater had done a fine job of eating away at much of the metal, but what was left after 66 years in these warm shallow waters was impressive enough to us.  After the boys all took turns diving down and pretending to sit in the plane and fly it, Jan calmly pointed out to us that a (venomous) lionfish was hanging out down there camouflaged beneath the frame just where the boys had been squatting!  We all gathered round for a look and sure enough – there he was as beautiful and graceful as ever feeding away on something in the wreckage.  We were lucky.


After our swim we returned to the family's home and visited a bit more, finding out that the plane had NOT gone down under the exciting conditions we had imagined.  Turns out that the US armed forces that were stationed here in 1943 were not actively fighting.  Being a little bored some of the pilots, during practice maneuvers, started horsing around flying low to the beach and this guy had a collision with a coconut tree!  Messed him up pretty good though from the looks of the scattered wreckage.  The living members of the Pilot's family have returned a few times for a visit over the years.

The morning of July 4th, we awoke, played some "God Bless America" music, blasting it out to the anchorage on our PA system, bid farewell to our friends on Baraka and Warm Rain, weighed anchor and followed TDM south to Nanuya Balavu, anchoring at Drawaqua just across from the Manta Ray (backpacker's) Resort.  This time the winds and swells were in our favor and hardly noticeable.  We jumped into the dinghies to do a little exploring.  Not knowing exactly where to go we approached a nearby resort to find out where to scout the famed manta rays.  A man came out to the waters edge to greet us.  We asked him if this was a private beach.  He indicated that it was indeed used exclusively for the Captain Cook Cruise boats and very kindly informed us that we were too early for the Rays.  He said to return at high tide, around 4 PM, which is when the manta rays come to feed in the Pass.  With time to kill we took off for Manta Ray Resort where we were warmly welcomed.  We got some cold drinks at the beach bar and walked around, made dinner reservations and then went back to the boats for some snorkeling.  At 4 PM we took off for the pass to see the rays.


When we arrived in the pass there were several boatloads of resort guests already out there with local Fijians spotting for them.  It was like a zoo.  We felt sick for these poor rays, but of course it didn't take us long to get caught up in the frenzy ourselves.  We had a small worry, and that was what to do with our dinghies.  There was a very strong current in the pass, which we estimated to be 4-5 knots.  It was too deep to anchor there, so Frank opted to tether the dinghy to him while he swam around.  Glen elected to do the same with theirs.  Sally and I both went over the side and took off at a brisk swim to the area indicated by the spotters.  She and I were a good bit away from the others and as I was swimming along suddenly a large manta ray appeared just below me.  I nearly hyperventilated with excitement.  I raised my head up and shouted to Sally, "Over here!" pointing down underneath me, while scrambling with my camera to get a picture.  Naturally, Sally and about 50 other swimmers came at me with fins slapping and arms flailing about.  I could have kicked myself for being so blatant.  But then again these other people were paying to see the rays so why not share my good fortune in finding them?   For a good while Sally and I swam around with 3 large rays.  At some point I realized Frank was not coming around and noticed that he was still about 150 yards away, I gave up my ray-watching and swam over to him.  Poor guy!  The current was so strong and our dinghy is so large and heavy that he just couldn't stay up with the rest of us.  So I traded places with him and just got into the dinghy and dropped him off up-stream.  On the way we rescued a young French man who had been left behind by the resort boats – kind of reminiscent of the Australian dive boats leaving that couple behind on the Great Barrier Reef!  After I dropped Frank off I noticed Sally seemed to be in distress.  She had gotten separated from Glen and her own dinghy and was also caught in the strong current.  I got her into our boat and took her over to Glen and her own dinghy.  After a while we were pretty wiped out from the adrenaline and the exertion, so Frank and I called it quits and headed back to Destiny to get cleaned up for dinner.  We "debriefed" on the way back.  What a thrill it had been to swim with these incredibly stealth creatures.  It was no less exciting than our swim with the humpback whales last year in Tonga.  And amid all the kicking and thrashing of the swimmers the rays seemed completely indifferent to our presence.  They were feeding, gliding through the water with hardly an effort, just looking so majestic.  I wish I'd been able to capture video footage of them, but did manage a few still shots.  We were told later that the rays are not spotted every day and that they only appear during one particular time of year.  Boy did we get lucky!

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