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Alvah dives among coral cathedrals in the South Pacific.

Alvah diving

My nephew, Stephen, and I prepare to dig deep beneath the waves.Courtesy of Diana Simon

In our first Fijian port of Savu Savu, I asked my friend John Neil off Mahina Tiare where he considered the best cruising grounds in Fiji to be. Without hesitation he said, "Skip the rest. Go directly to Kadavu."

Coming from one who couldn’t count the number of times he has sailed through Fiji that was a strong recommendation. Nevertheless, we did not skip the rest. In fact, we explored every island, atoll and lagoon we could stick our anchor into from the Northeast to Southwest tips of that beautiful Melanesian nation.

However, from our first sighting of Kadavu, I understood exactly what John was talking about. Lying only 40 miles south of the main island of Viti Levu, Kadavu is inexplicably undeveloped. A spine of steep mountains runs down the center of the island, and much of the native jungle remains intact. Because the island has not suffered from the introduction of invasive wildlife species such as the predatory mongoose and mynah bird, the indigenous bird life is rich, boasting species either numerous or rare enough to draw amateur bird watchers and ornithologists alike.

The island hasn't given way to extensive logging or clear cutting for sugar cane fields like its neighbor to the north because it boasts a more profitable crop - yangona, or the kava root that's ground into a muddy liquid and drunk in copious quantities nightly throughout Melanesia. A few inconspicuous eco-tourism lodges quietly add to the economy and encourage the preservation of its natural beauty.

For all the beauty of the island itself, the most spectacular natural feature is the Great Astrolabe Reef which extends 30 kilometers north of the island into the clear waters of the Kadavu Passage. The reefs bends around on itself to form a thumb shaped lagoon in which ten beautiful islands lay. It then runs down to the eastern end of the island and wraps around the length of the southern coast.

While many of the world’s reefs have suffered from massive coral kill offs, the Astrolabe remains a vibrant garden of aquatic diversity. But even a reef as large as the Astrolabe cannot long withstand the pressures of commercial fishing. Modern equipment such as outboard engines, sophisticated fish-finders, and scuba equipment have taken an obvious toll on the populations of fish, shells, bech-de-mer, and many other marine species. To create a safe haven and preserve prime breeding grounds, the French government, still active and influential in the South Pacific, has donated scientists, patrol boats and money to help establish and monitor the Naingoro Pass Marine Reserve on Kadavu’s eastern end.

I am an avid underwater hunter, and because I approach the sport with respect and restraint I am normally unapologetic about spearing a few fish for my dinner. But I do not regret the prohibition of fishing in these reserves. In fact I hope that they may be dramatically expanded to cover more significant and strategic areas of the world’s reefs. A well-policed reserve provides a natural baseline study area for scientists monitoring other reefs worldwide, and this is the critical starting point of all good science.

Through the draw of sustainable tourism reefs provide employment and much needed income to local villages. The awareness that the environment can have more value when preserved in its natural state rather than through an extractive grab of resource ultimately seeps into the consciousness of the people and fosters a gentler treatment of the surrounding sea and land alike.

We arranged to have a dive-master from a local dive resort meet us at an anchorage near the pass. He provided the dive-boat and tanks; we provided the rest of the equipment. Diana came along to snorkel the top of the reef while my nephew, Stephen, and I dug deep beneath the waves. As it was only Stephen’s fifth dive and I was pleased to see how attentive and professional Mica, our dive master, was. He knew the area intimately, explained our dive plan in detail, and then led us underwater into an area he called “The Fish Market.”

Lately I’ve found that I’m wrong so often that I am getting quite good at it. I’ve dived on some of the world’s most famous sites, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the Blue Hole in Belize, the hammerhead breeding grounds of Cocos Island off Costa Rica. These were places of such spectacular beauty that I fear I have become a bit jaded. I just assumed that I would have a pleasant little dive—nothing special mind you—see a few fish and a bit of coral, and at least Stephen would get a little more experience under his weight belt.

That he did, as did I. We both almost swallowed our regulators when moments after we hit the water a trevally the size of a Volkswagen Beatle came barging by. Behind him lay several mutant coral trout showing us the prominent fangs that earned them the Latin name of Leopardis or "leopard of the sea". Two wise hawksbill turtles finned away from us, keeping a weary eye on us over their shoulders. A gang of teenage hoodlum snappers hung out in unison on the corner of a ledge. A giant grouper, dark, slow and scarred with age slunk out of his cave to asses our palatability.

As we swam further into the pass, the soft corals exploded into bizarre combinations of color as if we were in an animated fantasy film. Purple poka dotted Nudibranchs clung to the rocks glowing in electric blues and emerald greens. Christmas tree shaped coral polyps of orange, speckled white, cobalt blue and chocolate brown pulled back into the safety of their coral cones as we passed over enormous formations of coral resembling brains, tree branches, caribou antlers and fine lace. For as plantlike as coral appears it is not a plant at all but a colony of animals cemented together to form an architectural wonder, or as Claire Booth Luce wrote “…coral cathedrals that dwarf in their majesty the grandest edifices of Man.”

To our right, the steep pass wall fell away into the deep dark blue. The menacing shadows of predators passed beneath us light dark storm clouds and lightning. Out here lurk not only the white-tip, black tip, and gray reef sharks, but the true tigers of the sea – galeocerdo cuvier, the tiger shark, reaching up to 25 feet in length.

It’s a humbling yet exhilarating experience to realize that here, down here, we fit into this food chain well below the top. We were immersed in our undersea world in every sense, but our pressure gauges warned us that this fantasy could not last forever. Too far into the red I reluctantly headed for the surface a hundred feet above. Once onboard, Diana, Stephen and I absolutely babbled in delight recounting all that we had seen.

Because I began my cruising career young, I’ve been graced with a long life full of adventure and wonderful experience. In fact I have somehow managed to create such a steady diet of far-flung foreign lands, varied environments, and diverse people that I am now at risk of taking it all somewhat for granted. But occasionally something special occurs that reminds me what a wild and wonderful planet we live on. Naingoro Pass, on the Great Astrolabe Reef, off Kadavu Island, in our world’s largest and arguably loveliest ocean was special, is special. If you ever get the chance to go to travel to Fiji don’t skip the rest of it for it is a lovely nation, but be certain not to miss Kadavu Island and its dazzling denizens of the deep.