Madly, truly, deeply

Tom Neal Tacker takes his place in the food chain in an underwater world teeming with life.

Tom Neal Tacker takes his place in the food chain in an underwater world teeming with life.

Seven bull sharks circle overhead, like grey submarines, bulky and watchful. During the pre-dive briefing, I signed a personal liability insurance form. If I do something stupid I will bear the cost.

The dive master warns me not to point at anything while I'm on the bottom at the feeding station. No sense in offering the sharks something else to bite, I assume. So I lie low.

Scuba-diving with large sharks is an exhilarating experience. On previous shark dives in South Africa I was alone in a cage while great whites eyeballed me. Though these were extraordinarily exciting dives, I felt like a sliced lunch at the seal diner, cold and unappetising. In contrast, this warm-water dive in the Beqa Island channel off Viti Levu's Pacific Harbour is a sheer adrenalin rush: no cage, and open water all around. Here, I'm with five other divers, an equal number of guides and countless sharks. Whitetips, blacktips and grey reefs dominate, mingling with tawny nurses, silvertips and sicklefin lemon sharks.

A guide and I feed a frenzy of whitetips and greys from a small bucket of fishy scraps. Only a few metres away, the sharks dart like silver bullets, missing one another by centimetres.

Like a beached walrus, I lumber as I avoid damaging fragile soft coral with a misplaced fin. Accidentally sideswiping the poisonous barbs of the lionfish hiding in my shadow wouldn't be wise, either. Something nips my left wrist; a clown fish the size of my palm is defending its territory. It swims in front of my mask. We have a momentary face-off. Nemo is biting me while I'm surrounded by man-eating bull sharks? The irony is funny but in the deep, no one can hear you laugh.

I turn slightly to check with my guide. He signals – OK? I respond affirmatively. Why wouldn't I be? This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To be this close to a top predator in nature is a wildlife lover's dream – to observe without harm, blending into the background. Healthy seas support large populations of sharks, so I like to see sharks. When they're not around, I worry. Overfishing has drastically reduced shark populations around the world. Their slaughter has been aided by drifting shark nets and hysterical responses to over-hyped shark-attack stories.

In the Beqa Channel, however, sharks appear to thrive. They're in good company. As if on cue, a giant grouper appears like a levitating boulder. Its bulk forces smaller sharks aside as it heads for the bait. A java moray eel pokes its sinuous head out of a hidey-hole, mouth agape, protuberant teeth in full view. A school of giant trevally does a fly-by. We're settled 43 metres deep, holding on to a rock shelf and surrounded by so much life that the ocean seems to pulsate. I don't know where to look.

Our 30 minutes of downtime have flown by faster than the sharks took devouring their lunch.

Now, we must ascend. The eel looks lonely as I check for bull sharks, Nemo and my fellow divers. We have two safety stops to make and my air supply is low. Thankfully, the bull sharks are uninterested and remain at the bottom.

This is the second of two shark dives I take in the Beqa Channel and it's as exciting as the first. The waters between Fiji's big island and this small island to the south have some of the richest pelagic fish viewing in the country, if not the world. No two dives are alike as there is no certainty about which species will appear: hammerhead sharks one day, tiger sharks the next.

My guide says giant groupers are rare, so we are fortunate. Seeing seven bull sharks together is also rare.

Before arriving at Pacific Harbour's sophisticated Pearl resort, I visit Vanua Levu, Fiji's second island, aka the "friendly north". Across Bligh Water at the western end of the Koro Sea, my hour-long flight first covers Viti Levu's mountainous interior. Innumerable atolls and submerged reefs separate the two islands. Away from the tourist centres of the Yasawa and Mamanuca Islands and the purpose-built Denarau Island, a world exists that's very different from the package-holiday sites most visitors to Fiji experience. The small plane descends over Savusavu Bay, crosses a peninsula and the township of Savusavu. A cow grazes on the fringes of the short runway.

Trade winds, undulating palm fronds, scarlet hibiscus and white frangipani – the inspiration for purple prose abounds. The twin-prop taxis to the boxy terminal building, its plain concrete walls mildewed by the constant tropical humidity. A small hand-painted sign states simply, "Savusavu". I am one of two passengers. The two pilots help unload the cargo. I pick up my bag from the tarmac and wave goodbye.

"Bula vinaka!" I'm greeted warmly. One of the managers of Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort collects me outside the terminal. "Bula" is hello and welcome wrapped into one gregarious word. The name Cousteau and scuba are synonymous and this resort is unlike any other in Fiji: remote, private and exclusive. Cousteau obtained the property in mid-1997, upgraded all the facilities and built a waste-water treatment plant, a solar-powered plant and an organic garden. It was an eco-resort before the description became a buzzword. Though he doesn't live here permanently, his guidance is ever present.

Snorkelling equipment, kayaks and canoes are free to use. A full-time marine biologist works here and I'm set to explore the ocean with him. We decide to dive the Golden Nuggets, three bommies about a kilometre offshore, adorned in golden soft coral unlike any I've seen. Blazing colours decorate these outcrops. Unusually, multi-hued tropical fish pale in comparison. For a moment, I wonder idiotically whether I should have worn sunglasses.

Diving with a marine biologist is a privilege. I point at something I don't recognise and he writes its name in English and Latin on a water-resistant sketch pad.

Cousteau runs a tight ship. I know that children are scampering about the resort grounds but I rarely see them. Each child is appointed a minder on arrival and there are separate areas for adults and children, along with 26 guest bures.

After the Golden Nuggets dive I wander along the resort's beach in the late afternoon. Three children with three nannies are sitting under a coconut palm in the sand. I pause to say "bula". The women smile but the kids are preoccupied. "OK," I hear one nanny say, "it's your turn to bury him now."

A dining area is set aside for children, although parents can choose to join them. I settle in the adults-only poolside restaurant for three courses of tasty French-influenced fare. Part of the service here is cocktails brought to one's bure before dinner. I try a mango daiquiri and poached prawns with lemon mayonnaise, which makes me think I might have to feign injury to avoid leaving the next day.

Another treat is a foot-and-leg massage offered to all guests as part of the welcome-to-paradise introduction. My foot massage precedes a full-body massage in an open bure on the sand. I can see and hear the water lapping at the base of the massage table. After some time my grandmotherly masseuse whispers in my ear: "Mr Tom, don't get up. Take all the time you want. A glass of cool spring water is next to your clothes if you are thirsty." I forgot I was naked under the cotton sheet. Actually, I forgot everything and fell asleep.

A unique pearl farm operates down the road from the resort. A pearl farm visit would normally excite me as much as a visit to the dentist but this is different. The J. Hunter Pearl Farm pearls are cultivated, literally, outside the farm office and shop. Savusavu Bay, which means "hot springs", has deep water flushed with nutrients and minerals, which brings out a unique coppery bronze colour in pearls. A single strand sells for thousands of dollars. On calm days, guided snorkelling tours of the pearl oysters hanging on ropes makes an interesting diversion.

Out of the deep and into the foam, I venture on an all-day white-water rafting adventure down the Upper Navua River on Viti Levu: 26 kilometres of rapids, canyons, rainforest and swimming. The landscape I fly over en route to Vanua Levu is verdant and lush. From ground level, it's mostly dense native forest, although plantations of imported mahogany have reduced some areas to monoculture, resulting in loss of biodiversity.

Mahogany timber plantations are wreaking havoc on indigenous vegetation because of the Caribbean import's impact on soil chemistry. The timber is a cash crop and, with no tourist resorts here, local people rely on logging for work.

The trip down the Upper Navua River is a wonder, despite the occasional dousing. The guides are professional jokers as well as expert raft handlers. We're provided with helmets, life-jackets, paddles, lunch and laughs and we glide down a pristine river surrounded by waterfalls and steep volcanic walls. During the cyclone season, the river can rise by as much as 10 metres – another adrenalin junkie's must-do. My river trip is at the tail end of the dry season, when the river is low and slow in places. I'll take my risks with the sharks instead.

Fiji's military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, seized power in a coup in December 2006 and has since deferred elections, sacked judges and deported publishers. I'm greeted enthusiastically by everyone I meet but not all writers experience the same reception. All media outlets are subject to stringent censorship and in April further plans to restrict press freedom were announced. The country's two newspapers now read like simplistic tourism brochures, virtually news-free and positively spun by the government. Some people tell me if they want to gain more than rudimentary knowledge about Fijian politics, they read the New Zealand or Australian press.

Fiji is, nevertheless, a safe country for tourists. About 280,000 visitors from Australia are expected this year, an increase of about 24,000 since 2009. The present government promises a new constitution, though a date has yet to be confirmed for its ratification. Fijians are patient. If there's such a belief as tropical stoicism, Fijians are adept practitioners of its tenets.

FAST FACTS
Getting there Air Pacific has a fare to Nadi for about $710 return including tax from Melbourne (5hr) and about $600 from Sydney (4hr). Jetstar and Virgin Blue also have non-stop flights and competitive fares.
Staying there - The Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort is exquisite. Rates fromabout $F750 ($435) a person a night are all-inclusive. All activities apart from diving are included. See fijiresort.com.
- Inevitably, visitors will spend some time near Nadi International Airport. The Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa on Denarau Island ismy top pick. Rooms from $F290 a night. See sofitelfiji.com.fj.
- The Pearl South Pacific Resort at Pacific Harbour is a boutique hotel and highly recommended. Rooms from $F365 a night. See thepearlsouthpacific.com.
- Shark dives with Beqa Adventure Divers cost from $F165; see fijisharkdive.com. Day trips on the Upper Navua River cost from $220; see riversfiji.com. Both can be arranged via the Pearl South Pacific Resort.
- J. Hunter Pearl Farm visits can be arranged via Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. See pearlsfiji.com.

Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Tourism Fiji.

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