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Cheeseburgers in Paradise. The refrain of the song, belted out by Jimmy Buffett, carries beyond us and is lost in the distant expanse of pale blue, flat-calm sea. Bahamians would call it an oily glass calm.
A maddeningly delicious aroma emanates from the grill on the sheltered afterdeck of the most luxurious, diver-friendly, commodious and well-appointed live-aboard dive boat in the world. It is also the newest girl in town;town being the waters of the Fiji Islands. This is the Fiji Aggressor, just three months out of her womb, the Nichols Brothers Shipyard in Washington state. She is 105 feet long and four decks high but draws only four feet, because she is an aluminum-hulled catamaran. She is, in her hull design, a near clone of the Palau Aggressor II, and the newest addition to the far-reaching Aggressor Fleet. She is Fat City afloat.
I came to her from a week of luxurious living and splendid hospitality at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort on Vanua Levu island. The transition was painless. I transferred from a world-class resort to a four star hotel afloat. The Fiji Aggressors eight identical cabins are roomy, light and airy, each with a big above water window, a glass door shower and a head large enough for an hippopotamus. The shower pressure is enough to knock you down and the hot water is instantaneous. These are amenities I wish I had at home.
There is also a hanging closet, seven drawers, two cabinets and enough space under the lower bunk to hide a couple of corpses, all affording more space than Imelda Marcos needed for her shoes. An air-conditioning control with digital calibration allows total
control of temperature and air flow. (I go into some detail about the comfort and space of the ship because I remember well when live-aboard dive boats offered cabins the size of broom closets.) Ill have more about the boat later, right now Ive strayed too far from the cheeseburgers.
We had just returned from a dive site called E-6. It is a large bommie that rises from 3,000 feet to just breaking the surface at extreme low tide. It is in the middle of the Vatu-I-Ra channel between Vanua Levu Island and the main island of Viti Levu to the south. The channel is also called Bligh Water. More than two centuries ago, Captain Bligh, set adrift by the Bounty mutineers, made his way through this passage, fearing to land because the islands were populated by cannibals.
E-6 is one of the most spectacular of the many splendid dive sites that make the itinerary of the Fiji Aggressor. At the top of the coral plateau massive expanses of branching corals (Acropora robusta) provide shelter and safety for thousands of golden Anthias and comical Humbugs. They appear in brilliant spangled clouds over the coral. As if snatched back into the coral by an angry mother, they vanish when the diver approaches and exhales a cacophony of bubbles.
There is a ravine in the bommie called The Cathedral, one of the most enchanted passages I have ever dived. It is entered from the side of the wall 30 feet down. Giant blood-red seafans, eight feet across, flank the sides. Lush soft corals in brilliant shades of red, yellow, blue and white hang from the rim of the passage like adornments for a Babylonian tower. Shafts of sunlight pierce the soft coral branches and dance and flicker upon the bottom.
In the rubble approaching the entrance to The Cathedral are dozens of Poison Bristleworms, a nudibranch with lacy frill, often blue or green and about three to four inches long. A pair of banded antennae proceeds it as it moves through the rubble. It is a macro photographers dream, as are the gobies with their consorts, the Blind Shrimp, who toil ceaselessly to keep the pairs den clear. Dive Cameras
The water is surprisingly chilly (74°F), for this is September, the end of winter in Fiji. I recommend a full 5mm wetsuit with undervest for the winter months. In summer, a 3mm jumpsuit should be fine. On my trip the Fiji Aggressors hottub was hugely popular.
Body heat restored, we replaced our lost calories with cheeseburgers, fries and a green salad in the sun. The chef, Iliesa Finau, directed the cuisine at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. The chow is abundant, varied and excellent. The tradition of restorative and delicious soups on the Aggressor Fleet vessels is well served.
The salon, with comfortable sofas that invite napping, has a wetbar, an entertainment center with a 32 inch TV, a well-stocked library with fish I.D. books, Hollywood movies and CDs for the stereo system that selectively reaches all decks. So, if you want to escape the gravel voice of Louis Armstrong while snoozing in one of the four net hammocks slung in the shade of the upper sundeck, you can do so without enraging the jazz fans on the next deck down.
Theres a soda fountain that dispenses soft drinks and soda water, a wine bilge (thats the boating version of a wine cellar) with a stock of excellent Australian wines and full stock of booze for aging perverts such as me.
The night dives begin at dusk, with just enough light to scope out the terrain before darkness embraces the reef. Thus, dinner is served after the night dives. The timing was applauded by all of us Sybarites aboard. With the days diving ended we could have a cocktail and then complement the fresh fish or roast lamb with a Chardonnay or a Cabernet Sauvignon Chiraz 96. The price is right;all drinks are on the house. However, and in keeping with policy on all live-aboard dive boats, alcoholic beverages are off limits to divers in action during the diving day.
The crew of a live-aboard dive boat can make or break the trip. I have been on boats that left much to be desired but the experience was salvaged by a bright, attentive and thoroughly qualified crew. A Fijian crew is almost predestined to be good. They are born mariners, cheerful, strong, outgoing and highly intelligent. The men are big, their strong faces often punctuated by flashing white smiles. Our divemaster, Fiji Bear, is a great mass of muscle and smiles. He came to the boat with more than 11,000 dives behind him and, putting it modestly, has an intimate knowledge of the reefs. He was my macro eyes and could spot a leaffish where I saw only blank coral.
Captain Troy Parker and his wife, Trinka, are veteran Aggressor managers, having transferred from the Truk Aggressor II. The command of this newest and finest flagship was a major and coveted plum, well earned by these two competent, socially delightful professionals.
Fiji Bear has strong family ties to the village of Motu Riki on the island of Niu Basaga. Only with the permission of the village chief is the Aggressor allowed to launch its divers into the rich marine environment of the nearby lagoon. We dived a coral head there that was festooned with nudibranchs. Being addicted to macro shooting, I am quite mad for nudibranchs. Last night I dreamt of the field day I had on that coral head and woke up sobbing. Dive Cameras
Our arrival off Motu Riki occasioned great and joyous activity ashore. A visit to the village to share a kava ceremony with them is part of the Fiji Aggressor itinerary. For the village, for whom life rolls by on a little changing course, a visit by the boat is an opportunity for a party. There is nothing commercial about it. The pleasure in making new friends is reciprocal; the village is proud of its traditions and the quality of its hospitality.
In the thatch-sided meeting house, sitting on the woven mat in a semi-circle, we faced the village adults with a small gaggle of excited children. In the center was the great, carved kava bowl. The muddy brew is prepared by mixing water with the pulverized roots of the kava plant. Lets pass over a description of the taste and point out how relieved we were to learn the finished brew had not been created by old women chewing the kava and spitting it into the bowl. That was the old, traditional way. These days it is pulverized in a mortar and mixed with water. There is a slight Novocaine effect. No one gets hammered. But, you must down the cup, bottom-up, when it is passed to you and observe a ritual of clapping. During the course of our visit, the cup was frequently passed.
The women performed a dance, pantomiming to a Fijian folk song. Three guitars were led by Fiji Bear, a stick and log providing the beat; the music and laughter filled the house and flowed out over the village. Children crowded by the open doors, hopping with the rhythm and skylarking.
When the women had finished, they advanced upon us men in the audience;not without some alarm on our part;pulled us up into dancing position, circled our waists with strong, brown arms and impelled us into their dance. Fortunately, an Arthur Murray dance course was not required for full command of the step. It was four steps forward, four steps back, over and over again. The village men pulled the women into the terpsichorean melee, conga lines were formed, circle variations coalesced and evaporated. What the dance might have lacked in sophistication, it made up in sheer energy and joy. It was a hoot!
Given the warm appeal of these people, reflected in the crew, and the apex quality of the boat, one has a marriage made in heaven. Fiji and her new lady, the Fiji Aggressor, provide some of the happiest adventures in diving I have encountered.
Not until almost the last day of the weeks tour did I ask Trinka about the cage close to the hottub on the salon deck and learned;to my astonishment;that it was an elevator for handicapped guests. It descended one deck down to the dive deck, which is also the cabin deck. I then realized the seat built into my cabin shower, along with the special railings and wide doors, were all thoughtfully provided for handicapped divers.
But why not? The Fiji Aggressor may well deserve the title of First among her peers.
For more information or reservations, contact the Aggressor Fleet at (800) 348-2628, (504) 385-2628, fax (504) 384-0817. You can send e-mail to divboat@ compuserve.com or visit the Web site at www.aggressor.com. Oh yes, you can also write to P.O. Box 1470, Morgan City, LA 70381-1470.