What a dive

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

O to­wards the light,” a voice says. Sup­press­ing my fear, I float through the dark­ness in the di­rec­tion of a bright white patch in the dis­tance. Soon I’m at the source, paus­ing, wait­ing to see what hap­pens next. The light was re­cently in­stalled at the end of the jetty at Jean-Michel Cousteau Re­sort in Fiji, in a bid to at­tract plank­ton as an added bonus for guests on a night snorkelling sa­fari with the re­sort’s marine bi­ol­o­gist Johnny Singh.

It is my first time snorkelling at night, and a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence than in the day­time. In the evening, cer­tain types of coral come out to feed; we see a par­rot­fish sleep­ing un­der a rock af­ter se­cret­ing a mu­cus cocoon around it­self for pro­tec­tion against par­a­sites. Singh points out a rare brown starfish, a li­on­fish and a sea snake, which we are en­cour­aged to touch. Along the way he asks us to turn off our torches and wave our arms in the wa­ter. It’s nearly a full moon, so he’s un­sure if it will work, but sure enough I soon see green sparks of plank­ton fly­ing from my fin­ger­tips. I feel a bit like a su­per­hero.

In the dis­tance, the lights of the re­sort are twin­kling on the hori­zon. All too soon we re­turn, shiv­er­ing, to our bures for a quick warm shower be­fore din­ner un­der the stars.

On other snorkelling ex­pe­di­tions, Singh writes the names of the fish we see on a wa­ter­proof board un­der­wa­ter. Dur­ing a reef walk on a nearby pri­vate is­land at low tide, he points out blue sea stars, crabs, sea cu­cum­bers, urchins and tiny wrasse fish in small pools in the rock, stop­ping to show us a retic­u­lated mo­ray eel pok­ing its face out of cave, eye­ing us war­ily. “He can’t elicit a fa­tal bite – his mouth is too small,” Singh says re­as­sur­ingly. “Ooh, look at that,” he cries mo­ments later. “There’s a very spe­cial al­gae right here. It’s the only al­gae that fos­silises when it dies.” Singh’s pas­sion is in­fec­tious, and I feel a child­like sense of dis­cov­ery.

The op­por­tu­nity to take part in marine ac­tiv­i­ties with Singh is one of the key draw­cards of the re­sort. Pre­vi­ously a dive re­sort, it was a favoured des­ti­na­tion for French ex­plorer and film pro­ducer Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of ocean ex­plorer Jac­ques Cousteau. He con­vinced Cal­i­for­nian in­vestor Mike Freed, who also had a luxury eco prop­erty in Big Sur, to take it over in 1995. The prop­erty was named Cousteau Re­sort, but was re­named af­ter a legal dis­pute. While it is now owned by Canyon Re­sorts, Cousteau re­mains a part­ner in the re­sort’s dive shop and comes to stay a cou­ple of times a year, cel­e­brat­ing his 75th birth­day there last year.

The re­sort is near Savusavu on Fiji’s sec­ond-largest is­land of Vanua Levu. The 24 bures are made from nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, with thatched roofs and tim­ber lou­vre walls. The only room with air­con­di­tion­ing is the luxury villa, which also has its own pool, day bed and out­door shower. Dot­ted with frangipanis and palm trees, the 6ha re­sort is de­signed like a tra­di­tional Fi­jian vil­lage. In a typ­i­cal vil­lage, the chief’s bure would have the high­est roof. At the re­sort, the bar and dining area – the hub of the re­sort – has an 18m tall tem­ple roof. An or­ganic gar­den sup­plies about a third of the veg­eta­bles and herbs served in the re­sort’s restau­rant. Trop­i­cal fruit trees in­clud­ing guava, mango, co­conut, pa­paya, av­o­cado and pineap­ple grow on the grounds, at­tract­ing birds such as red­col­lared lori­keets and blue king­fish­ers. Waste wa­ter is re­cy­cled and used on the gar­dens. Bot­tled wa­ter is used by guests but the emp­ties are shipped to Suva.

Most of the em­ploy­ees live in a nearby vil­lage, which guests can visit dur­ing their stay. One staff mem­ber, Pete Yaya, was in­stru­men­tal in es­tab­lish­ing a marine re­serve in front of the re­sort. Be­fore this, the lo­cals used to fish with ex­plo­sives but they were con­vinced to re­strict fish­ing to par­tic­u­lar ar­eas for the good of the marine life and

An­gela Sau­rine waits un­til af­ter dark to slip out of her is­land eco-re­sort and into the ocean.

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