On returning from Japan we had another day to spend in Hong Kong before the flight to Sydney – used it to go and see the giant Buddha statue on a separate island and made fun of how cumbersome it seemed to travel anywhere else after being in Japan. In Sydney the next day we met up with Teresa (Edel’s sister) who’s joining the trip. Edel had been counting down the days until she would arrive since roughly the 1960′s, and it was great to see another face from home. The one day we had in Sydney we checked the obligatory opera house off the list and went for a walk around the harbour and to the aquarium to see the two dugongs which is the latest addition there.
Next – time for another island paradise breakaway! Arrived in Port Vila on Vanuatu (halfway between Fiji and Australia) and found a backpackers in the outskirts of town. Vanuatu is really nice and friendly – people say hello to you on the street and everywhere is extremely safe – our room didn’t even have a lock etc. The language spoken here is Bislama – a fantastic mix of mostly English vocabulary with an Austronesian grammar, and a very phonetic spelling. A “No-smoking” sign we saw was written as “Yu no makem faea”! This small group of islands is occasionally voted the happiest place to live on the planet actually. And like Fiji it’s a great dive-spot – we signed up for some dives as soon as we could, and were out three of the eight days we spent in Vila before heading on to another island.
It was about 24 degrees in the water – not quite as warm as when we were diving on Andaman last but still pretty nice. While Teresa was working on her open-water certificate me and Edel went out with the boat to the dive sites around the island. One of the nicest sites was called Cathedral – a long canyon which we swam into with the current working against us until it got dark all around, then turning around to let the current carry us out back out while looking into the bright blue opening full of the silhouettes of dozens of unicorn fish. We also did a couple wreck dives – the first one was called Kunanda and it was the first wreck we’ve dove where it was safe to enter parts of the wreck. We could swim through the captains bridge and other areas and look out the windows into all the blue and fish surrounding the wreck. Quite eerie and very atmospheric. To complete the picture there was a real sea-monster of a moray eel slithering around between the hidden areas inside the broken wreck.
Dove the Semle wreck on a different day – the deepest we’ve ever been. The ship had been sunk purposely to create a dive site, but then one of the frequent typhoons had dragged it out deeper in 1987 so it is now really on the limit for recreational diving. The divemaster took us probably a bit deeper than you’re really supposed – we spend one or two minutes at 45-46 meters depth swimming through the open hull of the wreck and felt nitrogen narcosis (Jacques Cousteau’s “rapture of the deep”) for the first time. It makes you feel a bit drunk & happy – Edel looked like she was laughing whenever I looked over at her… Luckily it wears off quickly as you go higher again – at 34 meters we swam in again through the captains bridge to look out through the windows..being careful to not stir up to much stilt to cloud the visibility of the way out. This wreck didn’t have as much coral and sponges growing on it being at this depth, but it was interesting and a bit spooky to be down so far – couldn’t even see the surface when looking up.
Above land activities – one day we went to see a very nice waterfall higher up on Efate island. The colours were oddly bright blue from minerals dissolved in the water, and it was possible to swim in the pools below the waterfall – even swim in behind the fall into a small hidden cave. Also went snorkelling a couple times by the Hideaway and Iririki small resort islands next to Port Vila, and had some fantastic lobster pizza in the harbour. One evening Lorenzo – the charismatic owner of the backpackers where we stayed – took us to a nakamal or kava drinking place. Kava is a mild narcotic that is drunk all over the South Pacific, it’s made from a root and taste incredibly “earthy” or dirt-like. We had tasted a few coconut shells of it on Fiji on the last trip, but the Vanuatu variant is stronger. It makes you feel slightly drunk/stoned, and makes your mouth go numb. The nakamal (the word means “place for peace”) was really nice – perfectly quiet and located right by the water, very dimly lit so you could sit there and look up at the perfect star-filled sky (think I’ve only seen more stars out in the Bolivian desert). Lorenzo was telling us about his adventures, and about how to make a fortune collecting ambergris (something sperm whales puke out which, after floating around for years to degrade further, is used in the most expensive perfumes…) – he showed us lumps of it back at the hostel later!
From Efate we headed for Moso island and the Tranquility dive resort there. Apart from a traditional village on the other corner of the island the dive resort is the only thing there – it felt very nice and undeveloped and the small collection of thatch-roof huts had been built without felling any trees so approaching the island from the water everything looks green and you can’t see the resort until you’re practically there. Peter, a nice Aussie with many stories of weathering cyclones welcomed us off the pier – we would be the only ones staying there at the moment (they mostly bring people on boat-daytrips from Port Vila), but a couple more people arrived some days later. The place sported superb snorkelling right off the beach and I wasted no time getting in the water. While I was out there looking at 10cm colourful fish I missed the big whale though…some of the other people on land saw one – swimming right past the island just about twice as far out as I was! I was completely oblivious.. Snorkelling there was great though, big fields of coral – an anemone full of clown fish just below the surface right on the jetty even. We were out for hours every day and I got in to practising free diving to try to get down to where the buoys were anchored – managed to reach 16-18 meter without fins after a couple days but decided to stop once it started giving me nose-bleeds… My favourite sight when snorkelling is when there is a school of tiny bright-blue fish hiding between the branches of a staghorn coral – they all move in quickly when they get frightened, then slowly move out to fill the water surrounding the coral when they think it’s safe – with all of them moving in perfect synchronisation it’s like a big sphere of fish morphing in size back and forth around the coral. Very trippy…
We spotted some pelagics as well, since the depth drops quickly to 140m just 50m or so out from the beach – schools of strange big fish swimming in circles (or even eight’s!) with their mouth open filtering the water. Didn’t see a single reef-shark though, on either any of our dives or when out snorkelling – neither here or on Andaman.. We saw tons of both white-tip and black-tip on the last trip, in Fiji, Indonesia, Thailand…they’re just gone everywhere now it seems ( – and we saw why in Hong Kong and Macau). We did three more dives on our second day on Moso – one of them had a bit of current and I used up my air very quickly (Edel always uses less than me) but it was an interesting site, with an underwater thermal vent. A big black/white lion fish was hiding in the hotspring when we got there. The last dive was a night dive – we’ve only done two before – like the last ones it was a bit disorienting and me and Edel held hands to keep track of eachother in the dark – we saw a big moray with a nice pattern, beautiful red/white shrimps and a fantastic spotted white and black Cowrie shell. It’s amazing how different the same site can look in the dark, most of the coral fish gone, the parrot fish sleeping in the strange cocoons they build at night, the usual reef-fish all replaced by red squirrel and bigeye fish and many more crustaceans are out.
One of the days we joined the daytrippers on the boat from Port Vila to the other side of the island, then hopped off on a deserted beach to walk back. The beach was really nice and there were some big caves to explore right nearby – by the time we were on our way back it was already getting dark and they had sent out one of the Vanuatuans as search party for us… Went sea kayaking one day as well, and stopped by a different beach to look for shells and compete who could find a piece of broken coral that looks the most like a Chinese pickled chicken foot. In the evenings we (or at least I) usually went on an expedition to look for big coconut crabs. It’s an endangered species that lives here – like a hermit crab but grows to weigh several kilos (at that stage they stop living in a shell for protection). Peter had showed us some juveniles the first day, and there was a really big one living somewhere in a cave up the rocky hill in the forest behind our huts…I’d do a walk after dark each night hoping to hear some rustling in the dry leaves somewhere but I never spotted it. They can drag a full coconut with husks along with them, and then crack it open with their big claw. Other odd animals – a 20cm stick insect fell on top of my head one evening when we were eating..also a juvenile – they can grow to a fore-arm length here apparently!
The dive resort runs a little hawksbill sea-turtle conservatory – raising them from hatchings until they’re about one year old and have a much better chance of survival. Like the other sea turtles the hawksbill is endangered because we like eating their eggs, making combs from their shell and throwing lots of plastic bags into the ocean which they mistake for jellyfish. The dive center had four tagged and ready for release at the moment so we sponsored one together and got to release it on the beach – when we went to the tank to pick one out there was one who seemed particularly eager for freedom, climbing on top of the others and trying to scale the walls so he pretty much picked himself, and was named Saoirse for freedom in Irish. Teresa let it go on the beach, and it first looked puzzled for a second about the size of its new tank…then made a run for it! We saw it come up twice for air before it disappeared out into the turquoise waves.