Sunday, March 8, 2009

#9: Touring the Reefs Around Gau

Post by Jody Renouf and Mark Rosenstein

Our first two dives are both in Nigali Passage, a narrow channel through the fringing reef around the island of Gau, known for strong currents and many large fish. The Nai'a comes here every cruise for the sharks.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

On our first dive there is just a mild current entering the channel. We have to swim the length of it, passing large schools of barracudas and jacks, and several huge groupers, one with several tiny golden trevally leading as pilotfish. A large blue jellyfish drifts alongside. Near the end of the channel we reach the "Bleachers," where we hold onto the rocks and watch the shark action in the fastest moving portion of the channel. We are treated to eight adult grey reef sharks and about 20 juveniles circling, with a couple of white-tips as well. After watching the sharks for awhile we continue up the channel to the "Cabbage Patch" (a large field of Turbinaria) and then pass into the lagoon where the water is warmer and there is little current.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

The second dive is a shark feed. When we drop in there is quite a bit more current than the previous dive. We quickly get into our places on the Bleachers, and Captain Johnathan and Divemaster Richie bring down a "popsicle" of fish heads frozen in a big block of ice. This is tied down in front of us, and the smell quickly brings in many fish: first the red snappers, small wrasses and fusiliers; then the groupers (photo above), and finally the sharks, take an interest.

Photo: Mark Rosenstein

About six adult grey reef sharks (above), all females, circle and occasionally lunge at the food as it thaws. The feeding lasts about 15 minutes, after which we move on through the rest of the channel. On the edge of the lagoon three of us are treated to a quick view of a scalloped hammerhead shark that appears out of the blue, checks us out, and disappears again. Further along the lagoon wall an eagle ray is seen cruising near a 3,000 year-old 30-foot tall head of Porites coral.

Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

While the shark feed (above) is an impressive and exciting display of top-of-the-line predators, we cannot help but note that the numbers of sharks seen on this trip is down significantly from previous years. Even more alarming is the amount of monofilament line we see tangled on the reef; several large hooks and weights are also salvaged, leaving us to wonder who is fishing for what in this relatively remote site.

After lunch we dive Jim's Alley, named for Jim Church who was an underwater photography pioneer. The current is blowing so strongly it's a challenge just to hold onto the reef; not much else is recorded for this dive!

Photo: Mark Rosenstein

Our next dive is at "Anthias Avenue." A similar site, but this time the current is manageable. Here we find several interesting nudibranchs (photo above) and many large starfish. As we work our way up the bommie, true to its name there are huge clouds of purple and orange anthias. A peacock mantis shrimp briefly peeks out of its burrow.

A few people do a night dive in the muck near the island; it's all about sleeping animals, with many individuals of just a few species. Parrotfish are sleeping in their mucous cocoons, with a scattering of odd shrimp and crabs. Other people sit up on the sun--err, moon--deck for an impromptu kava party, or go to bed dreaming of our encounters with elasmobranchs.

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