High expectations can be dangerous. I learned this the hard way after planning a trip specifically to dive with whale sharks, a creature that’s evaded the peripheral of my mask for years. On my latest attempt, I ascended with nothing notable to jot in my logbook. Meanwhile, a Discover scuba diver on the same boat tilted his head and asked his guide, “So, what was that huge spotted fish?”
In Fiji, the waters around the remote Lau islands hold a mystical reputation. Legend has it the water in Lau is clearer, the sea life is more abundant, and the reefs pop with brighter colors than the rest of Fiji—and the rest of Fiji is already top tier. I heard all the stories in the three years I’d lived and dived throughout the country, but yet to make it there.
As one of the least populated island chains in Fiji, the only way to truly experience Lau is by boat. Unless you own a yacht or can charter one, the best way to reach Lau is onboard MV Reef Endeavour, a small cruise ship that hosts up to 130 passengers on its biannual journey.
When the opportunity arose for my friend Clare and I to sail onboard, I abandoned all of my obligations. We packed our masks, snorkels, fins and bathing suits, crossing our fingers that Lau would live up to a fraction of its reputation.
The ship took us from Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, to Qilaqila overnight. On our first morning aboard, tens of limestone islands with tufts of hardy bushes emerged from swirls of cobalt and teal. We grabbed our fins and set of fins and launched our adventure—snorkeling through jagged karst limestone caves with clusters of bright soft and hard corals beneath us. Above, we heard bats click overhead, rustling in their daytime slumber, while the parrotfish, wrasses, and fusiliers darted below in between coral crag entrances of the reef like colorful welcome committees. An orangutan crab revealed its orange fuzzy limbs from the comforts of a bubble coral bed.
The next morning, upon seeing Fulaga for the first time, Lau suddenly exceeded our expectations: Wisps of white sand beaches connected limestone islets eroded at the base resembled floral bouquets. The water was clear, and stunningly turquoise. Clare and I clamored into kayaks and explored the region with paddles in hand, already wondering aloud how we could come back again with more friends. When we dived around Fulaga’s outer reef, I swam over giant clams with shells that spanned over a foot in diameter. Feather stars plopped like pom poms onto plate corals, their arms ebbing and flowing with mild surge. A spotted eagle ray hovered along the reef, gliding past branching corals, soft corals, and a mix of surgeonfish, damselfish, angelfish and fusiliers. Once it caught sight of us, it veered into the blue.
Onboard the ship, some passengers lounged on the sun deck with a drink in hand while others blew bubbles in the ship’s pool during their PADI Open Water course. The atmosphere took on a choose-your-own-adventure feel, with glass bottom boat tours, snorkel excursions, scuba dives, hikes and village visits on offer.
On Vuaqava, our third island, Clare and I scanned the treetops for coconut crabs on a guided hike along the island’s saltwater lake before diving through incredible reef canyons. On the reefs of Kabara, the seascape changed from deep reef valleys to swaths of white sand marked by lonely coral bommies. Shy garden eels peeked out of the safety of their sea floor while a white tip reef shark cruised from bommie to bommie in search of a snack. Juvenile anemonefish eyed us wearily from the safety of their tentacled home. Parrotfish, damselfish, and wrasses all called the region home, as did an elusive sea turtle who disappeared as soon as we caught sight of it.
Towards the end of our trip, our cabin hosted a steady rotation of drying wetsuits, bathing suits, and sarongs. We settled into a routine of going for breakfast, scuba diving or snorkeling, venturing out on an island adventure, and returning to the ship for ocean adventure number two.
Off the horseshoe shaped island of Totoya, the reef had a groovy 1970s feel—anemones carpeted pockets in the reef like a shag rug, Christmas tree worms stood in for lava lamps, and reef sharks were the resident rock stars. Rays of sunshine on the reef formed a tie dye pattern. By now, Clare and I had figured out that swimming at the back of the group ensured we were always the last passengers to be picked up by the boat, maximizing our time in the water.
On our final day, we left the Lau region and stopped at Kadavu for a village visit that included plenty of singing and dancing. My music-induced trance broke once a coconut shell of muddy liquid known, or kava, touched my lips. Clare stood up and joined in with the performers, opting out of our trip’s final scuba dive in favor of partying with the village.
Fulaga, Vuaquva, Kabara and Totoya only recieve visits when the Reef Endeavour or private yachts visit — one of the highlights about going on a dive trip to a destination that sees tourists sparingly is that each island experience is genuine. The singing, the dancing, the hospitality, and the kava (a relaxing beverage made from ground pepper root), all offer a glimpse into Fijian culture. Reef Endeavour staff spent years liaising with each village listed on the itinerary, striking the balance of entertainment and authenticity.
While Fiji has rightfully earned its reputation for being the ‘Soft Coral Capital of the World,’ it’s easy to see why Lau in particular has become fodder for underwater legends. By nature of Lau’s remoteness, nearly all reefs in the region have little impact from scuba divers. And while yes, the reefs in Lau are as spectacular as many say they are, the real pull of Lau is how the islands themselves absorb you. There are few other places in the world where you can arrive by ship, dive at thriving reefs, hike along deserted trails, and interact with locals in the same way you can in Lau. High expectations are no danger here.
Need to Know
Captain Cook Cruises offers their 7- and 11-night Lau Discovery Cruise onboard MV Reef Endeavour four times year (COVID travel restrictions permitting). All meals, island tours, guided snorkel trips, marine biologist talks and use of snorkel gear are included in the price of each trip. Fun dives and scuba diving courses are available for extra cost. Dive training takes place with friendly instructors at the onboard PADI Dive Center, Viti Water Sports, at the onboard pool.
Reef Endeavour departs from Denarau Marina, Fiji, a 20-minute drive from Nadi International Airport.
Diving and snorkeling equipment is available onboard Reef Endeavour. Gear in your size, however, is not guaranteed, so pack your own, if possible, to maximize your comfort. A 3mm or 5mm wetsuit is recommended.
Water temperature hovers between the low 70s to the mid-80s, with thermoclines making it balmy on deeper dives. Visibility ranges from 10 to 50 or more feet, depending on local weather. For the most part, Reef Endeavour offers dives at beginner-friendly dive sites with little to no current, though special drift dives and deep dives can be coordinated upon request.