Scuba diving has to be one of the greatest adventures of all. There’s nothing like donning a bunch of clunky equipment that allows you to do something you really aren’t supposed to be able to do: breathe underwater. Once you’re down there, you float along weightlessly, utterly immersed in another world.
When you’re diving a coral reef, you’re witness to an absolutely bewildering array of life. It’s one of the most gratifying ways to watch wildlife. You can literally just hang in one spot and observe the world of wonder around you.
I’ve traveled the world over seeking cool places to dive, and Fiji is near the top of the list. This Pacific paradise is an archipelago of more than 300 islands that are surrounded by vibrant coral reefs.
On one particular trip, I had the pleasure of exploring the waters of Namena Marine Reserve, 70 square miles of once-overfished reef that’s now a Marine Protected Area. Fishing is no longer allowed, and you have to get a permit to dive there. Permit fees help cover the cost of enforcement, and a portion pays for village children go to school. Nice combination.
The dive operator touted it as the must-see dive site, so, of course, we had to go. It’s typically about 20 minutes by boat from where we were staying. But this week, a nasty wind kicked up, creating serious surface chop that made it a slow, pounding journey that took more than an hour. The hard-boiled egg I choked down before we left was hardly enough to settle my stomach during the bucking ride. Bleary-eyed and nauseous, I wondered more than once whether it would be worth the trip. But really, I had nothing to fear. As with many adventures, the more harrowing the journey, the bigger the payoff.
We finally arrived at our dive site. It was a sketchy entry because the boat was lurching back and forth, and the current was so swift that we had to jump in the water and go down immediately to avoid getting swept away. No time to fuss on the surface.
Descending 90 feet, we found ourselves on a ledge atop a massive coral wall that plunged hundreds of feet. The site is named “Grand Central Station” because of all of the fish that gather here to feed. There were masses of them—damselfish, parrotfish, bigeye jacks, grouper, surgeon fish—you name it. And because this wall is close to the ocean deep, it attracts all manner of big guys, like tuna, barracuda, and lots of sharks that flock to this all-you-can-eat buffet.
Now I’ve seen a lot of sharks in my time, and they don’t really bother me. For the most part, they do their own thing. But not this day. For some reason, we found ourselves in the midst of six or seven of them, all circling around, looking agitated. They darted this way and that, looking like they were getting into a feeding frenzy. Unbeknownst to me, this was because my dive guide was squeezing a water bottle—and its sound was mimicking an injured fish. So these sharks were on the prowl for a meal. Yikes! It was a bit unnerving, to say the least.
So I did what any sane person would do: I ignored the sharks and checked out everything else. The wall was covered in a dizzying array of coral. Thousands of fish swarmed, like pulsing clouds awash in a rainbow of color. It was mesmerizing. Something that always amazes me when diving in Fiji is the huge size of the schools of fish.
In this case, there were so many darn fish because there’s no fishing. This is a great example of an area that has been able to rebound with careful management. As a result, the bounty of fish spills over into other areas where fishing is allowed, creating more abundance and allowing the ocean culture—and the human culture that depends on it—to thrive.
Fortunately, countries all over the world are learning that there are many ways to extract value from natural resources without depleting them. Wildlife watching is one example. In the United States, 23 million people went wildlife watching in 2011, buying equipment and spending money in local communities along the way. We’re lucky to have an amazing national recreation infrastructure where opportunities for this abound. But just like Namena Reef in Fiji, our natural resources require proper funding and management.
Outdoor Industry Association is committed to helping protect our natural resources so all Americans have amazing places to get outside and play. We work with our nation’s leaders in Washington, D.C., to promote policies that support our public lands. Right now, we’re making a case to secure funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was established to create and maintain a nationwide legacy of high quality recreation areas and facilities. This is just one example of how the outdoor industry puts its money where its mouth is, advocating for the lands and waters that are critical to the well-being of our customers and the health of our industry.
So get out there. Enjoy our public lands. And support the policy makers—on both sides of the aisle—that recognize the importance of protecting our nation’s natural resources. It’s good for healthy ecosystems, wildlife, and all of the Americans who thrive on being outdoors.
Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.