My maiden journey on the Uto ni Yalo

Uto Ni Yalo crew members Eliki Biutanaseva and Moala Tokota'a man the uli. Picture: IAN CHUTE

I remember getting an adrenaline rush every time I went to sea as a kid. I think it stems from the excitement of the boat trips to Vanua Levu, made many times over the school and Christmas holidays with nana.

My fascination with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and sailing was at its peak – a contributing factor.

We would pack up and drive off to the wharf to board the ferry.

There would be the instruction to stay together and be careful, which was ignored in favour of my own little pre-adventure before the real ones when we got to the Vaterland – the fishing and beach expeditions.

It’s a simple pleasure and one way to enjoy part of the beauty of Fiji, like a cheap cruise.

After a lapse of sea travel because of my settlement in Suva, for work and education among other things, I was given an opportunity that gave me a taste of that part of my childhood and a bit more.

When the Uto Ni Yalo first began voyaging around the Pacific in 2009, I was so disappointed at my not being born early enough to have been able to get on those voyages.

Many afternoon school periods were spent daydreaming about an adventure. It was a dream that never got realized and just got tucked away with all the other ones I suppose.

So when an email came through recently calling for journos to jump aboard the Uto Ni Yalo and observe the Blue Prosperity Fiji scientific expedition while it was being conducted at dive sites out of Leluvia Island, I heard a little bell ring. I signed up and got on.

Blue Prosperity Fiji is a government led initiative, partnering with the Waitt Institute to implement 30 per cent protection of Fiji’s waters from 0 to 200 nautical miles and support ocean management in marine spatial planning, blue economy, and sustainable fisheries.

The program will last for over five years and is designed in a way to support inclusion, equity, and traditional knowledge to improve long-term economic stability, livelihoods, and ocean ecosystems.

They are basically here to do a stock take of our in-shore fish reserves, recommend policy changes and improvements, and then help implement those policy changes. They are also mapping the seafloor.

To give us a better understanding of the work they were doing, Blue Prosperity Fiji invited the media out to sea to observe the expedition and interview the crew after dives.

No, we did not get to go aboard the expedition vessel, Plan B, which is a superyacht, because of the strict quarantine measures in place so we got the next best thing — an overnight cruise aboard the Uto Ni Yalo!

We embarked upon this adventure from the Grand Pacific Hotel where an air-conditioned coach picked us – and the loads of bags, equipment, and snorkelling gear – to meet the Uto ni Yalo at Bau Landing.

Our departure was on the morning of the second day of the Great Council of Chiefs meeting and the landing was bustling. As food and the lakalaka group from Ono-i-Lau arrived to be taken across to Bau for the festivities that concluded the first reconvening of the council since its abolishment 16 years ago, we boarded the Uto and sailed out to Bau waters.

I was always told that the Bau waters and the general route between Natovi and Nabouwalu were a ship’s graveyard.

I learned first-hand the truth of that teaching, as we threaded our way between the reefs to some semblance of clear water. The Uto Ni Yalo is a piece of history, floating in a modern shell.

It was as we threaded our way through the reefs that the attentiveness of the crew began to show.

While they promote traditional navigation and sailing techniques, the benefit of modern navigational aids are much appreciated in those hairy situations were reefs seem to surround you as much as the water we sailed through.

Once we were past the reefs it was a sheltered sail to Leluvia Island. The Plan B was anchored off the island as the expedition crew were on their dives and predetermined sites.

Over the years the government has conducted similar surveys of inshore fisheries but according to permanent secretary for fisheries and forest, Atelaite Rokosuka, the last of these surveys was conducted about 10 years ago. Fresh data is needed to help the government make informed policy decisions.

Some of the dive sites have been surveyed previously while others are being surveyed for the first time.

After a brief sail around the Plan  B we headed out towards a small island just south east of Leluvia called Honeymoon Island.

The hook was dropped — that is we anchored to all you landlubbers – and a speedboat pulled up alongside with one division of the expedition crew who had just completed a dive.

As they set up for a survey around the island we slipped into our swimmers and jumped in to watch the crew at work.

We got another treat getting to reach the island – and I am proud to say that after many years out of practice and after many cigarettes — I was able to follow the expedition crew around underwater without the help of a scuba tank and make it to the island before anyone else did.

It wasn’t until we sat down with the crew for the customary tanoa on the Uto ni Yalo that the crew told me the island’s real name was Sau Tabu and that it was a chiefly burial ground.

More on that and some more stories from the Uto Ni Yalo next week.

More Stories