Happened upon by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, visited by Captain Cook and explored by William Bligh (of Bounty fame), Fiji's history with the Western world is still relatively brief, although exactly when the local Melanesian population first arrived there is a fact lost in the fog of time. A British colony for a century (the nation's flag still contains a Union Jack), Fiji became independent in 1970.
Among divers, the statement, "I'm going to dive Fiji" is usually answered by those who have been there with, "Which part?" With a total land area slightly less than that of New Jersey, Fiji is one of the larger of the Pacific island nations more than 24 times larger, for instance, than the neighboring kingdom of Tonga and can be thought of as eight separate areas, each with its own personality.
The largest of these is the island of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji and a favorite of those who like their diving land-based. The first taste of Fiji that many divers get, Viti Levu serves up abundant soft corals and gorgonian fans at a huge variety of sites, most clustered around Nanau-i-Ra, to the northeast, and Beqa, to the south.
Not far off the west coast of Viti Levu is the Mamanuca Group, 17 islands and associated islets that include calm waters and peaceful corals inside Fiji's barrier reef. For divers looking for more of a challenge, there are also passages through the reef and into the open ocean. This area is home to Supermarket, world-renowned as Fiji's premier shark dive.
Just a bit farther north is the Yasawa Group, 16 volcanic islands strung like pearls along an oceanic fault line. Unlike most volcanic islands, the Yasawas are blessed with beautiful, isolated sandy beaches, and because they lie in the trade-wind lee of Viti Levu, water here is generally spectacularly clear. A signature dive is The Zoo a deep dive that features giant trevally and huge growths of soft coral.
Moving east from the Yasawa Group brings you to Vanua Levu, the second-largest landmass in Fiji, a rugged, largely wild volcanic island where hikers can get lost for days on end. For divers who like to explore, this is the place to be; many of the reefs here still await their first visit by a bubble-blowing pioneer. Vanua Levu has walls, caves, hard and soft corals, ornamentals and pelagics, easy diving in Savusavu Bay and challenging conditions outside the reef. It's a great destination for groups with wide ranges of interest and ability a bit of Fiji with something for everybody.
Across the Somosomo Strait from Vanua Levu is Taveuni, home to the Great White Wall (Fiji's signature wall dive) and soft-coral sites noted for a very nearly psychedelic array of colors. This is another pioneer-friendly area; old Fiji hands say that better than 90 percent of the water around this island group still awaits its first underwater explorers.
Just south, in the Lomaiviti Group, divers look for some of the most profuse black coral clusters in the Pacific, as well as sharks, turtles, dolphin and the occasional passing whale. Nigali Passage a four-knot drift through a cut in the barrier reef is one of the principal reasons divers come here.
The Lau Group, Fiji's southeastern island group, has enough swaying palms and white-sand beaches to convince you that you've walked into a the musical South Pacific. Huge orange sea fans and mature cabbage coral in visibility-forever waters are the draw here. Your dive companions will include sharks and, on rare occasions, sailfish.
The southernmost Fijian group is Kadavu, home to North Astrolabe Reef, a too-big-to-see-on-one-dive site, whose huge walls and deep ravines mean that it frequently appears on visitors' lists of top 10 sites in the world. The chorus line here includes Maori wrasse, rainbow runners and sushi-on-the-hoof yellowfin tuna; guest stars often include white marlin, mantas, hammerheads and humpbacks.