Exploring the shallows of Savusavu: THE WEIRD & WONDERFUL
Many visitors already know of Fiji’s status as the ‘soft coral capital of the world’ thanks to myriad of beautiful soft corals found on our pristine coral reefs. Savusavu, on Vanua Levu, provides some of the greatest accessibility to this underwater world in the whole of Fiji, whether by snorkeling or SCUBA diving.
As expected with such a healthy marine ecosystem, visitors can see schools of vibrant reef fish of almost every color imaginable, along with charismatic creatures such as sharks, turtles, and rays. What may come as more of a surprise to many, however, is the sheer variety of exotic and unusual animals that can be found in the reefs around Savusavu. Species so weird and wonderful that discerning visitors are attracted from around the world to catch a glimpse or to try to capture that once-in-a-lifetime photograph.
Demonstrating that many of the highlights of the underwater world around Savusavu can be accessed by the majority of visitors, all of the photos in this article have been taken in water shallower than 10m (30ft) with many taken whist snorkeling. Being close to the surface means more light is available to emphasize the vivid colors, and many of the most interesting subjects are actually found in shallow water anyway. Best of all, this environment and its inhabitants can be seen without investing in thousands of dollars worth of equipment and training.
Being comfortable in the water, having patience, and trying to be as unintrusive as possible will enhance your own experience, provide more rewarding interactions, and greater opportunity for high quality photos. Most importantly, we minimize contact with the reef and avoid touching any marine organism, as many are sensitive to contact and prone to diseases and damage. Many of these creatures make great subjects for underwater photographers as they are generally less mobile than reef fish or sharks, and will often stay motionless unless they are unduly disturbed.
The other-worldly inhabitants of coral reefs in the South Pacific
Amongst the most fascinating and unusual of all marine creatures are mantis shrimp, a type of marine crustacean. The eyes of mantis shrimp are mounted on mobile stalks and can move independently of each other. They are thought to have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom and the most complex visual system ever discovered (having between 12 and 16 types of photoreceptor cells compared to the three types possessed by humans), with some species being able to tune the sensitivity of their colour vision to their environment. Mantis shrimp also possess one of the fastest strikes in the animal kingdom, at speeds of 83kph (51mph), with either rapidly unfolding 'clubs' or 'spears' that can inflict serious damage on victims significantly greater than their own size.
Frogfish and scorpionfish are ambush predators and masters of disguise, blending in effortlessly with the environment around them. Frogfish have the ability to remain motionless for hours, lying in wait for any unsuspecting prey to be tempted by the 'lure' located on an antenna on their forehead, and are capable of pouncing with barely perceivable speed and swallowing whole prey almost their own size.
Related to seahorses, ghost pipefishes and pipefishes must rank as some of the most exotic creatures found in the shallow water of the Indo-Pacific. Ghost pipefish, which are no longer than 15cm (6'), float almost motionless facing downwards whilst feeding on tiny crustaceans, camouflaged against a backdrop of either coral or algae. It is believed that they live an annual life cycle, spent mostly in the open ocean as larvae, before finding an area on a coral reef or sandy bottom to breed.
An amazing treasure trove of biodiversity
Around Savusavu there are many easily accessible sites that are home to those creatures already mentioned, plus other fascinating marine animals such as brightly coloured nudibranchs, shrimp, giant clams, sea cucumbers, octopus, jellyfish, and worms. The weird and wonderful can be found on sand, amongst broken coral rubble, or on healthy living reefs. If you snorkel the famous Split Rock in Savusavu Bay, make sure to explore the shallower reefs nearby in search of scorpionfish and pipefish. Ghost pipefish can be found hiding among the stunning sea fans of Natewa Bay, and the healthy reefs there are home to an unimaginable array of species. Even the seemingly deserted sandy bottoms often provide wonderful sightings of creatures like mantis shrimp and garden eels.
Photography can be an important tool in conservation. Sharing photos of marine life to a wider audience raises awareness of the incredible diversity found in the ocean and makes the underwater world more accessible to those who cannot travel to see it first-hand. Often the larger charismatic species are highly photographed and familiar, but the more unusual marine creatures are every bit as vital to a healthy reef system. As we are more likely to protect what we know and love, increasing awareness of the beauty of our marine environment and the threats it faces has never been more important than today.
Learn more about the weird and wonderful critters found on coral reefs, and much more, on our South Pacific Coral Reef Ecology eLearning Course.
About the authors: Matthew Norman & Sara Carlson own and operate Ocean Ventures Fiji (www.oceanventuresfiji.com), a PADI Dive Resort that also focuses on conservation education and snorkeling trips in Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, approximately 40 minutes outside of Savusavu. They can be found on Instagram: @oceanventuresfiji, @matthewnormanphotography & @divingsara.