Departure from Fiji to Victoria, Canada

November 27, 2012 – Tuesday – Blue Lagoon Resort to Nadi

Multi-coloured striped fish and coral at Blue Lagoon Resort, Fiji

Multi-coloured striped fish and coral at Blue Lagoon Resort

Today starts off as usual with my view of the beautiful lagoon and coral reef right outside the front of my villa on my last day at the Blue Lagoon Resort. I go down to the restaurant to have some coffee and some yummy toasted homemade bread and a coconut muffin. Before I pack this morning, I go for my last snorkel in the lagoon. I think the fish know I’m leaving today, because they all crowd around me, and I spot two angelfish for the first time. I take some underwater photos, when I didn’t really expect to see anything new this morning. After having a shower, put on fresh clothes, pack and check out.

The Turtle Island Airways seaplane flight doesn’t leave Turtle Island until 4PM, so I have some time to kill before the resort launch takes me over there at 3:30PM. The Australian couple I arrived with on the seaplane invited me to stay at their villa until I have to leave, so after lunch I take them up on their offer. It’s great to sit back on their front porch away from the noise in the restaurant. I snooze for a while until it is time to begin my journey home.

The launch ride to Turtle Island hits some choppy water, so it is a bit rough, but we arrive with perfect timing. I spot the seaplane coming over the ridge of the neighbouring island and landing no more than 10 minutes after our arrival at the dock. We have another barefoot pilot, and this one has a distinct Montreal accent. He is Oli (Oliver), and he tells me the South American pilot that flew us up to Turtle Island last week actually lived in Montreal for 10 years prior to coming down to Fiji to fly seaplanes. The flight down to Nadi is uneventful, but the view over the ocean and islands is not as good as when I flew up a week ago, since we are on a southerly course, so the Sun is reflecting off the water much of the time. I do get a good photo of First Landing’s Left Foot Island and the Vuda Marina on our approach. The seaplane dock is out of commission at the Nadi Bay terminal, so we have to make a wet landing on the beach.

My first inkling that my departure from Fiji is about to go all wrong is when the passengers from the seaplane finally have time to talk with each other after the flight. Apparently some received email messages from Air Pacific that the flight to LA is delayed until 7AM the following morning. They were instructed to go directly to a hotel to check in. I didn’t get an email notification, and the airline didn’t call me. Since I wasn’t notified to do otherwise, I take a taxi to the airport. My taxi driver decides to wait for me, since he “has nothing else to do”. Chaos greets me as I line up at the check-in counter with the other hapless passengers. We all commiserate with each other, since everyone now knows the flight is not leaving this evening. Despite the crowds, there is only one check-in clerk, so it takes me about an hour to find out I need to talk with someone else to assign me a hotel to stay the night. After I have my hotel assignment and vouchers, Peter my taxi driver takes me to the Grand West Villas, a Best Western hotel near the Nadi airport.

So I arrived at Nadi airport around 5:30PM this afternoon, and here I sit at 8:30PM still in Nadi in a hotel room, when I should be in the waiting lounge at Nadi airport about to board the 10PM flight to Los Angeles. I found out at the airport that Air Pacific cancelled the flight due to mechanical breakdown of their Boeing 747-400 in Sydney, Australia. I hear there are passengers who have been waiting in Nadi for three days to leave on flights to LA, so I can expect the worst when I show up tomorrow morning to check in for my flight. It is scheduled to depart Nadi at 7AM, with check-in starting at 3:30AM, so I plan to be at the airport by 2:45AM in order to get to the front of the line to obtain that all-important boarding pass. I want to be on my way home tomorrow, not sitting around in a Nadi hotel for days on end, waiting for something to happen.

The Grand West Villas is no prize of a hotel. The restaurant is open until 10PM to serve dinner to all their unexpected guests from the airline. The food is absolutely dreadful: frozen fish grilled, and french fries, pop or water, and zero service. This is the worst meal I have eaten in Fiji, and the meals in Fiji have been first rate everywhere else I have stayed until now. The rooms are very basic, but clean. At least the air-conditioning is working, so I can sleep for a few hours and then see what tomorrow brings. I call home to let them know to not pick me up at the airport, and that I will update them when I know more.

Needless to say, I’m very upset with Air Pacific, and I will avoid flying with them in future. I’m not too happy with Air New Zealand either. As the ticketing airline for my flights, they have dropped the ball big time by trusting their passengers to an airline partner who is obviously unreliable.

November 28, 2012 – Wednesday –Nadi, Fiji to Los Angeles

The lineup at Nadi, Fiji airport for check-in and boarding the Nadi-LA flight

The lineup at Nadi, Fiji airport for check-in and boarding the Nadi-LA flight

My alarm goes off at 2AM and my taxi driver Peter is ready for me at 2:15AM when I schlep my bag down the stairs into the lobby. I am #3 in line for the check in counters; waiting from 2:45AM to 4AM. Check in is complicated, since I have to be rebooked on my connecting flights. The good news is that I have a seat and a boarding pass! The bad news is that I have to overnight in San Francisco, which apparently Air Pacific will pay for.

I pass through security and explain to Fiji Immigration I arrived on Nov 8th by air, departed Fiji on the 10th by ship, re-entered Fiji on the 20th by ship, and am now departing on the 28th by air. They key all this into their computer system, and stamp my passport and boarding pass. As I take the escalator to the departure lounge Air Pacific is announcing they have overbooked the flight, and appeal to passengers to relinquish their seat for a US$500 cash payment, hotel accommodation, and guaranteed boarding on tomorrow’s flight. I’m glad I have an assigned seat…I’m certainly not giving it up! There is a huge amount of anxiety among those of us waiting in the departure lounge, but eventually after a few false starts, Air Pacific loads passengers onto the aircraft.

We are on a Boeing 777-200ER, which is a Euro Atlantic Airways aircraft, operated by a Portugal-based charter company. Air Pacific has obviously hired to fill the gap for their downed 747. I greet the young Portuguese crew as I board, and there is one Fijian flight attendant aboard. I tease her about this fact as I board…she giggles. Unfortunately, this aircraft is about 100 passengers smaller than a 747, which explains why Air Pacific is constantly struggling on the ground to cope with the extra bookings it has. The couple seated beside me waited three days for this flight, showing up at the airport each day only to be denied boarding. Their situation makes my flight delay look easy, although I’m still not happy about Air Pacific’s poor performance.

The bonus is that that there is much more leg room in this aircraft, there are less people aboard, and the air in the cabin is much better than what I encountered on Air New Zealand’s 747-400 on the way down to Fiji. I still blame that flight for causing the nasty throat infection I suffered from while aboard the ship. Both the male and female Euro Atlantic Airways cabin attendants are really cute, so I forgive their inexperience with delivery of some of the in-flight service.

EuroAtlantic Boeing 777 in LAX

EuroAtlantic Boeing 777 in LAX

The flight departure is delayed an hour and a half from 7AM to 8:30AM, when we finally push away from the jet way. This is going to screw up all the connecting flights for all passengers who don’t terminate in LA, since our arrival time with be late as well. Once we are airborne, I can feel the motion of the aircraft change with the change of flight crews in the cockpit every few hours. It’s pretty obvious when they start playing with the trim and power levels, although they maintain a 35,000’ cruising altitude, and it is generally a smooth flight with only occasional bumpy sections. The older passengers have found the free wine available from the galley. They wander the isles with their glasses of red or white.

I split my time aboard the aircraft between snoozing and working on my MacBook Air editing photos and writing my travel journal. It’s nice to have a notebook that fits on the aircraft fold-down tray, and I can listen to music from my iTunes at the same time. I also browse some magazines using my iPad, but the aircraft is shaking side to side in the rear section I’m seated in, which makes it uncomfortable to read for long periods of time.

We arrive late, despite the flight only taking 9 hours and 35 minutes – quite a bit faster than expected. I clear US customs and immigration and retrieve my bag, but then I have to wait in line to get my flights home rebooked yet again! As it turns out, when my connecting flights were rebooked in Nadi, everything was screwed up badly to the point it would have taken me two days to get home from LA! The guy who does the rebooking for me here in LAX knows what he is doing, and has proper flights put in place for me in no time.

Of course, all this waiting around takes up more time, so it is now 11PM by the time I get to the Hilton Los Angeles Airport, which is where Air Pacific is putting up everyone from the flight I arrived on who is experiencing flight delays. I run into a friend in the hotel lobby as we both check in, so after a quick cleanup, we both go downstairs for the dinner provided by the airline. By this time, it is coming up to midnight, and my friend has an early morning flight to catch to Vancouver, so we bid adieu.

November 28, 2012 – Wednesday – Los Angeles to Victoria

Since my flight yesterday flew eastward and crossed the International Date Line, I get to live Wednesday over again.

I go downstairs in the hotel to have breakfast, which is provided by the airline. I call home to let them know I’ll be arriving at Victoria airport at 10PM today. I catch the shuttle to the airport just before noon. Because I have paper tickets, I am redirected to the re-ticketing check-in and am issued boarding passes for both LAX and SFO. My bag is checked through to Victoria, so I go through security and then upstairs to find my gate.

San Francisco lights at night with Bay Bridge from the aircraft

San Francisco lights at night with Bay Bridge from the aircraft

I have over two hours before my flight leaves at 3:25PM, so I connect to the free Internet service at LAX. I didn’t expect free Internet in this airport – bonus! I update my status on facebook and work on a blog entry. United flight 1253 leaves a few minutes late, it is full, and I’m in an aisle seat on this Airbus A319 regional jet. It takes a surprisingly long time to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco – an hour and a half. Since I’m not in my usual window seat, all I can do is sit back and listen to music. There is essentially no in-flight service other than soft drinks and water.

After arrival in San Franscisco, I find my gate at the very end of Terminal 1 for the flight to Victoria. This is the oldest part of the airport, however to my good fortune, Klein’s Deli is located right next to my gate. I have a great tasting Cobb Salad for dinner while I wait several hours for my flight home to depart at 8PM. United Express flight 6494 departs on time and is using a Canadair Regional Jet. It strikes me as ironic that I’m ending this venture on a Canadian-made jet, operated by an American company to my final destination in Canada. In any case, we arrive on time, I retrieve my checked bag and quickly clear Canadian Customs and Immigration. It’s good to be home!

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Blue Lagoon Beach Resort, Nacula Island, Yasawa Group, Fiji

Arranging a stay in the Yasawa Group of Islands

Rather than return home after disembarking the Solar Eclipse Cruise 2012, when planning this trip, I decided to make arrangements to stay in Fiji a further week. I had always wanted to experience the Yasawa Group of Islands, located just off the NW coast of Viti Levu. Lautoka is the jumping off point for these beautiful islands, so this was an ideal opportunity to make some arrangements to experience that part of Fiji.

After much research, I decided to spend a week at the Blue Lagoon Beach Resort on Nacula Island in the Yasawas. I love to snorkel in tropical waters, and this resort offers a beautiful lagoon literally steps outside my beachfront bure (cottage or villa). I’m also really looking forward to meeting all the friendly Fijians on the island. Never in all my travels have I encountered more genuinely friendly people than the Fijians. This is one of the main reasons I seem to keep returning to these islands.

The resort life – day by day

November 21, 2012 – Wednesday – Blue Lagoon Beach Resort, Nacula Island, Yasawa Group, Fiji

I wake up a bit before 7AM on my first full day at Blue Lagoon Beach Resort, and by the time I get dressed and cleaned up, it is time to go to the restaurant for breakfast at 7:30AM. The coffee is ready, so I start with that, and then have some yummy homemade bread toasted, and a cereal cup with fruit. They offer eggs cooked to order, so no doubt I will have some scrambled eggs another morning.

I walk the beach right to the end where there is a point with black and red volcanic rocks. This island’s origin is obviously old volcanic, since it has quite high hills, and some have sharp peaks. Later in the morning after the tide comes in, I go for my first snorkel on the reef. It is nothing short of fantastic. I only have to swim a few metres from the beach in front of my villa to see the reef, which is very much alive. When I stop and float in the water, there are multitudes of fish swarming around me. There are lots of opportunities for taking good underwater photos and video, and I even set my camera for macro mode, since I can get so close to the wildlife. This is what I came here for!

Yasawa Flyer disembarking passengers

Yasawa Flyer disembarking passengers

The Yasawa Flyer passenger boat arrives from Lautoka at 1:15PM, and a couple of boatloads of people get off. They are greeted with the staff singing them a song, which I record. We didn’t get such a greeting upon our arrival yesterday…I guess we were too small a group.

The young couple in Villa 1 (beside me) is obviously having a romantic dinner in front of their villa instead of the usual dinner with the group in the restaurant. The staff setup a table for them in front of their villa, and they start dinner shortly after 5PM, instead of the usual 7:30PM. She is dressed in a fetching white slinky evening dress and he has a black shirt on. They decide to take a sunset photo of the two of them on the beach, and attempt to use the automatic mode and a camera timer. I know this simply doesn’t work, so I volunteer to take their photo with their camera. I put it in non-automatic mode, manually turn the flash on, and get much closer to them so the flash can light them up and they are visible. My good deed for the day.

It is seafood night for dinner in the restaurant, and what a spread! There are mussels baked in a spicy sauce, breaded whitefish, calamari, snapper baked in coconut sauce, a seafood casserole, rice, homemade cheese & onion buns, two nice salads, and a banana pastry with chocolate sauce for dessert. I sat with the same Australian/Chinese couple as last night, another Chinese couple, and a young couple from Melbourne. The young man from Melbourne will be traveling to Montreal on business, and asked me about the “French question”. I had to ask him to clarify, and he indicated he knew a bit of French, and was wondering if he should speak French or English in Montreal. Given his weak skills in French, I advised him to stick with English. In any case, I suggested his Quebec business associates would be taking good care of him.

At 7AM this morning the temperature is 27ºC, 84% humidity, Heat Index 31ºC, with a slight breeze off the interior of Nacula Island. By 5PM it warms to 29ºC, 75% humidity, Heat Index 34ºC, and we still have a slight breeze accompanied with a rain shower. By 9PM the temperature is 28ºC, 84% humidity, Heat Index 34ºC, and a very slight breeze. I sleep comfortably with just a light sheet as a cover and no blanket every night I’m here. There is no air conditioning in my bure, which I wouldn’t use even if it was available.

November 22, 2012 – Thursday – Blue Lagoon Resort

Coral reef in the bay in front of the Blue Lagoon Resort

Coral reef in the bay in front of the Blue Lagoon Resort

I get up with the Sun again this morning, and go to the restaurant a bit after 7AM. I have some scrambled eggs on toast this morning. Then it is time to work off my breakfast, so I walk down the beach to the north, past the other resort (run by the local chief) and around the point to another section of the beach to the north. I meet several Fijians walking down the beach who work in our resort. Everyone is so friendly here.

I meet my neighbours Tasha and Eric from Ohio, who are staying in Villa 3 for 10 days. Eric wasn’t impressed with the two excursions they have taken over the last couple of days. I don’t plan to take any of the excursions offered by the resort during my stay, since I came here for one thing: the snorkelling. The wind kicks up at 5PM from an offshore direction (NW), and then the rain starts coming down. We are hit with 25kmh winds and heavy rain. I retreat inside my bure and close the shore side shutters. By 5:50PM, the rain stops, the winds subside to 12kmh, and I open the shutters again.

This evening’s dinner menu starts with a lovely seafood salad served in a big papadam with Romaine leaf, followed by two pork cutlets topped with a mild and creamy chili sauce, served with rice and vegetables. The cutlets are actually cheap shoulder chops, so they are full of bones and fat. Otherwise, the meal is tastey, and a nice cheesecake is served for dessert. I sit at a table with a young German woman and her South American boyfriend; a very young Scottish woman, and two Chinese couples. The Chinese people speak very little English, so they talk among themselves. The German woman speaks good English, but she is sitting too far away from me to converse with.

The young Scottish woman and I have a good conversation since she is sitting right beside me. She was on a camping trip in late summer that took her from New York to Los Angeles, and back to New York in a giant loop across the USA. It was a group tour where a driver, van and camping equipment were provided, but the group did the cooking and washing up. She also explored Ecuador, Peru and Chile before finding her way to Fiji. After Fiji, she will be traveling in New Zealand for a few weeks on a bus tour before returning home. She admits to being homesick sometimes, but keeps herself busy to ensure she enjoys wherever she finds herself.

I observe a fireball streak across the NW sky, from NNW to WNW under the Moon at about 35º altitude. It disappears into a cloudbank, and I don’t hear any sounds. There was a distinct fiery head, yellow colour.

November 23, 2012 – Friday – Blue Lagoon Resort

The sound of the surf last night keeps getting louder as morning approaches. Sure enough, when I get up, the waves are crashing on the beach. I have my usual breakfast this morning at 7AM: coffee, toast, and add a piece of homemade cake. The wind is strong and the seas are rough this morning. After I return to my villa, the wind picks up to 25kmh and the rain comes down. I get out my binoculars to watch the storm from under the cover of my patio. There are 3-5m waves shooting straight up at the outer reef about a kilometre offshore, and rollers breaking over the inner reef. I didn’t come to Fiji to storm watch, but there it is!

Resort staff rolling fuel drums up the beach

Resort staff rolling fuel drums up the beach

My astronomy friend from Victoria, Canada arrives this afternoon around 2PM on the Yasawa Flyer. She is ready for solid ground after enduring the rough seas this morning in the catamaran. She felt really sorry for the people who had to endure the rough weather all the way from Lautoka. She was already staying at Octopus Resort on an adjacent island, so her trip on board the boat was relatively short.

My beach palapa finally succumbs to the waves and the high tide this afternoon, and is now leaning over on its side in the sand. Next door, Tasha and Eric’s palapa keeled over much earlier than mine, and the huge surf mostly smashes it up.

Since there is no snorkelling or swimming today because of the rough seas, my entertainment this afternoon is to watch the unloading of supplies from the small boats that picked up freight from the Yasawa Flyer. They are bobbing around in the surf and are being tossed about in the crashing waves on shore as the resort staff slung bags of produce, beer and other beverages into shore. The cooks and barmen will have to wash all the salt water and sand off their new supplies before they use them! The fuel barge supplies the other entertainment this afternoon. Since it can’t come in close to shore to unload using their ramp onto the beach, they simply dump 45-gallon drums of fuel overboard. The resort staff spends most of the afternoon corralling these barrels from the sea, bringing them to shore, and then struggling to roll the 500lb barrels up the beach and onto high ground.

Fijian group at Lovo Night

Fijian group at Lovo Night

It is Lovo Night at the resort, so a ground oven was heated up this afternoon, and the food was baked underground against the hot rocks, wrapped in palm leaves. This evening we have roasted chicken, pork and Black Snapper, along with Dalo (Taro) and sweet potato, salads and Kokoda (Ceviche). Everyone is raving about the starter, a Green Papaya soup…it tastes wonderful. It isn’t sweet, since they use pulverized green papaya, and add chili to spice it up, and coconut milk to make it smooth and creamy. There is a lovely homemade coconut cake with caramel sauce for dessert. All in all a lovely meal, followed by some entertainment from a local group of Fijians singing and dancing.

November 24, 2012 – Saturday – Blue Lagoon Resort

Although the storm has passed today, there are still pretty strong wave surges coming up onto the beach. I don’t accomplish a great deal today, preferring to lounge in the hammock in front of my villa watching the activities as the staff clean up the mess left by yesterday’s storm. I go for a swim in the sandy part of the lagoon, since swimming too close to the coral when I can’t see exactly where the coral heads are would risk me getting coral cuts. The water is the temperature of bath water, so it is easy swimming, and good exercise for me to work off all the lovely meals I’m eating, and Fiji Bitter beer I’m drinking.

November 25, 2012 – Sunday – Blue Lagoon Resort

My bure is right on the beach with the lagoon in front

My bure is right on the beach with the lagoon in front

I go snorkelling twice today, but the water is still cloudy from the storm. I take some underwater photos this morning, just to show the water conditions. It is fine visually, since there is about 3-4 metres visibility, I can navigate around the coral heads. This afternoon, the water is cloudier, so I just have fun watching the fish dart in and out of the coral. There is a tropical rainstorm this afternoon, which I’m told the resort desperately needs, since they run on rainwater. The rain storm lasts until dinnertime.

My friend from Victoria brought a bottle of white wine from New Zealand with her, so we visit with the Australian couple I arrived with on the seaplane. We have to dash through the rain to get to their villa, but we have a good conversation, learning about all their travels through the South Pacific. They regale us with stories of a close encounter with a Grizzly bear on a wilderness adventure they took to Alaska and the Yukon.

Since it is Sunday, the Nacula Island church choir serenades us with hymns before dinner. They have fine voices and deliver strong harmonies. All Fijians seem to have wonderful singing abilities. Dinner this evening is a regular BBQ with ham, grilled fish, and lamb cutlets, along with salads and chocolate cake with chocolate sauce for dessert. My friend and I have dinner with a group of young Australians who mostly have just graduated from medical school. They are here in Fiji for a week or so after finishing their final university term.

Tomorrow is my last full day here at Blue Lagoon Resort before returning home on the 27th. I have really enjoyed this trip, but it is time to leave paradise and return home.

November 26, 2012 – Monday – Blue Lagoon Resort

We have rain last night off and on. When I get up at 6AM, I see clear sky and stars from my “observatory”, aka the open roofed shower in my bure. I go back to bed and sleep for another hour and a half before getting dressed for breakfast.

I ask at the office about my check out tomorrow, especially how the seaplane flight will work. I am confirmed on a 4PM flight from Turtle Island to Nadi. They will take me from Nacula Island to Turtle Island for FJ$20. I should arrive at the seaplane terminal in Nadi an hour later, and get to Nadi airport a half hour after that, so we are talking 6:30PM. This will be good timing for my 10PM Air Pacific flight departure to LA and onward home.

Striped Surgeon fish among the coral

Striped Surgeon fish among the coral

Eric and Tasha from next door are taking the Noon seaplane flight to Nadi tomorrow and will be on the same 10PM Air Pacific flight as me. He is planning to purchase an upgrade to either Bula Class or First Class, since he says the legroom on the Air Pacific flight they took down from LA was virtually non-existent. He had to keep his legs splayed when the person in front of him reclined their seat, and Tasha and he both ended up with oedema in their ankles after the 11 hour flight since they basically couldn’t move all that time. I’m thinking Bula Class is sounding like a good idea for me as well. Eric says it can’t be reserved ahead of time; it is offered on a first-come-first-served basis for FJ$600 (CDN$300). Hopefully there will still be some seats left when I check in.

The snorkelling is wonderful right outside my villa this morning, since the water has cleared considerably since yesterday. There are huge numbers of fish, both schooling and individuals, and I spot a bright red fish I would call a Red Snapper if I was back home, but is apparently a Toadstool Grouper. There is also a small octopus clinging to a rock, and I manage to take some video and photos.

I have the Chicken Curry for lunch: a big bowl of curry made with coconut milk, rice, two small salads, papadams and roti. It is delicious with a Fiji Bitter beer, but it’s such a big portion! All I feel like doing is lazing in the hammock, so that’s what I do until I lose the shade. There is a nice breeze this afternoon, however the Sun is brutal, so I retreat to the full cover of my bure patio. There are people and dogs chasing some pigs down the beach at the next resort, so perhaps the pigs will be dinner for someone!

At 5PM today the temperature is 30ºC, 70% humidity, Heat Index 34ºC, 6kmh wind offshore from NE, some cloud, but mainly sunny. My friend from Victoria and I have dinner this evening with the Australian couple I arrived with on the seaplane. I have enjoyed sitting at a variety of tables for dinner, meeting new people each night. I find the stories everyone tells to be fascinating.

Disembark the Paul Gauguin in Lautoka and travel to the Blue Lagoon Resort, Nacula Island, Yasawa Group, Fiji

November 20, 2012 – Tuesday – disembark the Paul Gauguin in Lautoka and travel to the Blue Lagoon Resort, Nacula Island, Yasawa Group, Fiji

I have my last breakfast aboard ship at 6:45AM: my usual cappuccino, yogurt, and French pastry at La Palette. The ship is still underway to Lautoka as I sit on the stern deck watching the Fijian coastline go by. The Sleeping Giant is part of the rugged mountains found in the Lautoka-Nadi area, and it takes on some beautiful pastel colours in the early morning light. As we approach the port of Lautoka, I spot Holland America’s Amsterdam cruise ship docked in the port. I take a photo for old time’s sake, since she is the sister ship of the Rotterdam, which I cruised to South America on last year.

Turtle Airways route map of the Yasawa Islands

Turtle Airways route map of the Yasawa Islands

I check my cabin for anything I haven’t packed, and then roll my bags to the lobby area of Deck 4, which is just a short way from my cabin. There are surprisingly few people waiting here, so I’m encouraged that those of us who have to disembark early will actually be able to do so. The ship is running late, but docks at 8AM and is cleared a few minutes later. The holdup is the ship’s crew attempting to assemble the gangway stairs. It takes then a full 20 minutes longer, which brings us to 8:30AM. The couple sitting beside me are pretty anxious, since they have to catch a ferry boat which leaves at 8:45AM, giving them a mere 15 minutes to get there. While I wait, I call Turtle Airways to confirm my reservation. It takes two call backs, but eventually they confirm my flight is leaving at 11AM. That gives me more time to spare than I originally thought I had.

I am one of the first to disembark the ship, and I find a taxi in short order, and we drive out of the port gates. The taxi driver isn’t entirely sure where Turtle Airways is located in Nadi, but he manages to take the correct roads based on the directions I have from Turtle Airways. Once we are approaching the little terminal building, he says he remembers he has been here once before. I am early and the staff are waiting to check me in. My bags are overweight, which I expected, since their limit is 15kg. They want to charge me FJ$90, but after I complain a bit, they agree to a FJ$70 charge (cash only).

JoeTourist: Yasawa Islands &emdash; Turtle Airways' DeHavilland Beaver seaplane at the dock in NadiThe plane we are taking is a Canadian-built DeHavilland Beaver 7 seat seaplane. The maintenance crew are running the aircraft’s engine up outside in the adjacent field, and towing it with a tractor. They eventually satisfy themselves, and then Chris, the young and barefoot South American pilot gets in, and they ease it into the water from the nearby beach. An Australian couple and I are the only passengers for this first leg. We walk out to the dock, the crew briefs us on safety procedures; we put on a compact life preserver, and then climb aboard. I sit in the co-pilot’s seat, so I have an open window beside me, and get great views all the way.

JoeTourist: Yasawa Islands &emdash; Tropical islets off the eastern coast Naviti Island and coral reefWe take off a few minutes before 11AM, and after about 20 minutes of flight, set down at Plantation Island Resort to pick up two more passengers. We then fly direct to Turtle Island, arriving at 12 Noon. There are some terrific views of the Yasawa Group of islands along the way, so I take lots of photos out of my open cockpit window. We are transferred to a launch from the Blue Lagoon Resort, and 30 minutes later we arrive at our destination!

It is a wet landing on the resort’s beach, since there is no wharf, so I take off my socks and shoes, roll up my jeans and jump ashore. The guys from the resort take care of my bags, and I am checked in in a few minutes. My big bag is waiting for me at Villa 2 – my beachfront home for the next week. We arrive in time for lunch, which is a fixed menu as well as a special board. I have the Nasi Goreng special with a sunny side egg on top – very tasty and filling, albeit a bit unorthodox with the egg on top. I spend the afternoon unpacking and getting settled. At 3PM I measure the temperature at 30ºC, 67% humidity, Heat Index 37ºC, with a slight breeze off the interior of Nacula Island. By 9PM this evening, the temperature is still high at 28.3ºC, 77% humidity, Heat Index 33ºC, and we still have the slight breeze off the island.

This evening’s dinner menu is nothing too inspiring, but it is tasty and nutritious: roasted chicken with a sweet chili sauce and vegetables with an appetizer to start and chocolate pie for dessert. I sit at a table with two young German guys and a newly wed Chinese couple from Brisbane, Australia, who I assume are naturalized Australians. He works for a Chinese commercial bank in Sydney. One of the young Germans has just finished studying law in Hamilton, New Zealand for the better part of a year. The other German guy is looking for work after getting his business degree, but obviously he isn’t looking too hard while they do the beach here in Fiji before returning home to Germany.

Port Vila, Vanuatu

November 18, 2012 – Sunday – Port Vila, Vanuatu

I sleep in until a bit after 8AM this morning…a first on this trip, where I have been waking anywhere from 5-6AM most mornings. After my usual breakfast of cappuccino, yogurt, and French pastry at La Palette, I go out on deck to call home to check in since there is a good cellular signal here in Port Vila’s harbour. I then go back to my cabin to prepare for my last shore excursion for this cruise “Semi-submersible and snorkel”, a short 1.5 hours long starting mid-morning. I’m expecting it to be similar to the excursion I took from Port Vila two years ago while aboard the Volendam, where we motored out to the far side of Iririki Island, which is in the middle of Port Vila’s rather large harbour. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. We walk from the tender dock up the street a short way, and even leave from the same dock as before. The same larger sailboat used for my previous excursion is tied up when we returned to the dock.

The “semi-submersible” we are on is basically a small boat with an underwater observation chamber welded to the bottom equipped with windows and seats. Everyone crowds down there for the first part of the excursion, while the crew show us coral formations, fish, and other underwater life. This is ideal for taking underwater photos if you want to remain dry. The second part of the excursion is what I came for: snorkelling. I am one of the first to jump off the boat and swim around observing the fish and taking photos of all the underwater life. As with my excursion two years ago, the crew feed the fish bread, so they are tame, swarming around the food morsels. This gives everyone a great show of fish close up.

After a half hour or so I’m tiring, so I climb back aboard the boat and start to dry off. One of the crew asks me to give him my camera, so he can dive down a bit deeper to “get some good pictures for your kids”. After returning to the ship and viewing the photos, he indeed did get some good shots of sea cucumbers, giant clams, and a yellow-black-white striped coral reef fish. It was a good tour for me, since it wasn’t too long, and I went snorkelling. My needs are simple. After returning to the ship and having a late lunch at Le Veranda, I have an afternoon nap in my cabin.

Later this afternoon just before we sail away, I measure the following weather conditions from the top decks of the ship: 27ºC temperature, 20kmh wind speed, 75% humidity, and 30ºC Heat Index. This is the first day on our cruise where my fellow passengers are complaining about the “hot” weather, although I would hardly call this hot personally. All our previous days aboard ship have seen mild temperatures (low 20ºC temperatures), and light breezes. There are a few light rain showers today, but it is also hot and humid, as the numbers attest.

There is a huge four-masted sailboat named Phocea anchored in the harbour. I heard a story earlier today that the owner of the boat was arrested and thrown in jail in Vanuatu for attempting to smuggle drugs and arms into the country. I wonder if the story is true? Here is a good background story to read.

Dinner in L’Etoile this evening is most enjoyable. I talk with an older couple from San Francisco are well traveled, so this is always interesting to me, and she has a sharp sense of humour. A younger couple from Atlanta are both very friendly. He is a software developer, so we have IT-related stuff we talk about. A man from Ohio joins us for dinner, and always had something to contribute to the conversation, since he is a fellow amateur astronomer I know from a few years back when we both attended one of TraveQuest’s Costa Rican Southern Sky Fiesta tours. An older woman from San Francisco who I met before is also interesting, but because she is across the table, it is hard to converse with her. She and I share the fact we both love terriers, and she tells me she once raised 26 terriers at the same time! I share that we have two one-year-old Jack Russell Terriers.

When I return to my stateroom, I organise everything I need for packing tomorrow night. The daily newsletters which I have accumulated during the cruise make a good record of the activities aboard ship and the ports of call, but weigh too much to lug home, so I photograph each page and then throw them in the recycle bin. I even recycle the nice Solar Eclipse booklet TravelQuest gave everyone when they boarded ship, since I have a pdf version of the booklet.

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Ile de Lifou, New Caledonia

November 17, 2012 – Saturday – Ile de Lifou, New Caledonia

Beach dogs enjoying some attention from a tourist on Ile de Lifou, New Caledonia

Beach dogs enjoying some attention from a tourist on Ile de Lifou, New Caledonia

I have the morning to myself, despite the ship being anchored offshore and tenders running to the little village of Easo. I take a 2.5 hour tour called “Luecila Beach & Scenic Drive” leaving at 12:15PM. We are taken to a beautiful white sand beach near the main town of We on Baie de Chateaubriand. Richard is our tour guide, and does a good job describing their local customs as we drive for half an hour it takes to get across the bushy central part of the island to our destination on the other side.

The fine white sand beach has to be at least 3-4 kms long, and has some very nice coral and fishes, which I snorkel out to see. The water is a bit cloudy because of the swell coming into the bay, but in spite of this, I enjoy the hour swimming in the tropical waters. I see a few fish, and some live coral, and even spot a small shark briefly. There are only about a dozen people on the beach, other than our group of about 30 tourists and a few beach dogs.
Richard tells us there are only about 10,000 people living on the island, despite it being geographically quite big. Tourism is their only industry, so the economy is not great, since they only see about two cruise ships per week on average, and they have one 4 star hotel located in We.

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Ile de Mare, New Caledonia

November 16, 2012 – Friday – Ile de Mare, New Caledonia

Children dressed for welcome ceremony at Wabao village, Ile de Mare, New Caledonia

Children dressed for welcome ceremony at Wabao village, Ile de Mare, New Caledonia

I don’t have anything planned for today’s port of call, however the daily program says there is a free activity where everyone will be driven by bus to Wabao village. The Captain of the Paul Gauguin and the village chief will exchange gifts at a welcome ceremony. So a hundred or so of my fellow passengers (and me) pile into buses and make the 20-minute journey down the road, where we encounter cute children dressed for the occasion, and who sing us a few songs. The captain and the chief make brief speeches, and then there is some food for those who decide to stay. The rest of us return to the ship, or are dropped off at a snorkel area called Yenjele Beach. The beach looked divine, but I stayed on the bus and returned to the ship for lunch, and a snooze in a sofa in a shady spot on the pool deck.

I meet some interesting people at dinner in L’Etoile this evening. Two couples are dedicated eclipse chasers, and are from the same university town in New Hampshire. One couple are SCUBA divers, with the wife having done over 1,000 dives, and the husband having done over 1,500 dives! She no longer dives, but her husband continues. The husband of the other couple was an engineer with AT&T before it was broken up, after which he retired and went into the telephone standards industry. I also meet a Brit living on the Isle of Man who arrives at the table a bit late. He is a live wire, and apparently spends his retirement kite surfing at various locales around the world. He really likes going to South America, where he asserts the best kite surfing in the world can be found.

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Noumea, New Caledonia – 2012

November 15, 2012 – Thursday – Noumea, New Caledonia

View of the lagoon from Amédée Lighthouse, Noumea, New Caledonia

View of the lagoon from Amédée Lighthouse, Noumea, New Caledonia

I depart on an all-day tour to Amédée Lighthouse, which is located on an island by the same name offshore from Noumea. This was not the tour I wanted, but it was the only one available which offered some snorkelling, after I boarded the ship a few days ago. We are taken to the boat basin, where we are joined by passengers from the P&O Pacific Jewel. Needless to say, there are lots of people on this large excursion boat, the Mary-D. The passengers from the P&O ship are mainly Australians, and many are families with young children. This is not my ideal tour, since it is quite noisy!

Despite that, the tour was well done. The lighthouse on the island is made of metal, and was shipped prefabricated from France in 1862. We had a superb lunch with wine and punch included, and with entertainment from a singing and dancing troupe. I enjoyed the lovely (alcoholic) fruit punch, along with the BBQ pork and seafood, and lots of salads and pasta dishes. The only real disappointment is the snorkelling in the lagoon on one side of the island. I snorkel after lunch and find the reef is totally dead, although there are a few fish swimming around, and the Striped Sea Snake (poisonous) also makes an appearance! They also offer glass-bottomed boat rides and rides out to the edge of the reef, but I don’t bother with those excursions. After snorkelling, I prefer to just sit under a shade tree.

I learn from the Pacific Jewel passengers that on eclipse day their ship missed being on position on the Line of Totality. Apparently about 600 passengers had booked their cruise predicated on that happening, although there was also a large group of passengers who didn’t care one way or the other. That would be totally devastating for those who expected to observe Totality, but didn’t get the chance. Apparently the ship left port a bit late, and encountered strong headwinds, and couldn’t get to the position in time.

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2012 Total Solar Eclipse

November 14, 2012 – Wednesday – Total Solar Eclipse of the Sun – observed from aboard the Paul Gauguin cruise ship sailing about 200km south of New Caledonia in the Coral Sea

Map of 2012 Solar Eclipse track in the South Pacific

Map of 2012 Solar Eclipse track in the South Pacific

I am up at 5:30AM, beating my alarm by a few minutes. Skipping breakfast, I gather my eclipse gear and setup on the Pool Deck. I mount my Kestrel 4500 portable weather station on a nearby towel deposit box, and also mount my little Fuji point-and-shoot camera on the same box to take some HD video during Totality (and a minute before and after).

My observing log entry for the eclipse:

Date/Time – local ship’s time
Start: Nov 14, 2012 6:49AM
Finish: Nov 14, 2012 8:12AM

Location: On the totality track 200km south of New Caledonia in the Coral sea, South Pacific
Position: 26° 40′ 0″ S 166° 46′ 54″ E

Observers: 320 passengers (and some crew) on board the Paul Gauguin cruise ship

I observe a total solar eclipse from the pool deck of the cruise ship Paul Gauguin, as part of a TravelQuest tour group. Rick Fienberg and Bill Kramer, in cooperation with Captain Ante-Toni Mirkovic decide to turn the ship 180° just before 1st Contact in order to avoid a large cloud which is starting to obscure the view of the Sun. This proves to be a good move, since we are now slowly sailing away from the clouds in the area, and yet continue to stay within the maximum totality centreline track.

  • 1st Contact 6:57:20AM Alt=26º
  • 2nd Contact 8:01:20AM Alt=40º
  • Totality lasts 3 minutes, 1 second
  • 3rd Contact 8:04:21AM Alt=40º
  • 4th Contact 9:16:47AM Alt=57º
The Sun in eclipse totality - 3rd contact & diamond ring

The Sun in eclipse totality – 3rd contact & diamond ring

A few minutes before 2nd Contact, my portable weather station records the expected sharp drop in temperature, and the light levels are greatly reduced. About 10 minutes before 2nd Contact, Venus is visible to the left of the Sun, and then as darkening continues, Saturn also appears equidistant between Venus and the Sun.

A dramatic darkening occurs during totality (2nd Contact to 3rd Contact). During totality, I visually observe spectacular coronal streamers. Although I do not find that Bailey’s Beads are easily observed during this eclipse, I observe a red glow around parts of the perimeter of the Sun and some solar prominences are visible.

There is lots of hooting and hollering as the (second) spectacular diamond ring appears at 3rd Contact. I capture these human reactions to experiencing a total solar eclipse using my little Fuji XP point-and-shoot camera using its HD video mode.

I stop observing and photographing the eclipse shortly after 3rd Contact, although I continue to take temperature readings.

Everyone has a smile on his or her face after the event is over, and there are lots of stories told afterward at lunch and dinner. Despite it only being 9:30 in the morning, Corona beer and cocktails are served to celebrate our success. I have a celebratory cappuccino, and finally have my breakfast mid-morning at La Palette.

2012 Total Solar Eclipse – Bill Kramer’s Eclipse Chasers website, including his personal report and links to other reports


Air temperature during the 2012 Total Solar Eclipse while aboard the Paul Gauguin in the Coral Sea

Air temperature during the 2012 Total Solar Eclipse while aboard the Paul Gauguin in the Coral Sea

I take temperature measurements from my position on the Pool Deck before, during and after totality. My readings are measured with a Kestrel 4500 personal weather station, which is mounted about one metre above the ship’s deck.

6:57AM 23.2ºC – 1st Contact
7:20AM 22.0ºC
7:39AM 20.9ºC
7:55AM 20.5ºC
8:01AM 20.2ºC – 2nd Contact
8:04AM 19.8ºC – 3rd Contact
8:12AM 20.3ºC
8:25AM 21.3ºC
9:00AM 24.2ºC
9:16AM 24.0ºC – 4th Contact
12:20PM 20.4ºC

The temperature drop is 3.5ºC, which is much lower than expected. Obviously the mild climate near the ocean’s surface results in less daytime heating, and therefore less temperature range is covered for this eclipse at this location.

I dedicate the temperature measurements I took during this eclipse to the memory of Jim Low, a long time member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Toronto Centre. If Jim had survived, I’m sure he would have traveled with his fellow Toronto Centre members to Australia, and would have recorded the temperature drop, as he did when I traveled with this group to observe the Total Solar Eclipse (my first) from the Libyan Sahara Desert in 2006.

 

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Ile des Pins, New Caledonia

November 13, 2012 – Tuesday – Ile des Pins, New Caledonia

Kanamera Bay white sand beach and small island, Ile des Pins, New Caledonia


Ile des Pins, New Caledonia

We pick up the pilot at 3AM this morning, and arrive a few minutes early at at 8AM, anchoring in Kuto Bay. This place hasn’t changed at all from the last time I was here aboard the Volendam two years ago Vanuatu & New Caledonia. It is cool but comfortable today, with lots of clouds around, and it even sprinkles rain for a few minutes this morning.

I leave early on the second available tender, which is not full for some strange reason. We only have a few hours here, since the ship has to leave at Noon to keep our appointment with the Sun and Moon for tomorrow’s Total Solar Eclipse. People who snorkelled in the bay today report the water felt cold, but the reef fish were enjoyable.

We depart Kuto Bay on time at Noon, and by mid-afternoon we are underway in a southerly direction, with the wind running to 31km/h and the temperature at only 21ºC. It is a fairly rough ocean, with heavy cloud cover – it almost looks like the North Pacific instead of the South Pacific. The ship is lurching and crashing into the large waves, and the passengers are also lurching around a bit more than usual!

I attend the 4PM lecture – Last Chance Eclipse Update – Rick Fienberg, Holly Gilbert & Bill Kramer give us some good last minute advice about the eclipse event coming up tomorrow morning. The weather forecast from Jay Anderson looks very promising…the chance of cloud cover is now running only 20% where we will be located.

I skip the Port Talk at 5:30PM about the islands of Mare, Lifou & Port Vila by the Travel Concierge Manager. I need some time to update my travel journal, and hopefully create another blog entry to cover the first few days aboard the Paul Gauguin. Later, I go to dinner at L’Etoille and sit at a large table where I have lots of stimulating conversation to participate in. After returning to my cabin, I check over my equipment to ensure I’m ready for tomorrow’s Total Solar Eclipse, which will be all over by 9:16AM local time.

On board the Paul Gauguin – Fiji to New Caledonia

 

November 11, 2012 – Sunday – Our first day at sea – enroute from Lautoka, Fiji to New Caledonia

The ship’s clocks were set back an hour last night, so I wake up around 5AM. I have to fill in some time before I can get a cappuccino and a French pastry at La Palette at 6:30AM. I am battling a nasty cold I obviously picked up while aboard the flight down to Fiji…damned airliners!

TravelQuest and Wilderness Travel have fully chartered the ship, so they have arranged a wonderful array of enrichment speakers, which start their presentations today. When we are at sea, there are four presentations scheduled for each day. What a change from the Incan Empires Cruise on the Rotterdam last year, where there was a dearth of enrichment speakers!

9:30AM Speaker: How to Experience and Enjoy the Eclipse – Rick Fienberg gives an engaging talk about the basics of total solar eclipse watching, covering off the best ways to experience the eclipse, a bit of advice about photography and visual observing, safety tips, the sequence of events, and some practical advice on how to enjoy this special experience.

11AM Speaker: Seabirds of the South Pacific, Living on the wide, wide sea – Dr. Roger Lederer describes a wide variety of seabirds who inhabit the islands we are traveling to, and also mentions other notable seabirds who inhabit other parts of the Pacific Ocean.

2:30PM Speaker: Coral Reefs – Ethan Daniels‘ presentation shows us how coral reefs formed eons ago, what wildlife make their home in the reefs, and where the great reefs of the world are located. Ethan works part-time for Wilderness Adventures, and spends the rest of his time researching the biology of reefs and the wildlife in Indonesia and other areas where the world’s greatest reefs are located.

4PM Speaker: Anatomy of the Sun, from Core to Corona – Holly Gilbert works for Ames/NASA in Solar Physics as a solar prominence specialist. Despite confessing to not feeling well because of the ship’s motion, Holly delivered a great talk with lots of information about the various layers and processes going on with the Sun.

I meet my cabin stewardess Diojani this afternoon; who is a very nice young woman who keeps my stateroom immaculate throughout the voyage. I find out from the bridge (through the Front Desk) that Magnetic North is 349º True in this area of the world, so I calculate the magnetic declination to be 11º East in order to setup my Kestrel weather station’s wind direction. I go for dinner to L’Etoile, the main dining room again, and meet another interesting group of people. I turn in early, since I’m still not quite comfortable with all the time zone changes lately.

November 12, 2012 – Monday – Second day at sea – enroute from Fiji to Ile des Pins, New Caledonia

As I mentioned previously, TravelQuest and Wilderness Travel have an excellent choice of enrichment speakers aboard, so here is today’s line-up, along with some of my comments:

9:30AM Speaker: Capturing the Eclipse in Images & Video – Bill Kramer (Eclipse Chasers) gives advice I mostly agree with, but then he says to not set cameras over ISO 400, which I disagree with. My thought is that we are on a moving platform, so capturing sharp, in focus images without any apparent image motion is important. I think that means using higher than normal ISO. Lower ISO will give a richer image, but we can’t afford that while on board a ship.

11AM Speaker: The Navigators – Human Settlement of Oceania – Mark Eddowes is an anthropologist from New Zealand who is based in French Polynesia, and gives a very interesting talk, although it takes almost twice as long as scheduled. He describes how the Lapita people migrated from SE Asia to the western Pacific Islands.

2:30PM Speaker: The Sun-Earth Connection – Holly Gilbert is a solar specialist from NASA who talks about the solar wind, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and solar prominences, and how these various phenomena affect the Earth.

4PM Speaker: Highlights of the Southern Night Sky – Rick Feinberg highlights all the same objects to be found in the southern night sky which I would have talked about. He starts off his talk describing how our location on the Earth affects what we observe in the night sky, and goes from there.

I am thrilled with the quality of the presentations given today, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming presentations during the rest of the cruise. I have an hour long nap before dinner, since this “cold” I thought I was suffering from is actually a throat infection, which is making me quite miserable and tired.