One thing I certainly did not expect to see, was whales.
Earlier, tour guide Mata Vainerere had assured me that passengers on this tour need to expect the unexpected.
“Every day at the office is an adventure,” she said with a big grin.
And as it turned out, she was right. On a good day, you can see turtles, large pelagic fish, rays, sharks and more among the sealife on the outer reef. On our tour we saw most of those… and whales.
Five humpbacks swam within about 100 metres of the reef sub and it was truly the sight of a lifetime. Children fell silent and cameras flashed as the giant sea creatures heaved up out of the water, spouted, sighed and dived again.
Skipper Alberto Bachmann was careful to keep a respectable distance from the males and mothers with young. The former Swiss merchant navy sailor and restaurateur, has been on the island for 26 years, and with the sea in his veins, enjoys the variety his job brings.
The whales came close to us around halfway through the 85-minute tour, which had begun with giant trevally following us at great speed. They caught up to our semi-submersible vessel, peering in through the thick green glass below deck, while we peered back at them, their huge black and silver bodies writhing in competition for the food Mata was throwing to them.
“We have trained these trevally,” she says. “We are the only boat they trust to follow.”
Mata has been expertly guiding the reef sub tours for about 18 months, and says every trip is different. She explains that while the trevally look as though they could be good eating, they may have the ciguatera toxin, making them poisonous to mammals.
“That’s one reason they have the chance to get so big, because they don’t have many predators.”
At around 20-30kg, these ones looked like majestic old men of the sea.
A three-year-old girl was looking through the glass window for mermaids, with a notable lack of success. What I saw among the pristine sandy coloured coral garden was what looked like hundreds of varieties of black, yellow and iridescent blue fish in their thousands, darting around in their turquoise underworld, or peeking out from under coral ledges. A lone puffer fish floated above the rest.
Back on deck, I was surprised to be able to see right through the crystal clear cyan depths to the ocean floor below. As we circled what was left of the Matai, wrecked on the reef in 1916, Mata explained that these days climbing to the top of what is now known as the boiler, and jumping off, is a rite of passage for local children. She kept her guests intrigued and well entertained with her true stories about shipwrecks and cyclones, the early days on the island and sea life and its ecology.
Reef sub trip tours take passengers out daily, weather permitting, and a percentage of proceeds from all trips go towards local conservation causes.