Cabbage Patch Doll

[Originally published November of 2019]

[This is a story of Jeni Whaley and me diving Nigali Pass in Fiji.]

So we were getting ready for the third and final visit to “Nigali Pass” today. It’s a sand channel between the open sea and a lagoon. During tide changes, a current zooms through the channel, which is then full of barracuda, sharks, and other large silver fish. If the current is going out of the lagoon to the sea, the water is full of sand and stuff from the relatively shallow water of the lagoon. But when it is incoming, the water is clear from the outside, so that’s when we dive it.

Mark Rothenstein, the semi-professional taxonomist who’s on board with us, said, “Yeah, we dived it on an outgoing current once, just to see what it was like. It was like 15’ visibility with sharks suddenly coming into view right next to you. Once was enough.” 

Almost at the end of this dive is a little cut in the side of the channel where there’s natural seating for 8-10 people (“The Bleachers”). Y2K Fiji trip veterans will remember us sitting in there with the sharks circling over and around us looking for the fish head that Sam had hidden below the seats. 

The first two times we did the dive, we stopped at the Bleachers and watched. But the fact is that we’ve been seeing many more sharks before we got to the bleachers and then (weirdly) afterwards, toward the end of the channel. 

Another interesting twist: there’s a much smaller sand channel (hereinafter “the garden path”) that leaves the main channel, passes behind the Bleachers, and goes over the reef and into the lagoon. It’s an exquisite and easy trip back into the lagoon, with tons of soft and hard corals, and thousands of fish. Jeni, Andi, and I had followed it yesterday after leaving the Bleachers, and pronounced it awesome.

More plot thickening: if you follow the “regular” path out of the channel, you come across a field of Turbinaria reniformis coral which has been named “Cabbage Patch”. When you google it, you’ll see why. We had a brief glimpse of the Cabbage Patch on our first visit yesterday (and I have no idea if we saw it on Y2K). 

So it looks kinda like this:

The path through Nigali Pass

We had all kinda gotten over the bleachers, and Jeni was determined to get serious time on Cabbage Patch. She said yesterday, “When we do Nigali tomorrow, you and I are skipping the bleachers, we’re having a hot minute with the sharks in the channel. Then we’re going straight to Cabbage Patch. If you can take us up the garden path and get us there, great. But if you get lost and I don’t get to Cabbage Patch, you won’t believe the amount of shit you’re going to be in.”

Here’s the thing: you can 100% get to Cabbage Patch by just following the main channel out, keeping the reef on your right. You literally couldn’t miss Cabbage Patch that way. However, Garden Path is magical, and the path via the main channel is surgey and turbid as the lagoon and open sea water mix. Yesterday, by myself, I came out of Garden Path, got a little turned around, but ultimately found Cabbage Patch. I was 98% sure that I could find it accurately this time (“Come out of Garden Path, turn left, there’s Cabbage Patch – can’t miss”, said the divemasters). 

Jeni was more than happy to skip Garden Path to ensure Cabbage Patch. I was not, and was willing to risk her wrath.

We dropped in with Scott, the rising cruising director – Senior/retiring cruise director Chad had Andi with him for some last tweaking of her drift diving course. Scott, Jeni, 20-trip Nai’a veteran Bruce, and I floated down the channel, enjoying the sleeping whitetip sharks, and the expected gimongous school of barracuda. We got deeper, and the grey reef sharks started to appear, passing us headed upstream, and then circling back to do it again. All four of us stopped toward the right-hand edge of the channel at about 90’. That’s the problem with stopping there. The bleachers are at 55’, so if you stop where we did, you’re a lot deeper – air and no-decompression time both go relatively quickly.

But the show was too good to miss. We all lay on the bottom at 90’, held gently onto rocks, and watched the sharks swim all around us. The longer we were there, the more comfortable they got with us and they passed very near without altering their regular pattern.

After ten (?) minutes, I tapped Jeni and with a raised eyebrow pointed up toward the Garden Path. She nodded, and off we went. The path shallows quickly up to about 50’ or so, and my computer immediately forgave me for the deep time. 

We got up into the path, and a lone whitetip shark came scurrying down past us, as if it realized it was supposed to be in the main pass with its larger brethren. Jeni didn’t even see it – she was focused on the corals and fish playing in the bright sunlight (yes, even at 50’). 

We had originally agreed that Jeni would lead the dive, but at some point, she indicated for me to go in front. I knew pretty much exactly where I was. A couple of minutes on, Jeni pointed in the general direction of where we thought Cabbage Patch was. But I wanted to make it all the way to deep water, where I could be sure a left turn would take us there. I wasn’t keen on going up over the top of the pretty shallow reef to get there. I indicated to Jeni we should continue a bit on our course.

A minute or two later, I saw a short detour at about 10:00 and damned if there wasn’t the reef side of Cabbage Patch staring at me. I pointed it out to Jeni, who signed “Well, why are we sitting here?” I was enjoying the view from the reef side – the yellow barred bream and fusiliers were buzzing around that side – but it was indeed pretty shallow and surgey. 

Nigali Cabbage Patch

We swam clockwise around it and found a couple of bare rock hand-holds at 20’ on the lagoon side. I guess we were there for 15 minutes, watching the show and doing no work, consuming almost no air, and effectively doing our safety-stop during the highlight of the show.

One of my favorite characters in the play was a jack, maybe 12-15” long, who would occasionally swim through the cloud of fusiliers above us, obviously with murder and mayhem on his mind. The school would part, and he’d depart, awaiting his next sortie. 

The sunlight stayed as strong as it had all morning, with excellent visibility, even on the lagoon side. We had a living picture postcard in front of us, and neither wanted to leave. I’d look at Jeni, her eyes were dancing around the scene with a near beatific smile on her face.

Finally it was time to go, we lifted up and floated out into the blue. With our nitrogen debt long paid off, we simply drifted up to the surface. We were a long way from either of the skiffs, but after basically a week of this, we knew they’d be onto us quickly. Jeni raised a lazy arm (“Just like calling an Uber” I said) and Fijian Lee came and picked us up. Just as we got into the boat, Scott and Bruce surfaced some distance away; we went and got them.

“Maybe the best dive of… of my life.” said Jeni, aka Cabbage Patch Doll.

Jeni, post-dive

P.S. When I got back, I saw Mark the fish geek. His eyes were shining. “How was the dive, Mark?” “I got a lifer.” “Lifer?” “Black butterfly. First time I’ve ever seen it in Fiji, much less shot it. I was starting to think it wasn’t actually in Fiji.” Each of us dives in his or her own way.