In Fiji, Preserving an Underwater Paradise—One Tree at a Time

It all starts with a mangrove sapling at Nanuku Resort on Viti Levu.


Nanuku Resort in Fiji owns a large, undeveloped stretch of coast around the resort.

Courtesy of Nanuku Resort

Deep in the middle of the South Pacific is an island. And off that island is another island. And beside that island, in a Technicolor coral reef, lives a fish. A very small fish, with delicate blue and yellow stripes, but a seemingly very happy fish that lives in one of the loveliest places on Earth and became my closest companion for an hour last winter. I discovered—let’s call him Flippy—when I was snorkeling around Nanuku resort’s private island off the coast of Fiji. Flippy swam a few millimeters off—and in perfect harmony with—my nose for ages as I explored the coral in waters that were more hot tub than bath in places.

Flippy’s flawless synchronicity was uncanny, but he was by far the only aquatic playmate my wife and I encountered on our five-night stay along the south coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. Our boat to the desert island, which was offered by the hotel as one of its many excursions, was surrounded by fun-loving dolphins surfing the wake, flying through the air, and generally having a blast. I’ve long thought my spirit animal was a sea otter. Usually seen relaxing on their backs in the water, with an offspring or a spot of lunch resting on their tummies, they seemed to have life nailed. But these dolphins changed my mind.

Over the course of our trip, we stand-up paddleboarded at dawn among hawksbill turtles, kayaked above the glimmer of manta rays, and swam among a rainbow of fish by another reef only steps from the resort itself. In fact, we probably spent more time in, on, or under the water than we did on dry land. Between the hotel’s beachside hot tub, our villa’s private pool (with “Bula Tim,” translation “Hello Tim,” spelled out in stones on the bottom), and the rivers and waterfalls in the nearby interior, we barely had a chance to dry out.

Spending time submerged is not uncommon along Fiji’s coasts. On a boat speeding through water the color of English breakfast tea on the Navua River one Saturday morning, we passed dozens of families also spending a day up to their necks in water. They were catching mussels for Sunday lunch, a playful affair that involved splishing, splashing, faces bobbing up from the surface, fathers throwing seaweed on their children’s heads, and of course bellows of “Bula” as we raced past.

Amid all this aquatic abundance it took me a while to realize what we weren’t seeing, which was other tourists or any related infrastructure. As I looked around me and back at the mainland from another morning swim, I realized the horizon was fringed with nothing but palm trees and sky. There wasn’t a building, umbrella, boat, Jet Ski, sunglasses seller, sunbather, or swimmer in sight.


A room with a helluva view: the Owner’s Residence at Nanuku.

Courtesy of Nanuku Resort

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, Nanuku has an excellent acreage to accommodation ratio, around 500 acres to just a few dozen accommodations. It also owns a large, undeveloped stretch of coast around the resort. That meant our odds of encountering anyone else were low, even before factoring in the relative lack of other hotels and the time of year. We were there between Thanksgiving and Christmas (a travel time for which I’ll always advocate) and at the start of the wet cyclone season (although high 80s / low 90s temps and short, sporadic rain showers worked for us).

All of which meant we spent far more time with the gregarious local-born staff—Josh, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Fiji culture and generous kava pours; Jerry, expert snorkeler and passionate sustainability advocate—than fellow travelers. For many days it was pretty much just us at breakfast, a private audience for the musical entertainment as a singer and guitarist played “Brown-Eyed Girl” using a plastic bottle full of sand for percussion.

Preserving paradise

By many definitions, Fiji is close to paradise. And like all paradisiacal places, it needs protecting more than ever. It’s been hit with floods and cyclones in recent years. Last summer, the country’s defense minister Inia Seruiratu called climate change “the single greatest threat to our very existence.” He added that “waves are crashing at our doorsteps, winds are battering our homes. We are being assaulted by this enemy from many angles.”

Nanuku has launched a holistic effort called the Batiwai Project. Named for a local tribe (with “batiwai” roughly translating to “edge of the water”), it’s led by marine scientist and sustainability manager Kelly-Dawn Bentley and aims to minimize the resort’s footprint while improving the local marine ecosystem and the well-being of staff and local communities. It’s doing this with coral and mangrove planting, reef maintenance, and local outreach and education.


Guests can take part in coral planting through the resort.

Courtesy of Nanuku Resort

Jerry points out the metal structures of a coral nursery as we glide by the reef one morning, explaining how tiny pieces of branching coral—which grows quickly and is OK with warm temperatures—are attached. As we surface to wipe our masks, he talks us through how different fish interact with the coral (parrotfish are the cleaners, apparently)—and how coral reefs are at risk from spearfishing, storms, and of course, warming. A cyclone washed away a previous effort at planting, but this newer effort is already nurturing multiple fish.

Back on land, we de-flipper by the mangrove nursery, where these climate superheroes begin their life. Mangroves only cover .1 percent of land but have huge potential for carbon sequestration. Their canopies offer a habitat for bird life, their root systems provide safe ground for young fish, and they offer robust protection against rising tides and storm surges.

Later on, we drive to a nearby village with Josh, Jerry, and Kelly to plant some of the saplings in a coastal sandbank—the latest batch in more than 12,000 planted by the resort. The resort is trying to encourage people to think of mangroves as a better line of defense than brick walls (“the best seawalls we have,” says Josh) and also to stop cutting them down for firewood.

The mangrove saplings do look somewhat small and fragile in their sandy cradles, but I cross my fingers they’ll survive any climatic events in the near future and take root firmly—along with all the other grassroots efforts at this and other pioneering hotels.

Know before you go

Getting there: Fiji Airways flies direct from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu.

Where to stay: Nanuku Resort (book now)

Nanuku offers residences, suites, and villas along a beautiful stretch of the coast. Fijian culture is embodied in the design touches, with balabala carvings (thought to ward off evil spirits) made out of tree fern stems around the gardens and magimagi coconut fiber bindings on interior beams similar to those found in original bure (hut or cabin) homes. Guest experiences include a Fijian food safari, basket weaving, and a kava ceremony. At the latter, kava root is wrapped in wild hibiscus bark, dipped into water, and wrung out into a bowl. Recipients clap their hands three times, exclaim “Bula,” and sip the mildly intoxicating drink. The kids club can assign a staff member to each child from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with activities like raft building and traditional cooking, ensuring that the little ones aren’t just tuned to a TV.

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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