Prisoner in Paradise
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, March 1998

I'm writing this month's Photo Adventure in the middle of a real one in the Fiji Islands. My assignment here at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort may not be a complete success. Barbara and I planned a leisurely week to shoot photographs amidst the understated elegance of the finest traditional accommodations imaginable set amidst wild natural beauty. The owners want to use our photos to illustrate how they've created a world-class resort in a tropical paradise that they believe can be preserved for ecotourism with long-term environmental sustainability. Indeed, the resort appears to have changed the landscape less than the natural events of the last two days.

We're lying on the bed in our thatched-roof "bure," warm and comfortable in shorts and tee shirts, but we certainly don't feel relaxed. Outside, Tropical Cyclone Gavin is raging„what we call up north a hurricane. Black skies and blurry palm trees bending in the wind won't sell people on strolling the pristine beaches, scuba-diving through schools of fish and vivid corals, reserving a private island for a day, hiking a rain forest trail, or photographing fantastic landscapes and sunsets.

Though I've been taking the obvious shots, I'm lying here thinking that I've been a bit too casual. I've walked by many great scenes with turquoise waters, coral sands, and lush vegetation believing that I had several days left to go back and work situations that grabbed my eye. In the leisure of those moments, I violated my own cardinal rule of adventure photography: If it looks good, shoot it; if it looks better, shoot it again.

On the other hand, we're lucky to have come to one of the rare resorts that understands the needs of photographers. The old Chinese water torture is preferable to waking up to a full moon about to set in a rosy pre-dawn sky, only to discover that the double-paned window in your 8th-floor room won't open more than 49mm, and that the sequence of events needed to put you in position for a clear view„elevator, distant parking, power lines, condos, and gated community„negate any possibility of making a decent photograph. Room service generally starts 15 minutes after you needed to leave your room to catch the sunrise, and dinner service generally stops 15 minutes before you get back in from photographing the sunset.

Before dinner on our first evening here, I stepped out to photograph a fabulous sunset over Savusavu Bay. Total time from our bure to where I set my tripod on the beach was less than 30 seconds. When I went scuba diving, I was sorry to have gone to the trouble to borrow a Nikonos with the latest TTL strobe. The dive shop has the same equipment for loan, plus its own E-6 lab to process slides. Thus, I was able to critique my own work before heading out to the most spectacular dive sites. Photographing the vivid colors of Fijian coral, untouched by careless divers, gives me the same sort of joy I find in a remote mountain meadow filled with wildflowers. Hikes into a rainforest and through a local Fijian village give us the feeling that we are part of the local scene, rather than inside a Club Med bubble-pack from another world.

Now, the first hurricane to hit Fiji in several years has become central to our experience. I'm confined to shooting pictures that travel publications aren't going to use such as the huge brown waves and the resort chef from Southern California trying to surf them off the flooded pier. While we would have preferred to have chosen a different week, we're glad we came and especially glad we chose to stay after advance warning of the hurricane. None of the guests have had problems in these 20 impeccably built structures, designed over time by Fijians to best weather the big blows that come through every so often. Now the eye of the storm has passed.

Two guests who decided to leave early have not been so lucky. They just called here to tell their friends how they escaped to the main island by charter flight only to find that all scheduled flights to the U.S. are grounded. They checked into a Western-style hotel, which has flooded and lost all power. Meanwhile we're having great hurricane parties under the 30-foot ceilings of the main lodge after quiet days of reading and writing in our bures. When the winds die down, I'm planning to take a run a few miles down the beach with a light camera to check out the native village, talk to the locals, and stretch my legs.

The resort was founded by Jacques Cousteau's son, Jean-Michel, Executive VP of the Cousteau Society for 15 years, as well as a recognized ocean environmentalist and diver in his own right. After his father's late-life remarriage to a mistress with a vengeance, Jean-Michel became disenfranchised from family enterprises. Sued by his senile father and caustic stepmother to take the Cousteau name off his resort, Jean-Michel asked just what name, other than his own, he should use.

A settlement agreed upon use of John-Michel Cousteau's full name on a property that represents his joint venture with the owners of Post Ranch Inn, arguably the finest place to stay on the Big Sur Coast of central California. Fiji reservations are handled through Post's San Francisco office at 800-246-3454. Reflecting this joint venture, some of the staff members come from Post Ranch, while the majority are native Fijians, who live up to their reputation as the world's most genuinely friendly people. It takes awhile to realize that these are not just resort smiles, but the genuine expression of a people unspoiled by contact with the modern world. In their own villages, the same open spirit, positive attitude, and presence for the moment is equally apparent.

As the storm came in, I shot the interior of our bure when the soft morning light coming from outdoors matched the intensity of the artificial lights. To avoid parallax distortion and yet take in the full bure, I used a 15mm rectilinear lens aimed absolutely level at the height of the lower ceiling beams. Before the storm, the 86-degree ocean temperature was ideal for learning underwater photography. It's a simple matter to get a roll processed after a dive or a snorkel, study the results, and go down again with a better understanding of the limitations of the medium. For example, the 20mm wide-angle lens I used held depth of field that far exceeded the capability of the flash to evenly light near and far subject matter. Aiming the camera up to get rays of sunlight behind subjects lit with flash is especially tricky because the low synch speed often requires a f11 or f16 aperture, which can limit fill light down to a foot.

Because I've processed some rolls, I know I've got fine coral shots with a full spectrum of vivid hues, both from snorkeling just off the beach and ten scuba dives on guided daily excursions. I'm also sure that I caught an incredible tropical sunset as the weather was moving in, plus some activity shots of sea kayaking, tennis, and poolside scuba instruction. What I'm missing are the kind of "signature" photographs I planned to make on the final days of the week after I'd done the dives, walked the beaches, and saturated my awareness of the place. There could be worse things in life. I guess we'll have to come back!

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