A day at Malamala Island

By Ben Wheeler

“Welcome to Paradise!” our sunny Fijian guide beams through the speaker system as our catamaran arrives at the picture perfect Malamala Island Resort.

It’s a bold claim, but then Fiji has a habit of living up to this regularly-served slice of marketing jargon, astounding visitors with its luscious flora and fauna, and with land and seascapes that connect people and place in a way that is hard to match elsewhere.

In a world slowly finding its feet after years of being locked down, and coming to terms with shifting climate narratives, I will find myself pleasingly surprised by how all of this will eventually feed into my enjoyment of this idyllic day trip.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind…

Our first sighting of the Malamala Island Resort is everything we’d been promised – a small atoll largely surrounded by golden sands, covered in beautiful palm trees, with a long wooden jetty, outstretched like an arm that greets and draws us safely to our destination.

We are divided between those who upgraded to the deluxe beachside cabanas or poolside beds, and those of us here to simply find a sun lounger and parasol, and enjoy a slowly unwinding day of island-based bliss.

Infinity pool at Malamala Resort
Infinity pool at Malamala

My partner and I decide to organise ourselves around a schedule. This is not, I should mention, the structure of the day I see unfolding around me as most people have come to relax and drink beer and cocktails. Next time, I promise myself, when I’m off the clock!

The first thing we do is get into the beautiful crystal-clear water with some snorkelling gear. As someone who is still a little green around the gills with these kinds of activities, I am constantly in awe of the sights below the surface.

In no time at all we have seen fish of all shapes, sizes and colours. We glimpse an assortment of triggerfish, moving solo, and in schools, with teams of smaller fish often trailing the larger ones that can rummage in the seabed with more success, dislodging nourishment for all. Malamala, I will learn later, is something of a haven for marine life, with fishing and motor sports both banned in the surrounding waters, allowing for a wonderful diversity that includes spadefish, damsel fish, and clown fish amongst others.

Soon after we leave the water, the resort manager Marian comes to greet us and offers some great insights into the recent history of the resort. 

“Since being closed during Covid,” she tells us, “the island has been able to breathe!”

She inhales deeply, drawing her hands into her chest, and then exhales throwing them out in a demonstrative manner. It is clear she feels a personal connection to this particular piece of vanua.

“It’s like it needed the break. It was in many ways a good thing, and we can see now that more trees and plants have grown in this time.”

There is increasing focus on the ecological maintenance of the island these days, Marian explains. 

“But if you want to know more about that, you should speak to Tima. And ask about the turtle that visited us!”

Dessert at Malamala
Dessert at Malamala

My attention is piqued, but after all this excitement, so is my appetite. We bid sota tale to Marian and make our way to the restaurant and bar area from which waiters have been delivering impressively large trays of food with skill and poise since we arrived.

The food is delicious, as we expected, and we wash it down with lashings of ginger beer and fresh coconut juice.

After working our way through a cross section of the menu, I am able to catch up with Tima, who walks me around the island and tells me how she came to work there.

She inherited her love of the ocean from her father, who would take the family to Treasure Island and Bounty Island when he wasn’t working in Suva.

“There’s something about the sea. It just makes me happy,” she says with a huge smile. “Underwater is a whole different world. I’m lucky and blessed to be here and have the freedom from my boss to explore and research as much as I work.”

Tima gained her bachelor’s degree in marine science at the University of the South Pacific, and soon after netted a job at Malamala. Here, her passion and knowledge are being channelled into projects like coral restoration – fixing broken shards in the shallow waters surrounding the island to ropes suspended between underwater tables – and cultivating awareness amongst staff and guests about how to avoid future damage.

Tima of Malamala Island Resort

On land, she tells me about the amazing device the resort’s engineering team are working on – a machine that will grind bottles back into the beach.

“Crack a beer open, then turn it into sand,” she says excitedly.

I have to ask about the turtle. Tima’s face lights up.

It seems that on Christmas Day a large hawksbill turtle visited the island, and it soon became clear that she was looking for a place to bury her eggs. Afterwards, when she tried to return to the water over some exposed rocks, potentially injuring herself, four staff members lifted her gently over the terrain and lowered her safely into the water.

The site is now cordoned off and closely monitored, and Tima and the crew will do everything they can to ensure those hatchlings make it to the water after their incubation period.

It’s a story that warms my heart more than the sand on my feet.

Before we know it, and too soon, it is time to leave. But we are sure to return.

Malamala Island resort is, like so many parts of Fiji, more complex than the stereotypes we visitors imagine. Here, the kind of paradise that we are constantly told is being lost is in fact slowly, incrementally being regained.

And even if you come to relax in the infinity pool and drink beer, you will soon be contributing to that process.

This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, January 2023.

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