The three-foot swell lifts off the South Pacific like something out of a New England glass shop -- its emerald back arched, its thin lip looping forward in an Escherian funnel. As it approaches, I paddle hard through 80-degree water and pop to my feet. My world dissolves into blue, green and foamy white -- a scene cut straight from a surf flick. The lip throws toward the shore, and I draw a bottom turn across the chest-high face. The wave growls as it closes out behind me.
For someone who grew up fantasizing about traveling the globe in search of the perfect wave, this is my dream: To arrive in Fiji with a board, a few friends and no definite plan; to hire a boat at dawn and be surfing a world-class break -- Namotu Lefts, a slow-rolling, utterly reliable tube a few miles off the main island of Viti Levu -- by mid-morning.
Suddenly a helicopter thunders above me, its blades pounding the air. Inside, surf tourists crowd the windows, eagerly inspecting the break. What the hell? I'm so distracted, so utterly confused, that a cresting wave slips beneath me unridden.
As quickly as it arrives, the chopper careens off to the southeast to scope out another break nearby. Stunned, I paddle back to the lineup, where 15 or so others are assembled. Just as I reach the break, a lanky, blond-haired surfer arrives from one of Fiji's premier surf resorts, Namotu, set on a small atoll a few hundred yards away.
"Guests are here," he shouts. "One more wave, then back to the boats."
Say what? I look back at the resort. Tourists, likely the same ones who were riding in the helicopter, are filing onto the beach. Hefty Fijians are loading boards onto boats, and a few surf guides are there too. They are pointing out the nuances of Swimming Pools and Namotu Lefts, breaks that -- like Cloudbreak at neighboring resort Tavarua -- Namotu claims as its own. For the next week the break I'm sitting on is off-limits. Sorry, bro. Guests only.
This is when reality sets in: Right now, in this instant, I am staring into surfing's shifting heart, and it scares me.
In the past 30 years surf resorts have colonized nearly all the world's top waves, and now, many are claiming exclusivity. As a result, independent surf trips -- the freewheeling odysseys that have defined the sport since director Bruce Brown released his 1966 wave-hunting epic, The Endless Summer -- are becoming harder and harder to execute. Some see this as inevitable progress; this past winter the New York Times reported the sport's shift toward the upscale. Still, I have to wonder: Is surfing losing something dear in the process?
I've come to Fiji to answer that question for myself.
On the trail
The boat ride back to Viti Levu should be depressing. My friends and I just got kicked off a break. But it isn't. Not at all. Maybe it's the sheer beauty of the place through which we're passing -- all crystalline water, sandy atolls and towering cumulus clouds -- or maybe it's that we're in Fiji, bro, as in the wave capital of the cosmos, one of the few places on the planet where swells roll in year-round and where finding a surfable break is as easy as hiring a boat.
It also helps that we know something the fresh-off-the-helicopter surfers don't: According to local wave reports, Namotu Lefts, along with every break on the southwest side of Viti Levu, will be pancake flat for the next few days. Supposedly, the swell is shifting south. We're hot on its trail.
The day before, an Australian diver told us about the Waidroka Bay Surf & Dive Resort, a classic surf outpost and the jumping-off point for the southern coast's best breaks. It's about 200 miles southwest of our boat launch, and when we get back to shore, we pack up our rented Land Rover and set out.
Viti Levu is the second largest island in the South Pacific (comparable in size to Hawaii's Big Island), and as we charge down the highway toward Waidroka, we see that it has big scenery to match. Coastal mountain ranges drop straight into the ocean. Stands of spidery banyan trees sprout by the roadside. And fields of sugarcane sway like dense green seas. In one village a group of 15 locals is gathered in a hut, drinking kava, a slightly psychotropic beverage favored by Fijians, from a communal bowl.