Posted by: Anna | September 7, 2011

Shark Diving in Fiji

Sharks get a bad reputation. I’ve seen Jaws – in 3D, during which I clasped Tommy’s arm and left nail marks from my unreasonable fear reaction to those giant shark teeth coming at me in 3D. So you might be surprised to learn that it was my idea to do a shark dive in Fiji, known among divers as one of the best in the world.

I didn’t really know what to expect beyond seeing lots of sharks enjoying chum (fish heads from the local fish factory) offered to attract them. We signed up knowing little other than the great reviews we’d read online. We got our gear and loaded onto the boat to head out to the site. All the divemasters and staff on the boat were Fijian, a rarity in Southeast Asia where the divemasters are frequently Europeans living abroad. The head divemaster started our briefing once we were settled on the boat. He flipped down a small map of the site and started to explain the process. We would all descend to 30 meters together; all the divers would kneel behind a small rock wall in a line. The feeder, wearing a chain mail sleeve and gloves, would stand in front of us with a big plastic bin of chum (fish heads). He would start to feed the fish, including large, stupid trevallies (that are actually the reason he has to wear the chain mail – the sharks don’t ever bite or nip him, but the trevally do). Soon, bull sharks would start to swim up and eat from him too. He assured us not to worry when the sharks swam over our heads. Additional divemasters would stand around us with long metal hooks that would guide the sharks away from the divers if they got too close. We would watch this for 17 minutes.

He would then bang on his tank (makes a metallic clanging that you can hear underwater), and we would know it was time to move shallower, to around ten meters. We would again kneel on a ledge, and watch the feeder feed sharks again, but this time we would see smaller, shallower dwelling sharks like white tip, black tip, and gray reef sharks. Ten minutes later, we would again move shallower, for one last feeding location, with the same reef sharks and a resident moray eel.

I was nervous. Everyone else on the boat seemed genuinely excited, and the feeling was contagious. We suited up after our very thorough briefing and got into the water. On the signal, we all descended and lined up at the wall. Hundreds of fish were swimming around us – banner fish, trevally, rainbow bass, and many more. The feeder pulled out the fish head, and the fishes’ excitement was palpable. Not one minute later, the sharks approached. Bull sharks are huge, fat, and fast. Rather than trembling, my eyeballs zoomed following the sharks swimming and circling the feeder. They swam over my head several times, so close I could have reached out and touched them (we were told specifically not to do that, so I kept my hands to myself). They would snatch a fish head from the feeders hand in one gulp and swim away, almost like a getaway from a robbery. It was completely absorbing.

Bull sharks swimming around us

Too soon, it was time to move. We moved up a level, and the feeding continued. The reef sharks are smaller, and the feeder would almost play with them — running his hands down their backs after they took a fish head, pulling their tails, etc. Apparently, the black tip reef sharks are naturally shy of people, to a greater degree than the others. It took six years for the first black tip to eat from a feeder. Within a week afterward, they would appear in groups every day….guess word gets out about the good new place to eat. The smaller sharks got even closer to us, flicking their tails almost touching our masks and literally running into people’s cameras!  We moved up again, to four meters. We watched the sharks continue to circle us, enjoying the fish head feast.

At the surface, waiting to get back into the boat, we all raved about it, with many divers calling it the best dive of their lives (this from a guy who is from Brazil, lives in Australia, and works in Palau!). There were so many more sharks than we anticipated, the Beqa Adventure Divers team was so much more professional, and it was all so close. It was a unique experience, unlike any other dive I’ve done, and more satisfying to my intellectual curiosity about the top predator of the ocean’s behavior and less of an adrenaline rush than I had anticipated.

Was it my favorite? I don’t know. It was a different style of dive, where I am an audience member at a choreographed show rather than a visitor to a wild place. It was crazy, and without human intervention to stage the scene for me, I’d never get to see that many sharks that close. I left with more respect and interest in sharks and less fear than when I arrived, and that is certainly a benefit. It was really fun. Was it more fun than diving in with no guarantee of seeing anything, and seeing an entire school of barracuda and several turtles, as I did in Sipadan? I don’t know – the shark dive takes an element of discovery away because I knew what I was going to see before I descended. I grinned from ear to ear when it was over and gladly handed over my money, happy to have done it.

Shark dives are somewhat controversial, as many believe they alter the sharks natural behavior, making sharks more dangerous to humans as they lose their natural aversion to us. This is bad for people, obviously, and sharks – if they kill or attack humans, humans will attack and kill them, forging a relationship of animosity over coexistence. Others argue that shark dives are good for sharks because they allow local communities to make money from the sharks while leaving them alive, rather than fishing them for food and to sell as food. Shark populations are dangerously low around the world because of overfishing in general and the Chinese desire for shark fin soup (which requires shark fins).

We did a second dive, which was less amazing than the first – focused entirely on more time with the bull sharks, who look just like Bruce in Finding Nemo.  It provided an opportunity to watch them longer –  I even got to see one with his mouth wide open right in front of me after he snagged a fish head. I also watched closely and saw a shark gulp a live fish down right in front of my eyes, like it was nothing. I was glad to not be a fish in that moment, and I understood a little better how Nemo must have felt with Bruce around.

You can see the feeder holding a fish head and the shark chomping it away. This guy is crazy, but awesomely so.

I wouldn’t want every dive to be a choreographed show, but just like I can enjoy a night at the theatre as well as a night at a party, I can appreciate both styles of dive. I didn’t get to experience the purely physical pleasure of the weightlessness of diving, but I loved opening my eyes to the wonders of sharks.

There are some more great shark videos on our Flickr page.

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Responses

  1. Glad I didn’t know about this one ahead. The pictures are amazing.

  2. My eyeballs would have been zooming, too!!! You both are WAY braver than I could ever dream of being! Now that you have “been there, done that”, can we skip any more shark close encounters? We are back from our trip…no swimming with sharks but I DID put on my fat-girl bathingsuit and go down a scary slide. That’s big for me! XOXOXO, Kita


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