Article by Sheldon Hey
As part of a recent visit I undertook to Fiji, I was lucky enough to be invited along to participate in a shark feed dive. Being an avid shark fan I had no hesitation on taking up the kind offer. I was soon to discover I had made the right choice with some never to be forgotten encounters with real meaty bull sharks, and the star of the show a 4m tiger shark!
Beqa Adventures have sole rights to dive Shark Reef, an innocuous hard coral reef just offshore at Pacific Harbour, along the south coast of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. Every diver that dives this reef must pay a FS$ 10 which goes to the 2 local villages to compensate those villages for not fishing the reef and for protecting it from other fishing and diving boats (for more information on: Shark Reef Marine Reserve). Shark feeding has taken place here every week for over 6 years now so shark encounters of one kind or another are guaranteed.
Manasa, the lead dive guide, gave a thorough and well rehearsed explanation of what was about to take place, and this professional approach went a long way to settling the nerves of 1 or 2 of the less experienced / bravado members of our group. Understandably, novices are not allowed on the dive and you must have at least 10 logged dives to participate. All divers must wear gloves and full length wetsuits, in addition stay down and behind the wall and keep your fingers to yourselves! He explained that 8 different types of shark frequent the reef, these being its famed bull (Zambezi) sharks, tawny nurse sharks, whitetip, blacktip and grey reef sharks, sicklefin lemon sharks, silvertips and the big bad monster of them all - tiger sharks. Due to the time of year (November to January) it was unlikely we were to see mature bull sharks, as they moved off to their estuary breeding grounds around the coast to the east.
So, as we kitted up, the staff began chumming by throwing dead fish in to the sea. Within a few seconds large schools of giant trevally, rainbow runners and red snappers were all around, splashing on the surface, fighting over the food. It's this noise, together with the fish scent that attracts the sharks.
Now, in went the 4 guides, together with 2 huge sealed bins full of dead fish, and quickly followed by the diving guests. Once under the surface it soon became apparent that it may be quite difficult to see the sharks, even in this 25m visibility water - the clouds of large pelagic fish and yellowtail fusiliers that were scrambling over the dead tuna were overwhelming!
Down we went to 30m for the first level of the 2 tiered first dive. Manasa entered the 'arena' (a cleared patch on the sea floor), whilst we took up our positions a metre or so behind him, and behind a constructed 1 foot high coral wall. With his metal mesh gloves covering his hands, Manasa began the hand-feeding. Soon the huge ball of snapper and trevally was joined by grey reef sharks, perhaps half a dozen or so. Shy at first, they slowly circled ever-closer before taking food from the guide's hand. Behind us, white tip and black tip reef sharks buzzed back and forth, excitedly waiting their turn. After about 10 minutes I got my first sight of a bull shark, this one being a full size pregnant female. Just visible in the distance. The moment significantly registered in my mind because although the shark was 20 metres away, it was so big and heavily pregnant, that it looked to have swallowed a cow whole!
After an all too brief 15 minutes we were nearing the time to start our ascent to the shallower 8m level to continue our dive. Just at that time, a very swift moving and impressive silvertip shark passed by overhead in search of food. A full bodied shark (2½ - 3m), silvertips are often the star of the show on most other dives, but on this occasion it had quite literally arrived too late and missed the show.
Back in the shallows it was now the turn for the black-tips and white-tips to have lunch. What a great way to have a prolonged safety stop, watching a dozen reef sharks darting back and forth in the maelstrom.
Back on board with pineapples and drinking water all round, the group was divided on whether the dive had actually met expectations. Most were very happy indeed but some hadn't seen the bull shark and 1 or 2 others thought it was bit like diving in an aquarium. That was all about to change very soon ...
During the briefing for the 17m second dive, we were all to stand behind the guide rope that had been laid down before, and that acts as the ring side. James, one of the dive centre owners now commented that it is normally on the second dive that the tiger sharks make their appearance. 2 are seen quite regularly here, every week or so, and the operators leave the bins in the water during the surface interval, because it takes longer to attract the tigers, which roam further away from the reef. 'Yeah right, I've heard that one before' thinks I, quite immune to exaggerated marketing speak.
Almost immediately on the second dive I saw several large bull sharks. Obviously not all are sex crazy thinks I. One of the bulls slowly came closer to within 4 or 5 metres. What a sight! I'd dived with bulls before in South Africa and Mozambique, but never had such a stunning close-up encounter. This one just seemed curious and I never felt at all under threat. The bull sharks would have made the dive, but the main course was just arriving!
First I thought it was another huge bull shark in the distance, but then Manasa pointed up excitedly with his metal crook. The stripes were clearly visible, just a few metres above. I was now in the realm of the legendary tiger shark. If you asked most divers if they'd dive with a tiger shark, most would say, they'd jump out of the water and back on the boat as if someone had lit a rocket under their backsides. Such is this shark's reputation.
I saw her circle 5 times, then she came in. Wow, what a truly awesome sight. Manasa was standing there, crook ready and prepped in 1 hand, big lump of fish in the other, with the 4m tiger waiting for the whole chunks of tuna like an expectant dog. I could easily see its wide mouth and sets of teeth, just a couple of metres away, and its large eyes, close up as it swallowed the huge bait.
It was this characteristic that was to provide the most exciting moment of the dive. Eyes closed, the tiger missed the fish on 3 consecutive occasions and Manasa now needed to be more diligent with his crook, fending the hungry, frustrated shark off. As the shark passed off, it gaped. This I knew was an aggressive sign. Back came the shark, faster, straight in and past Manasa. It passed straight at and over my head, easily within arms reach. At this stage I was doing my best to melt into the boulder behind me. It was so close I could have smelt its breath! What a moment, what a thrill! Once again, our dive time had vanished in no time at all. This time when the guide signalled up, everyone hurried back on the boat, as if no one wanted to be last in the water.
Now on the way back to the resort, everyone was in full agreement that we had all shared in a personal lifetime's memory to behold. James was busy all that night running off copies of his video - I think everyone bought that treasured souvenir as a reminder of that magical day.
As a final note, there has been lots of heated debate about the merits of shark feeding and diving. Many people argue that the feeding of sharks is unnatural and breaks their regular behavioural patterns. They also point out that most attacks on humans take place during a feeding activity, and the feeding leads sharks to associate humans with food.
Whilst I can not deny that it does alter the sharks' behaviour, it must be noted that no serious accidents have ever taken place at this shark feed. Indeed, sports such as spearfishing have a much worse safety record, and there are no calls to ban that activity. I think, like spearfishing, participants should have the right to decide for themselves if they are willing to bare the risk. One thing is for sure, if this shark feeding concession was not operating, these sharks would have been killed a long time ago by fisherman. Shark feeding certainly doesn't alter their behaviour as much as chopping off their fins and serving them up at the dinner table. If governments do not act very soon, this kind of activity may be the only chance we will ever get to witness these magnificent creatures.
Fancy it yourself? Read more about the dives in Viti Levu and check out the Lagoon Resort where you can stay and dream at night of your encounters with these magnificent beasts. Watch our Pacific Harbour shark diving video.