A SHARK-AND-BULL STORY

Fiji006

By Lisa Collins.

Looking into the glass-like deep blue water under our moored boat, a ripple of fear undulated through me, accompanied by a frisson of excitement. I was at the famed Beqa Lagoon in Fiji, where a Shark Reef Marine Reserve had been created to study the resident shark population.

I was used to diving with reef sharks in the Caribbean, and white- and blacktips and grey reef sharks in the Maldives, but this would be something else. My mind running amok, I could imagine striding into a giant frenzy of sharks just below the surface. I was to be doing two dives with Beqa Adventure Divers at their world-famous shark feed dive, Bistro.

With slight trepidation, I jumped into the calm flat water. I could see nothing but the deep blue. The visibility was quite bad with lots of particles in the water. Grabbing my camera, I headed to the shot line on the bow of the dive boat and waited for my Fijian dive guide, Papa, to join me. He was carrying a long metal pole with a curved end, to ward off the sharks. Apparently, he only had to point it towards them and that would be enough to deter them.
After a few minutes on the surface seeing nothing below me, calming down slightly, I began to worry the sharks hadn’t been attracted and I wouldn’t see any.

Aggressive behaviour gets a rap on the snout.

Aggressive behaviour gets a rap on the snout.

Descending down the line to 16m where the mooring buoy had been attached to the upturned hull of a wreck, we could see large giant trevally, snappers, bass as well as a multitude of smaller fish starting to congregate. Heading away from the wreck down a reef slope to a sandy bottom at 30m, I could see a few sharks at the edge of my visibility – around 15–20m.

After a few minutes, the shark feeder, clad head to toe in chain mail, descended down through a swirling mass of fish, carrying a large dustbin filled with fish heads. All of a sudden, sharks seemed to appear from nowhere, zooming in from every direction, surrounding the feeder. As he swam closer to us and positioned himself in the middle of the arena, facing us, the smaller white- and blacktips were joined by huge tank-bodied bull sharks. With their flat, blunt snouts, they were unmistakable.

I had never seen a bull shark before and was surprised by their size – they were shorter than I expected but had such a massive girth – almost comically wide compared to their length. Their mouths gaped slightly as they swam past, showing a hint of gleaming white needle-sharp teeth. I could see why these sharks had such a fearsome reputation.

The Shark Reef Marine Reserve was established in 2004 in Beqa Passage just off Pacific Harbour on the south coast of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. An agreement had been made with two local villages, Galoa and Wainiyabia, who owned the fishing rights to the reef. In return for a levy of US$7 per diver they agreed to stop fishing. The levy would be used not only to fund the villages but also to conserve the area. Twelve villagers from six different local villages were trained by the Fijian Government as wardens to help stop illegal fishing. To protect the reef from anchor damage, eight mooring buoys have been installed in the passage where the shark dives are held.
As the shark feeder settled down on the bottom, he waited for the frenzy to calm a little, often having to nudge the animals’ snouts to move them away. It was clear the sharks were used to the feeder and seemed to become quite orderly as they waited for the feed to begin.

A large sickleback  lemon shark with golden trevally.

A large sickleback lemon shark with golden trevally.

The bulls almost lined up to come in one at a time. The first shark seemed a little aggressive, but the next one came in quite gently and took the food in a polite and civilised manner. It was explained to me later that the feeders had, over the years, taught the sharks to feed nicely – otherwise they would be punished with no food and a rap on the snout. On the whole, it seemed this had worked as the feed progressed almost like a school dinner queue, in a seemingly controlled fashion.

After the sharks left the queue they would circle behind us. My eyes were on stalks trying to swivel 360 degrees as I attempted to keep them in view. Silent and deadly, I didn’t want to be caught unawares by one of these massive creatures.

After around 18 minutes, Papa tapped me on the shoulder, making me jump out of my skin. It was time to leave the dive site and start back towards the mooring line. On reaching the wreck we swam along the length studying the large remoras suctioned onto the hull, resting.

Now knowing what to expect, after an hour’s surface interval I couldn’t wait to go back down. For the second dive we would descend the same line but go to a different, shallower area close by at a depth of 20m.

The current had picked up a bit as we went down. I had asked Papa whether it was possible for me to be positioned closer to the shark feeder so I could get some good shark images. Taking me at my word, he placed me by a small rock, which I grabbed between my thighs to help steady myself in the slight current. I immediately felt a little vulnerable and exposed, but trusted in Papa’s vast experience, as he stood right behind me with his hand on my shoulder and his pole held out like a trident, as if he were Neptune.

Already there were a lot more sharks in the water – huge bulls and a couple of large lemons as well as the smaller sharks and thousands of fish. It was frenetic and quite intimidating. As the feeder came down things seemed to get even crazier. There were fish and sharks everywhere. Both Papa and I were bashed about by tail and pectoral fins. It couldn’t get any more up close and personal than this!

The feeder positioned himself just in front and to the left of me at a slight angle. The sharks would come in diagonally behind him straight towards me as they took the bait. It was comforting to have the metal bulk of my housing between my body and the sharks. Coming from every angle I frequently had to duck down or turn quickly to avoid a direct hit by the massive bulk of a shark’s body.

Ramora resting on the hull of the upturned wreck.

Ramora resting on the hull of the upturned wreck.

A huge three-metre lemon shark cruised around us, trailing a group of golden trevally. Then a bull shark, looking just like one of the gangster sharks in Finding Nemo , took a huge tuna head from the feeder, gulping it down whilst its snout protruded, showing me row upon row of razor-sharp teeth.

It was an almost overwhelming experience – truly incredible, amazingly exciting, but terrifying at the same time. Papa was virtually piggy-backing me as I crouched as small as I could to avoid the sharks. I caught sight of his saucer-wide eyes in his mask, getting the feeling this was almost too close for comfort for him too, despite being one of the most experienced shark guides in Fiji.

As you would expect, with my breath quickened by the experience, after 20 minutes my air was getting low. We were unable to ascend until the shark feeder had moved off. Starting to panic slightly, I was incredibly relieved when he started to ascend and back away from us only seconds later, dragging the dustbin with him.

Back on board, I reflected on the most exhilarating, exciting and scary dive of my life. Perhaps next time, I wouldn’t ask to get so close!