Shark Man of Mana Island

by Pete Atkinson

Life insurance men rarely call on Apisai Bati. He is a giant Fijian who does things with grey reef sharks you would be reluctant to do with Spot the dog …. assuming dogs had a dorsal fin you could hang onto while they towed you around underwater in front of 40 Japanese spectators.

The shark feed at Mana Islands Supermarket (you can get anything there) has been going on for about nine years. From feeding the sharks with fish on a short spear, Api progressed to hand feeding, and now the sharks are so comfortable with him they will allow him to hold onto them. Both greys and white tip reef sharks will feed while being held. The greys, after they have towed Api around, return almost immediately for more food. The feeding lasts about 20 minutes, with greys, white tips and black tip reef sharks in attendance. On one recent dive, Api was leading a large group of divers along the wall after the shark feed, when he held onto a grey that towed him along like a diver propulsion vehicle.

This is a circus whichever way you look at it, and there are plenty of eco-critics who are sniffy about it. Personally, I think absolutely no damage is done to the 20 or so sharks who attend the shark feed, except that their lives are a bit easier. The benefits are huge. Almost 5000 people a year, many of them Japanese, see reef sharks for what they really are: magnificent, misunderstood creatures. These sharks are no more dangerous than Fijian taxi drivers, and any pre-dive anxiety is usually swept away in the first minute of the shark feed. Ambassadors for sharks are needed in a world where 100 million are slaughtered each year. I only wish these people could see bluefin tuna feeding too, so they may be reluctant to drive these fish into extinction with the absurd market prices in Japan. For a perspective on ecological damage from feeding sharks, think of what damage is done by sportfishing boats each week, or the effect on the environment of goats, or Los Angeles, or ocean longliners.

Apisai Bati has been diving at Mana for the last 26 years, a dignified, deeply religious man from the nearby Mamanuca Island of Tavua. In some ways he is the backbone of Aqua-trek, and has become something of a hero in Japan, attending the annual international diving festival in Tokyo each February. People dont want to see just anyone from Aqua-trek, they want to see Api. The train stations have huge posters of a slightly younger Api emerging from the lagoon holding aloft a fish. Occasionally he is recognised, and chattering admirers cluster around and point from the poster to the real thing. The man is larger than life. For endless amusement, Japanese guests at Mana will photograph a print of their hand in the sand, next to Apis, or their tiny feet next to Apis size 15 feet! This humble man prays every morning, but not because he feels in any danger from the sharks, which he regards as his friends. Other commentators have suggested a mystical connection between Api and his sharks; but anyone who exposes themselves as frequently to feeding reef sharks would, in the absence of being eaten, learn enough about their behaviour to know what can be done safely, given self-assurance and Apis 1.93m frame.

Other critics suggest that if you stop feeding the sharks they will go on a rampage and eat everyone in sight. Years ago in the Mamanucas, Castaway Resort used to throw all their rubbish into the sea beyond the inner reef. Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) – which do eat people – were attracted, and you could bring them up from deep water just by revving an outboard engine. These were impressive animals almost 2.5m long and about 160kg in weight. But when Castaway found more acceptable ways to deal with their rubbish, no one disappeared off the beach.

There used to be a shark feed at Namotu (Magic Island) attended by Mamanuca Divers (based at Musket Cove Resort) and Plantation Island Resort. When the surf resort was built on Namotu, the shark feed was discontinued because it was felt that even utterly fearless surfers would be in some kind of danger. About eight dive operators attend the shark feeds on Thursdays and Sundays, but they have become so popular that Aqua-Trek, the organiser, has had to restrict the other operators to one day a week and are encouraging them to start their own feeds. Location will be important, as many resorts will take the NIMBY approach: Not in my backyard.

The largest of these grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus ambly-rhynchos) are about two metres long, about as large as greys get. Api wanted the shark feed to be an educational experience, not commercially motivated. He insisted that the other dive operators are guests, and should pay nothing for the privilege of attending the feed. And a privilege it is. I went out to Mana with First Divers, based at the new and very nice Vuda Pt Marina, not far north of Nadi Airport. They have a glass fibre longboat with 60hp Yamaha, and although the Supermarket is an hour away, the ride is comfortable. They have Japanese and English-speaking instructors. In a two-tank dive package you can dive the Supermarket and The Pinnacle at Malololailai, one of the best macro photography dives in the Mamanucas. The Supermarket is not just another shark feed, nor is Apisai Bati just another guy. You can experience both with several mainland and island-based operators, all accessible from Nadi Airport. And if youre selling insurance, make sure feeding sharks is down in the fine print with acts of God.
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