Tobias Bernhard took the photos and tells the story about freediving with Silky Sharks offshore from Savusavu in Fiji.
While you might be chilling through a balmy summer, to us in the tropics this is “cyclone season” meaning sweltering heat, suffocating humidity with towering, cloud formations pregnant with flood rains, three showers and as many fresh t-shirts in a day.
But I love the cyclone season in Fiji. It is full of drama, adventure and passion, decay and renewal of life. If you stand still long enough you grow mould. Underwater there is all the annual spawning and breeding going on; coral, palolo worm and fish. Every summer I spot another juvenile critter I have never seen before. After two days of this weather forecasting becomes as trustworthy as a crystal ball.
There are the storms of course, but an undying optimist would say even they wipe the slate clean and let nature erupt with renewed vigor.
What I love most about the cyclone season though are the intermittent halcyon days and on such dreamy days we like to steer a course until the land is a distant memory. Then, just when it feels far enough we cut the engine and drift. I am content to be here in the moment – nothing else.
For freedivers this is, incidentally, the state of mind that makes our special brand of pre-dive relaxation easy. De-clutter your surroundings and the mind seems to follow. The need to breath becomes insignificant.
I like to drop the safety line just about to the edge of visibility, around 30-40 metres, even if I do not intend to dive that deep, but just because I can.
And on these special days, when you really don’t need anything more, the sea may offer a special gift.
Seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason I can discern, a few sleek shapes glide under the boat. And as if the boat had a magnetic quality to it, more and more of these gleaming, coppery creatures appear. Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falsiformis), the most aptly named shark I have ever seen.
They are supposedly the most prolific pelagic shark in the tropics before the oceanic white tip and blue shark. Though no shark can rightly be called prolific these days with populations down to less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago. Ever more reason to appreciate encounters like these.
Sniffing you out
Silky sharks reputedly have a highly developed sense of hearing, and one of my more cynical theories why they appeared around our boat within minutes of stopping in the middle of nowhere, is that the engine noise signature of our low revving diesel is similar to those of the long liners that frequent the Koro Sea. The sharks might follow us in the hope of snatching bait or a tuna off a hook. This definitely does happen, because a few of the sharks we see have long line hooks in their mouths and steel traces trailing behind them. The ones that got away…
In my New Zealand shark watching days I used to wait hours and spend a small fortune on bait before I would see a blue or a mako. Here this is too easy. I almost have to pinch myself.
When you slip into the water with these open ocean dwellers there is a ritual, a curious sniffing out goes on. The sharks are not shy; they genuinely interact with us, bumping us gently to check us out. This phase doesn’t last long and you might think after they have satisfied their curiosity they would leave. They don’t. They keep cruising around us sedately and at a slightly more respectful distance for hours. We commence our relaxation breath-up on the down-line to prepare for a dive.
Their interest gets peaked again when one of us dives straight down. They follow us down the line and circle us at the turn-around (the tennis ball before the bottom weight), then scatter. As freedivers we turn inside ourselves during a dive and I like to believe this attitude is something the sharks’ sense and regard as non-threatening.
Or is it is more the absence of any attitude that makes them behave like this? I have observed the same with other sea creatures when you keep your eyes closed falling down the line, to open them for the turn just to see a big old turtle staring at you in apparent wonder. It only seems to apply when we dive on the line with proper relaxation technique. If you swim down after them you get to see mostly shark tail.
What I love so much about these encounters is that they seem to be simply by chance, but the animals choose to stay with us. Very different from a shark feed or a whale watch encounter. A wild animal, unhabituated, not running away from you and letting you be amongst them for hours … I don’t know about you, but it gives me a feeling of euphoria and happiness.
I never tire of it and it’s usually the breeze announcing one of those classic, dark, cyclone season squalls that can turn serenity in an instant into wet mayhem that ends it. Or sometimes it’s the cold. Three hours in 30 degrees of water does that, even in a 3mm steamer. I’ve definitely been in the tropics too long.
Pilot whales, Spinner Dolphins, Minki Whales…
Silky Sharks are not the only transients in this vast habitat. Sometimes the blue desert comes to life with a pod of pilot whales accompanied by spinner dolphins, or a boil up of bait fish and skip jack. On rarer occasions, Minki whales.
Much as I love these encounters, they are comparatively fleeting and involve a good deal of stealthy approach if you want to see the animals underwater. In my experience our love for cetaceans is not really reciprocated much. Which is why I love the Silky days.
The Silky Shark encounters take place frequently in the Koro Sea between Koro island, Namena marine reserve and Vanua Levu from the beginning of December to the end of March.
Liquidstate Freediving is the only operator that facilitates these encounters out of the small town of Savusavu on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s big Northern Island. Savusavu is well connected by local carriers from Nadi international.
Liquidstate prefer to take certified (PADI freediver/ AIDA1/ SSI1 or similar) freedivers. They also offer freediving courses from beginner to advanced, year round.
Excursions take the whole day and are weather dependent. For those interested check with Liquidstate freediving by email in advance, or keep an eye on their Facebook page for recent encounters.