Pacific Harbour, Fiji
By: Kerry (Shark images sourced on the internet)
Today I got bumped by a shark. I was minding my own business, looking at some coral when he came from behind and hit me in the hip with his snout. I turned in time to see him swimming away. Compared to the monsters we’d been up close to only minutes before, this guy was a harmless pretender – a 1.5m black tip reefie – but he was borderline belligerent and definitely deliberate, nonetheless.
Being nudged by a noah wasn’t part of the program, but it was a memorable moment in an unforgettable day’s diving. Billed as ‘the world’s best shark dive’, the Beqa Shark Dive has been high on the bucket list for a while.
A 15-minute boat ride from Pacific Harbour saw us moored above the shark feeding site. We descended to 18 metres and knelt on the sea floor behind a purpose-built coral rock wall that came to about navel height. Not a lot of protection in the circumstances, but the sharks seemed to understand.
A dozen or so sharks were already milling around, and furious streams of bubbles sizzled from the regulators of the dozen other divers lined up beside us, hinting at the hyperventilating that was going on.
In front of us, two dive guides knelt behind a big steel box, while a sulo bin was suspended half way to the surface, attended by another two dive guides.
Black tips, white tips, tawny nurse and lemon sharks swam in lazy loops. The guides opened the box a crack and drew out fish heads the size of soccer balls, and held them aloft in their chain-mailed hands.
Everyone – sharks, fish, humans – suddenly got twitchy.
The sharks knew the drill: one at a time, they’d swoop in and snatch a fish head, the guide hanging on ‘til the last moment. Others swam in every-tightening circles above us, gulping leftovers or the other snacks offered by the mid-water guides.
Thousands of small reef fish swarmed around, picking off any shreds of leftovers – sometimes the swarm was so dense it was impossible to see the sharks or the guides. Two massive Queensland groupers sauntered amongst the melee, each of them around 400kg, their huge mouths opening to vacuum up anything the sharks missed.
Then, out of the depths, the stars of the show appeared: the Bull sharks. Weighing up to 300kg, three metres long and with a stout girth worthy of their namesake, they’re considered the ‘most dangerous sharks in the sea’: they’re sharks with attitude, known to be pugnacious and voracious, even eating other sharks, and not averse to the ‘bump and bite’ approach to menu selection.
Time after time, a big bull would swagger towards the dive guide, opening a jagged-toothed mouth, suddenly and savagely twisting its head to snatch the proffered fish head, then slide away, its whole body convulsing with each gluttonous swallow.
It was a mesmerising display, with so much going on it was hard to know where to look. There were at least 20 to 30 sharks, half a dozen Giant Trevally, the groupers, schools of other large pelagics and thousands of little coral fish.
After half an hour or so, the guides led us away over the reef towards a decompression stop. I was en route when the black tip reefie gave me a poke: apparently, sharks will nudge something to test whether it’s edible. I’m glad neoprene wasn’t to his taste…
We did an hour’s surface time and then repeated the dive. I could have done it again, all day long.
Throughout the world’s oceans, sharks are under threat: the demand for shark fin soup sees tens of thousands of sharks slaughtered every day, bringing many species to the brink of extinction. Bull sharks’ status is ‘Near Threatened’.
Sharks themselves cop an unfair bad rap. You have a far higher chance of dying from a dog bite than a shark bite. Yet, knee jerk reactions to shark attacks see mass hysteria and random retaliation culls.
There’s a lot of contention around shark feeding: critics say it teaches sharks to associate humans with food; it’s an unnatural interaction with a wild animal, etc. The flip side of the argument is that, without this dive operation, these sharks – not to mention all the other fish we saw – probably wouldn’t exist.
That’s because the originators of the dive negotiated with the local Fijians to establish a marine sanctuary, with monies from dive tourism going to the villages. There has been no fishing here since 2004 and, as a result, there are more fish here than we’ve seen anywhere else in the country.
We’d driven down from Nadi with the Kiapas and the four of us had done the dive together. Discussing it later, none of us had felt the least bit scared, even though we’d had three-metre-long sharks passing right over our heads and the coral wall offered no real protection.
Exhilaration, awe, appreciation of the beauty and efficiency of a perfect predator… but not even a bit frightened.
And that, I think, is the point.
Seeing them in their element is to appreciate their perfection: they evolved millions of years ago into the perfect killer, and there’s been no need to change the formula since.
Appreciating that perfection and experiencing such an unexpected emotional reaction to their presence is a very compelling motivation to become an advocate for their conservation.
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