When it comes to close shark encounters, they don’t come any closer or more intense than this! Two feet in front of me was the largest bull shark I had ever seen, her mouth wide open displaying row upon row of huge triangular teeth. The artificial feeling of safety I usually get from holding my camera suddenly seemed inconsequential, and with my finger held down on the shutter-release, and camera whirring away in continuous-shot mode, I was mesmerised by the magnificent animal as she seemed to hang in the water right in front of me. And then the moment was over and she was past. Swinging to my right she let me see all the hard-packed muscular beauty of her 4 metre-plus body, her small yellow eye watching me intently, the huge tuna head that had been fed to her by the feeder on my left disappeared in an enormous mouth, and I was rocked backwards by a passing strike of her pectoral fin on my belly. As I said – pretty intense!
This is the Beqa lagoon Big Fish Encounter in all it’s ‘up close and personal’ glory! As many as eight different species of sharks are found at this one site on a remote reef, offshore of Pacific Harbour in Viti Levu, Fiji. Heavyweights like bulls (Carcharinus leucas) and tigers (Galeocerdo cuvier) join silvertip (Carcharhinus albimarginatus), sicklefin lemon (Negaprion acutidens), blacktip reef (Carcharinus melanopterus), whitetip reef (Triaenodon obesus), grey reef (Carcharinus amblyrhynchos) and tawny nurse sharks (Nebrius furrugineous) in a performance that leaves even hardened shark-divers awestruck. The veteran Australian shark photographers and film-makers, Ron and Valerie Taylor, have called this the ‘best shark dive in the world’, and although it is an ultra-controlled and choreographed show with sharks that can’t have failed to have been conditioned by years of feeding, it is still an incredible experience and an opportunity to see these species closer than anywhere else on the planet.
Legendary Fijian divemasters Rusi and Manasar, who have each logged nearly 20,000 dives, choreograph the dives to maximise the experience and safety. The first dive of the day starts at about 9am. From the boat, the staff have thrown food into the water already which has created a frenzy of white water by giant trevally competing for the scraps – and these boys are not called ‘giant’ for nothing! This is like ringing the dinner bell for the sharks and by the time we have descended to an area at 30m a few expectant bull sharks are already circling in the gloom beyond. The chum is brought down in a large bin, and then the fun really starts. A tornado of huge fish forms around the feeder. Giant trevally, bass, snappers form a storm in front of us. Beneath them, bull sharks make ever closer passes to check out the new interlopers in their domain, a few times moving in to take a tuna head from the feeders hand. On occasions two massive Queensland groupers (or Brindlebass) are drawn in – and these are bigger than some of the bull sharks! Tawny nurse sharks also come in for an easy feed, sinuously slinking along the sea bed as if vacuuming up all in their path!
After 17 minutes at 30m, we ascend to the next feeding point at 16m. Here more bull sharks are drawn up from the depths, and joining them can be silvertips and lemons as well as the grey and whitetip reef sharks – although there is a very definite pecking order between them with the massive bulls holding dominance. However, if one of the tiger sharks turn up – all other species defer to it!
20 minutes at the middle section of the reef, is followed by a safety stop on the reef top at 3m where often blacktip and whitetip reef sharks are zooming around and if there is any food left (there invariably is!) then they will zip in to try to get it amid the continual bombardment from the trevallys.
After a one hour surface interval the second dive starts – and this, in my opinion is the biggy! Alerted to the feeding by the first dive, 20-30 bull sharks have come up from the depths and congregate near a second feeding station at 16m. It is here that the divers are subjected to repeated passes by the bulls to take tuna heads from the experienced hands of Rusi, Manasar and David. For photographers and videographers some amazing (and perhaps unique in the world) shots can be got from good positioning and anticipation of the animals’ behaviour and their interaction with the feeders – there are close-passes and toothy shots galore. At times, food is released from above us and we get an amazing view of large sharks powering their way up to wrest it from the mouths of the ever present cloud of big fish. After 35 minutes we ascend, exhausted by the spectacle of the Big Fish Encounter – but never quite sated. We had ten days of doing these dives and didn’t tire of the experience once!
The ethics of Shark Feeding
A fact to consider when considering this dive with the hotly debated topic of shark feeding: a partnership between Beqa Adventure Divers and twp local villages which jointly own Shark Reef under Fijian law, is the only reason these magnificent fish are still alive. Every diver pays a sum to the villages and, as a result, locals now realize their marine life is far more valuable alive than dead. To protect it they have created a no-take marine reserve, prohibiting all fishing. Resources to enforce the law include shore-based wardens and a speedboat. This is an innovative partnership providing longevity and sustainability for the shark population. It is also very popular with the Fijian Fisheries authorities as it provides a safe nursery which has begun naturally restocking surrounding areas. All the food that is used comes from a local fish-processing factory – mainly tuna heads and off-cuts – so there is no issue of killing other fish to fuel the demand to see sharks close-up.
The shark feeding is carried out in a very safe and controlled way, the feeders are incredibly experienced and know the individual animals’ characters. OK, so its detractors would argue that the sharks have been conditioned by the regular feeds, which they undoubtedly have, but this has not led to any direct association between human, shark and food, and there have been no increase in ‘shark attacks’ anywhere in the vicinity at all.
Getting the local population involved in the guardianship of their local resources, educating them about the impending collapse of all fish stocks and providing an alternative source of income from this dwindling resource other than the one-off hit of catching a killing them, is a model which is working here and could easily be applied elsewhere in the world.