Sharks, Sharks, Sharks!!!!!

Posted on June 25, 2017


WARNING: This means you Mum! Sit down, breathe calmly and remember I’m writing this post dive, so I survived. 

If you had said to me a year ago, “How do you fancy doing a baited shark dive with 30 plus apex predators in Fiji? You descend down a mooring line in a current. Crouch next to a wall in a man-made arena. Stay calm and watch for 45minutes while 5m/15ft Bull sharks and Tiger sharks swim around you being hand fed enormous tuna heads. Oh and then there’s another seven different species which fight it out for the off cuts. No cage involved.” I probably would have snorted, looked the other way and thought you were absolutely bonkers. 

But this is exactly what I did yesterday. Twice!

It was exactly 20 years ago this month that I decided to learn how to scuba dive. I’d just finished university and came home to London and visited the newly opened aquarium on the South Bank. Inside I remember being mesmerised by the divers cleaning the shark tank. I was in awe they looked so relaxed next to these “bloody thirsty killers”. That summer I went to Mexico and took my first giant stride into the ocean. The myth that every shark is like Jaws was dispelled and my love of scuba was sealed.

Fiji boasts it is the only place in the world where eight different species of shark turn up for a feed. Cage-less baiting does happen elsewhere. My dive buddy extraordinaire BQ reliably informs me they do something similar in the Bahamas. 

I will admit I was torn when I signed up to do this dive. The diver/journalist in me was gagging to experience this as I asked so many divers their thoughts. Everyone said it will be the dive of a lifetime to be this close, literally eyeball to eyeball. Plus it is all the other marine life that shows up too.

But the conservationist in me doesn’t agree with provisioning predators. Changing animal behaviour is risky. Sharks are migratory and on the whole usually shy. Associating people and food, i think personally is an accident waiting to happen. Also blood and bait creates a heightened atmosphere among the sharks. They behaved very differently to how I’ve observed them during recreational diving. It was morbidly compelling.

The boat ride out took just ten minutes to reach Beqa (pronounced BEN-GA) Marine Reserve just off the main island of Viti Levu. The rain fell lightly and the sky was cloudy. I checked my gear, strapped up and stepped off the boat plunging into the dark water. I made sure I was over weighted I did not want to float up and have an additional unexpected encounter. There were 12 of us in total and only four experts. Everyone had varying dive abilities but you must be an advanced diver to do this. I was however the only diver without a camera. I wanted to take in the full experience without looking through a view finder. 

We were informed no free descending. “Hold onto the mooring line please,” said one Dive Master (DM) with a firm, strict tone. 

“There is a current and we don’t want you drifting into the deep.”

A white board with a detailed briefing was brought out, he continued, “When you get down there, there will be someone to direct you to the wall. Find a spot and kneel down and wait. Hold onto the wall, because we don’t want you drifting into the arena. For those with cameras, do not have your arm outstretched. Keep your elbows bent and the camera at 30º. Only feeders outstretch their arms. Or you may have a shark come and say hello.”

As I descended holding the line I floated down with great ease. Weight belt digging into my hip bones. The show had already started. Below me glossy, large remoras were swimming mid way down. Their numbers were staggering especially with the clear visibility. I looked around. As I got deeper I encountered different shark species at different depths circling. First were the White Tips and Reef sharks; then closer to the bottom huge Sickle Lemon sharks were circling. Tawny sharks, Nursing sharks and my least favourite the agile, robust and very aggressive Silver Tips – the mid-feeders that like to chase and hunt prey at speed.

In front of the wall, which came up to below chest height when kneeling, just three meters from me were two large steel drums with heavy lids and large holes around the sides. Giant colanders. Inside 150kg of tuna heads. The bait had been brought down early that morning around 6am. The current had carried the scent of blood into the deep channels where the bull sharks reside and soon enough they would show up for their feed. Tigers are solitary and nomadic. There isn’t a resident population as such in Beqa but they do often return to these sites. We would be very lucky to see one. 

Behind us were just two DM holding long steel poles to push any uninvited sharks away from us. “We could end up being human doner kebabs if this doesn’t work out,” I mused to myself.

The other two DMs in front of the wall wore chainmail only on their arms and gloves, ready to open the lid and deliver a bespoke meal to our greedy guests.

The first jaw dropping moment was the arrival of two prehistoric-sized groupers. They were easily 4m and twice as big as the ones I saw on the Agincourt Reef in March. They were larger than some of the sharks in length and breadth. I would have rubbed my eyes if I could have. They shunted at the drums excitedly with their enormous mouths salivating trying to get at the bait. The DMs had to pushed them away with their steel poles. They would be in the way when the bulls turn up and that could be dangerous for everyone.

Hundreds of fish packed together forming a marine tornado around the drums. Above them was a suspended wheelie bin full of another 100kg of discards. The smell just added to the frenzy. The tight column was made up of hundreds of fish: enormous giant trevelly, humpback snappers, midnight snappers, black and white damsel fish, pilot fish, butterfly fish, surgeon fish, rainbow runners and tian trigger fish to name just a few. I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t know what to look at. 

At one point cutting through the fish blizzard came a 3m Silver Tip. Agitated by the bait smell. It went for the DM. Purposefully. No hesitation. I heard a solid thump, thump as the diver punched it hard twice on the snout and pushed its jaws away from him. It circled and tried again. Once more the DM punched the shark hard and shoved it away with his hands. The Silver Tip veered left and headed straight towards the wall and towards me!!

I watched hypnotised as the gap between me and it got closer and closer and closer in seconds. When I think about it, i remember it in slow motion. But it happened fast.

“Is that thing gonna tail off or hit me head on?’ i thought considering my options. The shark didn’t break its course. It had no intention of going anywhere other than straight. At the last minute I ducked and felt the underside of its belly and tail graze the top of my head. The other diver next to me, who’d shrunk into this bcd turned to me wide eyed. I signalled I’m ok, heart rate under control and continued to watch cautiously.

“Christ that was close.” I thought refocusing now on all the shapes surrounding me.

Then without warning the fish tornado broke apart. It was sudden. I knew they’d arrived.

Nine bulls showed up. All swam past the wall just 2m from my face. The width of their stout, powerful grey bodies was staggering. I was stunned at how small their eyes were. And how it made them look mean set into such large heads. Their mouths opened mechanically and they almost gulped down the tuna heads as they were hand tossed into their enormous jaws. One crunch and swallow. Repeat. One crunch and swallow.  

On several occasions the bulls were shunted with the poles and in a few instances with bare hands as three sharks would go for the same tuna head from different directions. Hats off to the DMs they were alert and confident. They have to be, they can’t afford to hesitate.

At one point the suspended wheelie bin was opened and blood filtered into the water. Like a tie-dye effect red began to stain the blue water. All the sharks angled their bodies upwards in an ambush and bashed the bin wanting the discards. The water felt electric the feeding excitement felt ominous. Watching  this, I felt very vulnerable.

After the feeding was over the sharks continued to circle the arena ….waiting. They knew soon enough they’d be seconds. We were motioned to swim in the opposite direction flanked by the DMs towards a wreck. I checked around me for that Silver Tip. All clear. After ten minutes or so we began our ascent up the mooring line for our three minute safety stop.  I managed to surface with half a tank of air after 45minutes. But then I wasn’t moving and I remained very calm the whole show.

On the surface I didn’t panic or feel unsafe. I calmly waited to remove my fins before climbing the boat ladder. It was the most incredible spectacle I’ve ever seen. We had a surface interval of an hour and a pep talk about conserving this area. Scientists have discovered that this feeding activity has created a bull shark corridor that is now protected, so Fiji is leading the way in helping populations. Our second tank dive was in the same spot. No tigers showed up.

All the fish that is fed to the sharks is recycled from tuna and fish factories that would normally throw it away. Shark populations globally are declining world wide due to illegal and poor fishing practises. These predators are slaughtered for their fins to fuel the blackmarket trade in Shark Fin Soup – a SE Asian delicacy. The fin is ornamental. Yup it’s used as damn garnish!

I think it is brilliant to raise awareness about sharks because they are key to keeping our oceans healthy. They eat sick and diseased fish. And the two companies that run these dives do everything professionally and safely. I am still however not convinced baiting these magnificent beasts is altogether risk-free. Blood makes the sharks agitated and excited. I would also argue possibly more unpredictable. It was fascinating to watch and I loved the experience. I won’t ever forget it, especially the shark graze! Would I do it again? No. Would I dive in a corridor renown for sharks? Yes. Providing baiting isn’t practised.

All photos copyright from internet. Here’s a link (below) of a video (Brett Vercoe) filmed using the same company. The set up is slightly different but it gives you a flavour of what unfolded. Although this lucky man saw a Tiger!

Aqua Trek Shark Feeding