There is a beautiful story from the late 70’ told by the old fisherman — Moses — from the Salomon Islands. Moses is not sure about his age but he is sure about his love and admiration towards the sharks. This is a love story. The love story between humans and sharks. Moses says:
‘All the fish that are in the sea here we can eat. Dolphins too. But not shark. Sharks are human. To us a dolphin is just like another fish. A dolphin is not a shark. We never fish for sharks. He is a person with us. We are related. The sharks are familiar to us, we never eat them – we adore them. The other ones we do not eat are rays and crocodiles because they are related to us too.’
I guess in Salomon Islands for all fishermen like Moses, living in a close neighbourhood to the most dangerous species of sharks, it is a necessity to embrace the fear and learn to love what you fear. To be able to proceed with your daily duties to mythologise the subject of your fear is a must.
We understand Moses but who will understand us — the passionate scuba divers and shark lovers? Us — who want to pay a lot of money to get closer and deeper to meet eye to eye with the most frightening animals? It’s not only about being chillingly adventurous, it’s about the curiosity how they behave in their natural environment and also about the limits people can push. There are only few places around the world offering cage-free diving experience with the most aggressive species of sharks. Fiji is one of them.
Pacific Harbour, located in the South of Viti Levu (the biggest island) is about an hour drive from Suva (the capital), and is widely known as an adventure kingdom of Fiji. Pacific Harbour totally lives up to its reputation as an ultimate spot for all adrenaline junkies. This is a prime location for shark diving too. To enjoy the experience offered by the local experts you have to be a certified diver. It is pricy, around 350 F$ (190 USD) but considering the number of equipment used and number of people involved in one diving session, the price doesn’t seem that high anymore. There are two companies in Pacific Harbour offering the excursions: Aqua Trek and Beqa Adventure Divers. I went with the second one and it was one of the most amazing underwater experiences.The advanced booking is recommended as the space on boat is limited and the boat regulations are strictly followed.
The moment you board the boat, going for the shark excursion in the Pacific Harbour, you will notice immediately that it is not a regular diving trip. Firstly the number of employees working on the boat is doubled or tripled. Secondly, your diving buddies, who all brought these huge, professional underwater cameras, make you feel with your tiny GoPro… like a caricature of a diver. Thirdly, there are many containers laying around, smelling funny, later I will explain why. The boat trip into the sea took about half an hour and during that time the safety briefing was held. The briefing was extremely interesting and visual, explaining every detail of the underwater adventure.
With Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD in short), every step is carefully explained, planed and choreographed. You need to follow the strict instructions. They have unusual safety rules e.g. I could use my GoPro but I couldn’t attach the stick to it as a matter of precaution – not to provoke the animals. I know some divers had mixed feelings about being told step-by-step what to do as they enjoy underwater freedom very much, but for me I guess, I didn’t mind it too much – at the end of a day you dive with one of the most aggressive and dangerous predators in the world, you have nowhere to hide and you can’t win the fight. I really don’t mind being told what to do.
During the first dive we were taken 30m deep, arranged in one line and had to stay kneeling while watching the show. We got a lot of extra kilograms to put in our weight belts to prevent floating and to stay steady. The area in front of was called ‘arena’ and I totally understand why. They took a big, green container full of dead fish (the smelly one from the boat) and they started attracting the sharks. What happened next was indescribable, unspeakable and truly amazing. A group of around 30-40 (!) bull sharks started hovering around in search for food. Behind us we had couple of divers (staff) standing with the long sticks, making sure the sharks didn’t come too close towards us. By too close I mean no less than about half a meter. However protected we were, they still were swimming so close to us, I could almost feel them tickling my nose with their fins. Truly spectacular. Afterwards we were taken much shallower to do the safety stop. It’s been one of the most amazing safety stops ever: full of black-tip /white-tip/reef sharks, eels, coral etc.
The biggest attraction of the second dive was the shark hand-feeding. For the local divemasters it was like feeding a pet, for us it was a unique, heart stopping experience. The adult bull shark is about 3 meters long and weights around 130kg (female) and 100kg (male). They are not called ‘bull’ sharks without a reason. Such a close and intimate shark encounter is a real treat for all the divers. Usually when we go underwater in tropical environment we hope to see a shark. One, maybe two — if we are greedy. Here you have tons of them.
Watch my video and tell me what you think:
Sharks are probably the most misunderstood animals in the ocean. It is commonly believed that there are two species of sharks most dangerous to humans – a great white shark and a tiger shark. Those two are mostly called ‘man-eaters’. The truth is, that the bull shark, which suppose to create less hazard to swimmers, divers, surfers, actually is responsible for more human attacks. They don’t advertise that information in Fiji as they know that sharks don’t deserve the reputation they have and diving with them is relatively safe if you know how to behave in their environment. BAD diving centre does a lot to warm up the image of sharks in a tourist mentality. My favourite is ‘Adopt a bull shark’ program. They also support financially local villages so the fishermen don’t disturb the fragile ecosystem. All in the name of (shark) love.
‘Is it safe for you to swim in the sea?’ — I asked curiously. ‘Yes it is safe’ — Moses replied with the highest form of confidence. ’Of course there are sharks, but it is not dangerous. On the other side, on Guadalcanal, the sharks attack people, but not here. Here you are protected. What happened was that a long time ago a shark came out of a woman. The woman gave birth to that shark, yes. Ever since then my people worship the shark, and the sharks stop attacking people in the lagoon. The spirit of that woman entered into the shark, therefore when we worship the shark we are worshipping the old people. It is a belief that was in us before. We can talk to the sharks. We can call them. We don’t call them by name, we talk to the spirit as a human on land and transfer the spirit to the shark. We talk to them when there is a sacrifice.’
‘The priest makes the sacrifice, he sacrifices the pig. The shark priest, yes. He is the one who controls the area. The sharks can come in but they can’t attack anybody. The priest makes it safe. The priest controls not just sharks; he controls storms too.’ *
You can be scared of the sharks and never imagine the encounter with them, or you can embrace the fear for unknown and dive deep to understand them and fall in love with them. I recommend the later, as it’s twice more likely to be struck by the lighting, than to be attacked by the shark. And to discover your inner shark, it’s truly inspiring.
*The story comes from the book Arts of the Pacific by Brian Brake, James McNeish and David Simmons, New Zealand 1979, p.19-24.