Why is that Fijians have no fear of sharks? It all comes down to an octopus god, say PETER DE MAAGT and THERESA GUISE - and the fact that the evidence from one of the world's great shark-dive site underlines that fear is not the appropriate emotion
I HOPE THAT YOU’RE looking forward to meeting some of my girls. Don’t let their size impress you, because my girls have a healthy appetite. The way to a woman's heart is through her stomach,” jokes Brandon Paige, the owner of Aqua-Trek.
He’s referring to the sharks that frequent Beqa Lagoon, and with which he has become very familiar over the years.
The musicians performing traditional Fijian music as you arrive at Nadi International Airport help to lift the travel-grogginess so that you can endure another two-hour trip to Pacific Harbor. The landscape on the way is beautiful, and the southern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji's largest island, is exceptionally green, covered with dense, lush rainforest.
Aqua Trek Beqa is a PADI dive-centre set in the grounds of the Club Oceanus Resort, and only a quarter of a mile from Beqa Lagoon, where shark-diving is offered on Saturdays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to prevent overfeeding. Sharks must be pretty religious animals, because on Sundays none of the operators offer shark-diving, and allow them their day of rest.
There is a special link between Fijians and sharks. Fiji is the home of Dakuwaqa, the ancient shark-god, protector of the reefs of Fiji. Although there seem to be slightly different versions of the legend, they all sound like stories that could happen today.
It boils down to the fact that Dakuwaqa wanted to take full control of all the reefs of Fiji. His first step towards reef-domination was to challenge a god who guarded reefs around the island of Suva.
The ensuing fight was so brutal that it created high waves that struck the coast, causing flooding and loss of life among the local populace.
Dakuwaqa boasted of his achievement to an old friend called Masilaca, who decided to teach him a lesson.
Masilaca talked of a powerful god guarding the island of Kaduva who would probably be too much for Dakuwaqa to handle. Blinded by arrogance, Dakuwaqa rushed towards the island to show his dominance, only to discover that the god was an octopus.
When Dakuwaqa attacked it, he soon found that he had met his match. The octopus coiled its tentacles around him and nearly choked him to death.
Dakuwaqa begged for mercy and promised the octopus that if his life was spared he would never harm anybody from Fiji.
Dakuwaqa has kept his promise, and the Fijians have no fear of sharks when they go swimming or fishing.
The shark-diving in Beqa is the real deal – no cages, body armour or chain-mail suit, and with the legend of Dakuwaqa in mind, it’s good to know that nearly all our guides are from Fiji. We decide to stay close to them.
“Would you mind paying attention?” It’s 8am and we have just completed the usual forms. The standard safety briefing follows, and yet there is something different. It takes a while before I can put my finger on it.
The piercing smell of the bait coming from the feeding containers drifts around the boat, making this a dive that fully engages all the senses – it’s a truly four-dimensional experience.
BRANDON PAIGE, who came up with the idea of using fish-scraps from local factories to attract sharks to the lagoon, is joining us. He created one of Fiji’s major tourist attractions, one that allows anyone to get near to these magical animals.
This close interaction can also allow scientists to study the many different species of shark encountered in ways previously not possible.
The dive-plan is straightforward. Boats are moored to different buoys that are interconnected by a maze of other lines under water. The descent is easy – we follow the dive-guide by holding on to the shotlines.
The predicted “slight” current is not that slight at all, and keeping cameras in one hand we pull ourselves forward and down to about 20m. We have reached the Bistro!
We are carefully directed to form a semi-circle behind a low wall constructed of rock rubble. This tiny wall separates us from a wheelie-bin, just like the one you have at home, hanging in mid-water.
Huge horse mackerel and trevally are swimming around, but for the first five minutes little happens.
The bottom is barren, devoid of any coral. One might even call the scenery boring. Is this where all the action is supposed to take place?
THEN BULL SHARKS, about 3m in length, start swimming around us. Their stocky build is impressive, their characteristic massive stout heads radiate force and disproportionately tiny, soul-less black eyes add to their character. There is nothing delicate or refined about bull sharks, and the “girls” never go hungry here, as evidenced by their chubby outlines.
Tawny nurse sharks roam around the bottom like puppies as they try to sneak in for a snack. In the background we see silvertips and grey reef sharks. A single sicklefin lemon shark jostles other sharks to get a good position. They all seem to know what’s about to happen.
The feeder gives us an OK signal and starts shaking the bin. This appears to transform the receptacle into a vacuum cleaner, because all the fish are sucked towards it.
In an instant the serenity has changed into chaos. A tornado of fish swirls around the bin. We can’t even see the feeder any more; he is simply surrounded by a noisy mass of paddletail and bohar snapper, giant trevally and all kinds of little fish.
The scene is action-packed, and any initial fear has been replaced by adrenaline. It is difficult to portray the amount of action that the feeding has triggered, and getting a clean photograph in this setting proves more of a challenge than it was only a few moments before.
Although the sharks are all around, they’re mainly surrounded by huge schools of sergeant-majors and other reef fish. Sometimes it’s even difficult to see the sharks. They come in close, but they’re always surrounded by small fish hoping to pick up scraps of food.
The bull sharks are organised and get straight to the point, but the tawny sharks seem to come in from all possible directions, trying to suck their prey into their small mouths.
The silvertips stay in the background, waiting for an opportunity to pounce, but when they decide to feed they’re extremely fast-paced. Get in, take food, and get out. Even a large moray eel manages to get its slice of the pie.
OUR DIVE-GUIDES allow us to get as close to the shark-feeder as possible, while protecting us with a pole, held out towards a shark if it gets too close. However, there are plenty of opportunities to get some close-focus wide-angle shots revealing the beautiful colour and texture of the sharks’ skin.
Time flies, and all too soon we have to leave the Bistro and return to the “kids’ playground”. Here, blacktip, whitetip and grey reef sharks wait for any leftovers that float their way.
The current has picked up even more, and during our safety stop we feel our bodies moving into a horizontal position, much like a flag in a strong wind. Camera in one hand while firmly gripping the rope with the other, it’s not a textbook relaxed safety-stop.
At the surface we confirm the head-count: seven shark species were noted. Grey reef, whitetip, blacktip, silvertip, lemon, bull and nurse all present on a single dive – can you believe it?
The surface interval is spent listening to Brandon’s Beqa Lagoon veteran stories. He pioneered shark diving in the 1980s, and while recognising the large numbers of sharks in the area from the beginning took several years to develop a safe way of introducing them to visiting divers.
Since 1999 Aqua-Trek has worked closely with the Fijian Government and the traditional owners of the reefs to protect the sharks, by having the reefs and the waters around them declared Marine Protected Areas.
In exchange, a fee of Fijian $20 per diver goes directly towards the local villagers, giving them a vested interest in keeping the shark population healthy, and protecting the reefs.
Brandon explains that it is not only people who benefit from this deal. Biologists have come to the conclusion that the female sharks in Fijian waters are less prone to eating their offspring because of their healthy supply of food. Furthermore, they produce more pups per litter.
On top of that, it has been shown that the sharks don’t spend their lives in the same spot, but migrate. Brandon is always hoping to reverse the “Jaws Effect” and contribute to a positive image for sharks.
JONA, ONE OF THE SHARK-FEEDERS, dons his chain-mail while we remind him gently about the pact the sharks made with Fijians. Jona counters that the pact is only with the sharks, and that the other fish are not part of the deal. He reveals plenty of small bite-wounds from jack and giant trevally.
Jona explains that the feeding happens in two stages. A wheelie-bin hanging at 8m is the midwater feeding site, and his role is to start the smaller fish on a feeding frenzy, which signals dinner-time for the sharks.
They have tried without doing this, hoping that the sound of the boat’s engine would be sufficient, but only a few sharks came to check it out. This shows that the normal instinct of the sharks, triggered by the sound of the fish-feeding frenzy, is still the best way to attract them.
Once on site, the sharks head down to the bottom feeding site. “It’s lonely on the top,” says Jona with a big smile. He will be in the middle of a cloud of fish, a tiger shark above and several bull sharks beside him and below: “The ultimate way to teach you humility.”
The second dive starts very much like the first, but there is a dramatic change with the arrival of silvertips. Among the most beautiful of all sharks, these guys are quick and determined feeders.
We have to keep them in our sight at all times, as they whizz above and around us, showing their shimmering, iridescent silvery skin.
As we watch the silvertip show, the bull sharks take their opportunity to move in. They are coming very, very close, with enough confidence to bump our camera dome-ports. At such a time, you really appreciate their size.
If that isn’t enough excitement, we now hear our dive-guides frantically tapping their tanks and pointing towards the blue. A massive 4m tiger shark moves in to steal the show.
THE BIG FEMALE, a regular known affectionately as Survivor, makes several passes. Apparently she graces divers with her presence only every other week.
During our dive-briefing, we had heard that she had been around just a few days before, so our hopes had not been high. Luck is smiling on us.
Survivor’s dominance is clear, and even the bull sharks move to the background. No surprise, considering her size – this lady is the superlative degree of huge, the size of a mini-submarine.
And she is in a playful mood, parading in front of our cameras and occasionally enjoying using the divers as bowling-pins.
Some of her passes are just a few centimetres over our heads, clearly showing us her impressive striped flank. She will slowly swim straight up to the feeder and open her colossal mouth, allowing him to drop in the food – just like a hamburger at McDonalds!
At one point Survivor decides it’s time to play a bit with the paparazzi and their blazing cameras, and affectionately pins Theresa to the seabed. What a way to end a dive!
The subject of shark-feeding is controversial, and a topic of heated debate. Our experience in Fiji convinced us that it can be a great tool in shark-conservation when carried out responsibly. We witnessed at first-hand the positive impact the shark-diving industry has on the local economy, people and marine system. After all, it was the Beqa shark encounter that helped to establish Fiji’s Shark Reef Marine Reserve.
On a more personal note, these dives impressed us beyond any expectations. They were a shark-diver’s ultimate fantasy. Sharks often evoke fear, but dives like this show that this fear is unjustified.
Far from killing machines, they have distinct personalities, as evidenced by their deliberate and curious interactions with divers. This is a show not to be missed!
GETTING THERE: Several options from Heathrow to Nadi (Fiji), for example with Air New Zealand via Los Angeles and Auckland. Pacific Harbor is a two-hour drive from Nadi; the transfer from there to Beqa takes 45 min.
DIVING: Aqua Trek has run shark dives at Beqa since 1987, aquatrek.com
ACCOMMODATION: Guests stay either in Pacific Harbor on mainland Viti Levu or on Beqa Island. Aqua Trek is based at Club Oceanus, but Peter stayed at the nearby 4* Pearl South Pacific Resort, thepearlsouthpacific.com
WHEN TO GO: Low season (Jan-March) is in the middle of cyclone season – very hot and humid with regular tropical showers. Winter (April-Sept) sees the most visitors but visibility tends to peak July-Dec when the water is cooler. Resorts offer lower prices Feb-April as most are vacant. Water temperature is usually about 29°C but can be a few degrees lower Sept/Oct.
CURRENCY: Fiji dollars (FJD).
PRICES: Return flights from London to Nadi from £820. Garden twin room at the Pearl from Fiji $400 a night (about £150, but offers are available). Aqua-Trek’s Ultimate Shark Encounter two-tank dive costs US $160.
VISITOR INFORMATION: fiji.travel