Meetings with Sharks

Pete Atkinson went to a tiny South Pacific reef to take pictures of sharks.

Lost in the immensity of the South Pacific between the Cook Islands and Tonga lies a tiny ring of coral enclosing a shallow lagoon. No trees, no islands, no land at all. Just ocean and coral beneath an endless sky - Beveridge Reef.
On the leeward side, the ring is cut by a single wide pass where grey reef sharks laze in the current. The centre of this azure lagoon is 15m deep and studded with small coral heads. Ringing the deeper water, and extending to the back-reef margin inside the reef, lies a turquoise, shallow, sand flat.
Although the tidal range is small, at high water small waves come across the lagoon from the ocean swells breaking on the reef. But at low water, the lagoon lies like a mirror in a frame of coral rock, reddened with calcareous algae.
There are many good reasons to visit Beveridge. The best one is to photograph sharks. Lots of sharks! This was my third visit. I had with me photographer David Nardini - feeding sharks alone at Beveridge can get a little bit too exciting. The closest hospital is 125 miles away in Niue, and it is doubtful anyone would want to be treated there!
In the lee of the reef, the water is staggeringly clear. We could see fish among the coral 25m below - dorado and barracuda. We entered the pass where the swell thundered on either side, motored the two miles across the lagoon and anchored on the shallow sand flat, sheltered from the ocean by the windward reef. To the south we could see a recent wreck, the Nicky Lou - a fishing boat from Seattle.
Nearby was a coral head on a slope between the sand flat and the lagoon depths. I had fed grey reef sharks here before. Although tired from the passage, David and I just had to go for a dive with a small offering. As soon as I rolled into the water two sharks zoomed in. I hit the sand until we had all calmed down a bit. There were three grey sharks, a bit frisky, but very pleased to see us. We hid the fish in a plastic box and took out chunks as required, when they were looking the other way. With crystal clear water it felt like a huge aquarium. Among the coral there were many clownfish and their anemones, clams and red pencil urchins, but it was difficult to concentrate on the smaller reef animals with the big grey distractions all around.
In the morning we tried again. As the sharks niche seemed to be the lagoon depths and they seemed reluctant to come far across the sand flat, we anchored the dinghy 100m away from the slope. In this way we found we were able to get in and out unmolested. There were five sharks now. One gently bit both our flashguns, but it was easy enough to bump it with the camera housing. They passed half a metre in front of the housing many times, showing no fear of us at all. But they behaved impeccably.
From the water coming over the reef there was a slight current which helped the sharks to locate food hidden under a rock. Although we were very close, they were able to discern the source of odour clearly and I felt in no danger. Low water was a bit more exciting. With no current and fish smell everywhere their detection of food was more haphazard.
In the afternoon we dived in the shallow water just inside the reef. The back-reef margin is shallow, not more than 3m deep, but the coral is lush, and there is much fire coral. In places clams are packed tightly together. There are many parrotfish, groupers and snappers, and sometimes an octopus or turtle.
The only change I could see in the nine years since my first visit was the behaviour of the blue-bar jacks. Previously they would swim around me not more than an arms length away. This time, having become acquainted with spearguns, they kept their distance. Our first dive outside the lagoon was disappointing. Only as we neared the pass did we see any sharks and lots of snappers. A couple of hours later we dived at the pass. There were many small grey reef sharks. Before attacks unrelated to feeding, grey reef sharks adopt a posturing display, with downward pointing pectorals, arched back, and a very exaggerated contorted swimming motion. I saw more of this behaviour here than ever before. When we moved away, a displaying shark would calm down. If you wanted to calm a posturing shark, feeding it might well be the quickest way. Later in the dive they left us completely alone. Returning to our anchorage on the sand flat, the boat was immediately surrounded by sharks. That sharks associate yachts with food may explain the distinct unpopularity of swimming among the few visitors. Each day it was impossible to look overboard without seeing at least one, sometimes four grey reef sharks milling around.
Inside the lagoon, with sunshine and the clear water, the surface looked utterly beautiful from under water. David fed some sharks at the stern while I took some pictures below. As it was low tide, there was insufficient water breaking over the reef to provide a clear smell corridor. So the sharks were very frisky.
We tried fisheye shots off the side of the boat. David hung his housing over the side on a tripod, triggering the shutter with a piece of string, but the sharks were far more interested in biting his housing than eating fish. I just leaned over the side and held my housing - and tried to remember that arms were more useful than great pictures.

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