I swirled around just in time to see a Tiger shark circling behind me. A fellow diver took this photo and sent it to me. I remember there was much frantic banging on the tanks…clanging,, noise. I think the divemasters weren’t so happy, because I wasn’t supposed to be in mid-water, I was supposed to ascend while following the contour of the reef slope. Oh well!!!!
It was a young tiger shark, may be 3.5 metres long; the stripes on its torso revealed that it was a sub-adult!
That was in 2011, Fiji, Beqa Lagoon.
I made four dives with a dive operation in Beqa Lagoon and it totally opened my mind to the idea of shark chumming.
I didn’t think it was right to chum sharks to attract them for the sake of tourists/divers, but I was curious; and now, I have to say if it is done in a regulated, planned and controlled way, it can be safe and rewarding. However, if done in a haphazard way ( such as in Florida or Hawaii — it is banned in Hawaii three-four years ago), it can spell disaster.
The ‘shark dive’ wasn’t just about the tiger shark; there are six-seven species of sharks you might be able to see on one of these dives, but the tiger shark was something everybody wanted to see. It wasn’t just a ‘shark porn” dive; it was also about marine protected area, no-take zones and the local community.
The bull sharks ‘behaved” themselves and always come from one side and if they misbehave” and come from another side, no food will be given. You will be amazed how orderly they were when they “queued” and waited their turn for tuna heads to be handed out by the feeders. Much more orderly than most human crowds are anyway.
By saying ‘planned, controlled and regulated”, I am referring to a strict protocol for conducting the shark dives that has been rehashed/rehearsed for months and years by the dive operators. It was very well run. Divemasters to diver ratio was high, there were set depths where you must go to ( which will feature different species of sharks and feeding methods) and you better follow and obey the briefings and instructions. ( The divemasters conducting the dives carry BIG iron staff/rods — so if you misbehave……… nah . those were for any bull sharks or nurse sharks or Tiger sharks which might venture a little to near for comfort!).
I discovered the bull sharks were not the frenzied eaters they were supposed to be– basically, if the feeder were new, the sharks would not take food from that feeder. The new feeder had to be habituated for three-four weeks , situated alongside the regular feeder during the feeding sessions, before the sharks will take food from him ( it is usually a ‘he’ divemaster). The bull sharks were, you know, a little shy, despite their immense bulk!!
So there were bull sharks – the well behaved ones, the grey reefs, tawny nurse sharks ( they were messy gobblers) and then the black and white tips reef sharks. The white tip reef sharks were the more hazardous ones as they will crowd all over the feeder, sometimes grabbing the hands and legs of the feeder too! The feeder who was doing the white tip reef shark feeding had to wear chain mails.
But the one fish that the dive operators warned us were the Giant Trevallies — they will snatch your camera and sometimes brush up very close to you. They were described as ‘rude and stupid’, unlike our well behaved gentlemanly/lady-like bull sharks! Well, these Giant trevallies can get to two metres long, and they go head to head with the bull sharks for their chums!
Of course, there were also hundreds of red snappers, big surgeons, fusiliers, and many many swirling schools of fish adding to the spectacle of sharks right before your nose. The sheer abundance of fish was just… staggering! Marvelling at the thick thick immense schools of fish probably caused a bit of vertigo to some divers!
The shark dive operators work with the community and it goes like this. A certain percentage of the profits earned from the dives goes to the community. And the community supports the operators — many of the divemasters and instructors used to fish for a living. Beqa Lagoon is protected so no fishing is allowed in it, but the spill over from the protected areas is so huge fishing is good around the periphery of Beqa Lagoon. It seems everyone benefits.
But what about the environment? Beqa Lagooon is a no-take zone. As such, the reef ecosystem is healthy due to the abundance of fish life. Though some will say — we are changing nature, habituating the sharks to people, upsetting the food chain/ food web by feeding them. But honestly, by our mere existence on this earth, or if there were any evidence of coastline human activities, nature is already altered. I would say with compromise, there might be more good than bad in the Beqa shark dives— what with fisherman getting their catch, communities getting some money for schools and such, and the reefs staying healthy.
A ground-breaking research by Dr Enric Sala ( my hero), a marine ecologist, showed that any human existence will basically alter the whole reef ecosystem. He compared reefs with no human presence (Kingman Reef) against those with some human presence (eg reefs in Kiribati, Christmas island) and he found that the higher the human population was at that particular reef, the more severe the alteration was from its pristine stage. Adverse alteration, that is.
So, lets tread lightly on our planet.