“Remember when sex was safe and diving was dangerous?” reads one of the endless dive stickers that dot our boat. I stare at it in awe. After all, I’m about to jump in the water, without a cage, to meet dozens of large sharks. Bull sharks in particular, with an outside chance of also spotting tigers. In other words, I’ll be in open water with the sort of tooth-heavy predators that are commonly labelled ‘maneaters’. We’d only need a great white to complete the big three that, on a normal day, you really don’t want to see in the water. If this insanity is safe, then what the hell do these guys get up to in their sex lives?
I’m in Pacific Harbour, a sleepy little community a few hours drive east along the coast from Nadi, on Fiji’s Viti Levu Island. The big resorts and hotels around here are thriving thanks to two water-based attractions – the highly rated Frigate’s Passage surf break and the big shark feeding in Beqa Lagoon, which has rapidly earned a reputation for being one of the world’s most exciting dives.
The dives began back in 1999. They were started, as all such craziness seems to be, by a South African. “All the resorts thought I was mad and didn’t want to get involved at first,” the man himself, Brandon Paige, tells me. And, in a way, the so-called ‘shark whisperer’ is mad. But there’s also no denying the Beqa dive industry owes it all to him. “The other resorts entered the market a year and a half after me,” continues Brandon. “They’d decided it was safe. Aqua Trek customers had been the guinea pigs.”
Under the water it quickly becomes clear we’re no longer in the land of ‘Fiji Time’. Brandon has plenty of troops and they’re well in control. Taken down to around 24 metres, we hang onto a rope and form a line, waiting for the show to begin. The bins of bait are lowered into the arena as the circus masters take their positions while sentries patrol behind and above us. And then the frenzy begins.
The water clouds with activity. A huge groper hovers right in front, while sicklefin lemon, grey reef and whitetip reef sharks zip left and right, filling my vision. Sparkling tropical fish cower right in front of my mask, closer than I’ve ever experienced, clearly realising I’m the least of their worries right now.
At one point a dive master calmly taps me on the shoulder to make me aware of the disturbed moray eel right behind me, halfway out of his hole and snapping around like a snarling rottweiler straining against its lead. A sight like that would often be the highlight of a dive, but here it’s just the sideshow, a circus freak vying for a part amongst the lion tamers and acrobats.
The running of the bulls
Some of the stars, a few big bull sharks, have arrived. The giant ball of feasting sways left and right, every now and then dissected by a bull lunging in, prompting panicked flurries of escape in every direction.
And the bulls are most definitely big. Without my phalanx of protectors, I wouldn’t stand a chance if they fancied a go. But they don’t seem bothered. They swim right past, only a couple of metres away, and pay no attention. Several times one emerges from the swarm and heads straight for me, its giant frame, with its hulking shoulders and mean, frowning face, a picture perfect example of an untameable predator.
Each time it gives me a derisory sneer before veering off to terrify some other hapless creature. Strangely enough, however, it’s more exhilarating than terrifying. In fact, it really does feel safe, as well as absolutely mesmerising and engrossing. Indeed, having dived across the world, including having jumped into a couple of cages to see great whites, this is the best I’ve experienced. I simply don’t want to leave.
Yet soon enough we hear the tapping on tanks that is the signal for our departure, which is also the most unnerving part of the dive. We head back up through the open water, and hover for our three minute rest stop, knowing that no small number of large sharks are very close.
But that, we soon learn, was just the warm-up act. An hour on the boat to refuel, chatter excitedly and let yet more big sharks work out there’s food in the area and we’re back in, this time heading to a different location where we all perch behind a small wall. This, it soon becomes clear, is where the main show takes place. And soon enough, a dozen or more bull sharks have joined the party, ducking in from the sides, swimming straight at us once more.
Movement is everywhere. Fins, teeth, flesh, fish heads. There’s no doubt that danger is all around, but it’s never felt, the troops marshalling both the divers and sharks in a way that is under control, the maniacs even hand-feeding giant heads to the bulls before darting out of the way.
The scene in front of us is nature at its most brutal and beautiful, hectic and somehow harmonious. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of creatures just metres away, all with senses on full alert, and yet from our position, I’m surreally calm, as though David Attenborough’s soft tones are easing me through the experience in my head. No tigers show up (it had been a week since the last appearance), but I don’t even realise until long after the dive, when I can finally begin to comprehend what I’ve been lucky enough to witness.
It’s not just travellers who love visiting the paradise islands of the Yasawas, but manta rays too
Bom, bom, bom, bom! The sound of drumming echoes through the trees as I stir in my bunk. That means either breakfast or manta rays. Both good options, but what to take – snorkel or appetite? Pausing a moment I hear the rubbery sounds of people scurrying past. Manta rays it is then.
I’m on Nanuya Balavu Island, home to the cunningly-named Mantaray Resort, having island hopped for three hours through the Mamanucas and halfway up the Yasawas. Here, almost daily during the right season (May to October), mantas are spotted in the channel round the corner from the resort. And each time that eyes are laid on one of these giant beauties, which can grow up to 7 metres wide, the drum call goes out and we’ve got a few minutes to get to the beach and make the departing boat. So on we get and off we go.
A few swift minutes ride and we’re there. Almost immediately we spot the first small fin atop a large shadow and, splash, we’re in. And there it is, right below us. Massive, elegant, playful, it floats through the powerful current like a magic carpet. Flapping its wings, it mouth agape. It soars past at a speed impossible to compete with, dragging its long spear-like tail behind it. I try not to think about Steve Irwin.
Having been lured into the current by our first sighting, we hitch a lift back to the top of the channel and go in search once again. We spot a few more, each several metres wide. One of them sits below us for a good five minutes, contentedly devouring the plankton which the current delivers straight into its mouth while I swim frantically above it, desperately fighting the current to stay in position. Once it finally decides to move on, I’m knackered, which means one thing – back to the beach.
Fed up of crowds and, er, safety precautions? Escape the masses with a more hands-on shark experience.
It’s straight after breakfast and three of us join our Fijian hosts Fish and Si to head off, straight out to sea. Behind us we’re leaving Wayalailai Island. Naqalia Lodge to be more precise. It’s a small, family-run place, a lodge where the handful of bures were tents only a few years ago and where getting to know the family is as important as sipping cocktails in a hammock. It’s also happens to offer experiences the larger resorts would be terrified of running – such as shark feeding snorkel trips.
After about 15 minutes, with land a long way off in every direction, we come to a stop. Si suddenly strips off, grabs his spear (basically a metal rod with a big rubber band) and jumps into the water. It turns out we’re right on top of Mouya Reef. We wait several minutes until Si reappears, victorious, with a parrot fish skewered on his spear.
The gleaming parrot fish is handed over and duly ripped in two. No sentimentality for beauty here, it’s once stunning body now a crushed mess.
It’s now our turn to jump in. Skirting the edge of the reef, Fish soon points out the first whitetip reef shark. And then another. And another. They’re not big, perhaps 1-1.5m, but they’re sharks, sharks with teeth, and our guide Fish (this could get confusing) is carrying a dead fish.
Paddling around above them, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable, unsure of what’s about to happen. They begin circling us, five of them in total. Starting a few metres below us, Fish gives them a sight of the bait, held close to his chest until now, and their interest steps up a notch. They’re suddenly at our level. I keep an eye on one as it passes me to my left, only to have a second bump past me on the right. Keeping track of them all is near impossible. Fish starts stroking them on the back of the neck as they pass, so I follow suit. The skin is leathery and the shark picks up speed, but seems to crane upwards like a cat. It seems to like it. The food gone, the sharks hang around, wondering if more will come. Either that or they’re just trying to work out what sort of crazy creatures we are, dropping out of the sky, useless in the water and giving them food in return for a sly grope.
Do they feel used? Do they feel dirty? Probably just a bit less hungry.
Damage & Details: Beqa Lagoon shark dive with Aqua Trek (aquatrek.com) costs FJD$270. Awesome Adventures (awesomefiji.com) offer various packages for Yasawa Flyer transport and island accommodation (five-day trips, including food, start at FJD$797). Manta ray swim costs FJD$35. Naqalia shark swim costs FJD$50. Nadi Bay Resort Hotel (fijinadibayhotel.com) has beds from FJD$37. For an overview of what Fiji has to offer, go to tourismfiji.com