Tuesday, November 10, 2009

FIJI... seganaleqa and man-eating sharks!

On landing on the little (well, big by Fiji standards) island of Viti Levu, somewhere in the middle of the South pacific, I could feel weight melting off my shoulders. Almost like a spell, from the first mellow greeting of “bula” I knew we had found the chill we were looking for.

Chris and I had come here to shift down a few gears, experience the place that my good friend Dingo has raved about for so many years and take a side look at a country with some complicated politics. Before we headed to the outer islands we had a couple of days to kill and I had a dive ambition to fulfill, of the shark kind. The answer? Road trip, Fiji style! Hiring a beaten up old car we set off on the Queen's Road from Nadi, looking to cover a rough southerly semi-circle off this roughly round island. Dodging the odd pot-hole and heeding warnings against corrupt traffic authorities, we were graced with increasingly lush and beautiful scenery as the journey progressed. Past small colourful villages and schools centered around rugby pitches, over streams with tropical forest rising up to the hills behind and to our right, the ocean. Rugged headlands and pristine, palm-fringed beaches on the coral coast. Turquoise waters crashing against outer reefs before lapping and splurging on the foreshore.

What grabbed me most was how people smiled and greeted as we past. Straight positivity from passers by is something you rarely receive where I live, so it draws me like a magnet. You can not help but smile back. Via an accidental detour down a dirt-track that tested our rackety car to the limit, we made it to Natadola beach for a beer, one of those romantic beach walks and a horse ride. After a bit of relaxed negotiation (there seems little other way in Fiji), we were able to walk and eventually gallop around the bay on a beautiful tropical beach. Really the life! The thing that made me laugh about the place was how on one end of the sand you had a lovely little local place costing peanuts, right next to an Intercontinental with half the charm and numerous times more cost. Strange how some people choose to spend their time and money.

The road also gifted us with some views of slightly bustling towns and a great eco-centre. A chance to come face to face with some of Fiji's rarer native fauna and flora. As you can see Christina fell for the local tree snake... ….a great couple of days, but, for me, only really a side show for why I was really here...

Not my piccie, but you get the idea!
Now I've dived with quite a few types of sharks, in a number of places. From Pacific Harbour in southern Viti Levu, two dive shops run a dive out in between Beqa Lagoon and a small island that in terms of sharks is not only quantitatively, but severely qualitatively different to any I have done before and I understand pretty much any dive in the world. A shark feed dive, here you dive face to face with some of the most feared predators of the sea including most famously the barrel-chested bull shark and ,if you are very lucky, the tiger shark. Needless to say I was simply buzzing when I turned up at Aquatrek dive shop ready to go.


The first dive...

Jump in, quick look around for big sea-creatures below and down to 30m. A short swim and down to a line. The dive masters carry down crates of chum (dead fish meet and bits) and start prising it free. Fish come from everywhere and dive into the green'ish murky food. A feeding frenzy. Almost immediately we have a very impressive visitor – a giant grouper something like two meters across – massive – they call him VW!

The nerves start to tingle as you look around for the finned, heavily toothed ones. The dive-masters bring out the chunks of fish, holding them out to tempt in the sharks in. A glance behind and there we go.... a nurse shark coming in to take a look. Then a grey reef shark skirting around the sides for on investigative mode. All this time the smaller fish are darting into the free meal in their hundreds, the sharks keeping around the edges. Little by little a couple of the more forthright ones come to take a nip. I can just see a couple of larger sharks on the other side of the dive-masters – bull sharks! These are things you do not want to see from your surf board. Well documented man eaters, they are famed for taking a nip.

The rest of the dive continued very much in this general vein of fish frenzy in front, sharks circling in the foggy foreground (only just visible through the churned up water) and the odd transversing shark behind.

As usual, time had passed before you know it. We leave the feeding sight and start our ascent. Some time pouring over a wreck is rewarded with a couple of pipe fish (related to a sea-horse but kinf of elongated) and a patrolling silver tip reef shark. A safety stop and to the surface.

Clambering onto the boat I felt good. We had come close and personal with a few sharks, yet somehow I knew something was off. This is often rated as one of the top 10 dives in the world yet that je ne se quoi was missing. After a short chat with the giant of a South African top dog on the diving team it made sense. Sharks yes, but less than normal and stand-off'ish. Why? A tiger shark was just out of our sight. The back-marker dive-master had spotted her on his way back. To humans these are perhaps the most dangerous shark. More inquisitive and less fussy with their food then Great White's, they are a huge killing machine. Being shark-eaters themselves it is understandable why the other sharks were extra nervous. I'll never forget a picture I once saw in National Geographic of a tiger shark biting a reef shark in half... these are serious beings.

The second dive...

This one was the shit! Down to 17 meters and the bait was out. Almost immediately the sharks poured in. The tiger had probably left the vicinity. Big man-eating bull sharks gliding right over my head. White-tips, silver-tips, black-tips and, my favourite, the grey reef sharks, making up the numbers. A real free-for-all that intensified as the dive-masters let us move into the centre of the action. Chum all around, the sharks were coming in and over from all angles. Just centimeters away. Nerve-tinglingly awesome!

On the ascent I had a few minutes largely to myself with a grey reef shark and a silver-tip. Hanging in the water at about 10m, they kept circling (one after the other rather than together) beneath and beside me. What an experience. Really beautiful creatures when you get up and close and watch how they act. Following advice, I faced them at all times – sharks are generally quite shy and are more likely to attack under stealth, i.e. when they think you can't see them.

This time I jumped back onto the boat with every inch of that unexplainable buzz that diving can give you. Broad beaming smile and wanting more....

An experience I'd recommend to anyone who wants to get to know these predators better. I won't deny that feeding is going to have negative effects in influencing their behaviour, but here I think the negative is out-weighed by a positive – the shark-dives fund a deal between the dive-shops and the local community by which the locals do not fish the area in return for funds. Without out this deal there would be hardly any sharks left to influence.

I can't wait to do it again. These creatures encapture you with their elegant movement and patterns of action. You are very much in their space and it is a humbling experience.

Hopefully next time the tiger'll come a calling!
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