Close encounters in shark corridor

It has the reputation of being one of the greatest shark spectacles on Earth. Can it really be that good? TOM VIERUS has visited Fiji's Shark Reef to find out

IT’S 7.30 ON A SATURDAY MORNING, and we’ve just found the base of Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD) on the outskirts of Pacific Harbor on Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island.

We have come to experience what has been hailed as one of the world’s greatest shark dives with some impressive apex predators – just us and the bull sharks.

We’re met at the entrance by Mike Neumann, one of the three BAD?owners, who after more than 10 years there still joins in on almost every dive.

We’re soon ready to board one or other of the two dive vessels, Predator and Hunter. Our equipment is already aboard, with our cameras each in their own basket.

There are some 20 people on the two boats today, the maximum set by the dive-centre. The organisation level immediately impresses – it’s efficient and professional.

As we slowly cruise along the mangrove-fringed channel towards the open ocean, Tumbi, one of the main feeders, delivers an in-depth dive-briefing. With luck, we could see up to eight shark species, from the mighty bull and maybe tiger sharks to the smaller reef predators such as whitetip and blacktip reef sharks, and the possibility of less-frequent visitors such as lemon and nurse sharks.

A 20-minute boat-ride brings us to the reef at the heart of the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. The boats are tied in to pre-installed buoylines, and we get ourselves ready to dive.

WE DESCEND TO OUR FIRST stop at 30m, where the main attractions are waiting. In the “Arena” the BAD staff have built a wall of dead corals. We kneel behind it as Tumbi and the other dive-masters and feeders position themselves.

Four of them literally stand behind us, each armed with a blunt metal pole that can be used to remind the sharks that it’s “up to here and no further”! Another three prepare the feeding in front of us. Large bull sharks circle patiently just metres away in anticipation.

Unnoticed by most of the divers, a sicklefin lemon shark passes behind our backs, some 20 yellow-striped trevally swarming around it. Dozens of free-swimming remoras and other smaller reef fish join us in this prelude to the spectacle to come. The sheer abundance of marine life in this protected area is striking.

The show is about to start. Tumbi opens the lid of a metal construction, grabs the tuna-heads it contains one by one and hand-feeds them to approaching sharks. He is flanked by Fabiano and Manoa, who act as “bodyguards” and also wield metal poles.

Over the years the feeders have established a protocol in which only sharks closing in from the left side are rewarded with food, while those coming from the right are reminded by the poles to stick to the rules.

To avoid surprises, it’s vital that this protocol is consistently observed – sharks, after all, are predators and potentially dangerous to us humans.

As I watch the most-dominant bulls approaching and swallowing the heads whole, I recall that Tumbi had told us earlier that in peak times up to 80 sharks join the divers during the feeding.

Today there must be some 35 in the arena, and I can hardly imagine what double that number must look and feel like.

Sharks can be very cautious animals, and don’t swim mindlessly towards the bait and grab it. Like us, their personalities vary: some are bold and rather aggressive, while others prefer to keep their distance and observe. Some appear shy.

 Similar to lions or wolves on land, sharks establish hierarchies among themselves. It tends to be the dominant (or very daring) individuals that immediately cruise in and take the bait.

A few tuna-heads later the procedure changes. The team moves from hand-feeding to “bin-feeding”, with slightly modified trash-cans used to deliver an impressive and intimate experience for the divers.

Fabiano grabs a rope attached to the bin and slowly ascends to around 15m. By pulling the rope he manoeuvres the lid to release some of the tuna-heads while swimming parallel to the dead-coral wall.
This ensures that every diver gets an up-close experience as the predators follow the bin and its fishy smell. The bins look bizarre 30m down, but they do work in getting the sharks in your face!

After 17 minutes’ bottom time with the large bull sharks (some as big as 3.5m), the divemasters bang their steel tanks, giving the signal to ascend towards the Den, a shallower feeding site at 15m.

Attention now switches to the smaller blacktip and whitetip reef sharks and very agile grey reef sharks. More than a dozen smaller sharks and hundreds of small fish swarm energetically around Mavoa, the designated feeder today.

While the bulls were fed in an arena-like setting, Den is different. Mavoa is located on our right in a 5m-wide channel between the steep reef slope and another small man-made wall of dead corals behind which we kneel.

The sharks swoosh in and out of the Den. Some use the channel, but the more audacious take a route directly over our heads. Hundreds of reef fish and other smaller predators are joining in, not wanting to miss out on the excitement. For another 20 minutes we enjoy the spectacle, before ascending to what they call “the best safety-stop in the world”.

They have a point. At 3m depth, a rope has been installed right at the edge of the fringing reef, allowing divers to hold on (which we’re thankful for, considering the swell and current in the shallows that could otherwise sweep you away into the Pacific) as more feeding continues.

This is now dominated by the whitetips and blacktips, which seem so small and somehow cat-like after you have spent 37 minutes with the massive bulls and grey reef sharks.

Their small, slender bodies are perfectly adapted to life in the structurally complex reef, allowing them to reach virtually any fish hidden in its cracks and crevices.

WHILE WE SLOWLY OFF-GAS the nitrogen (usually one of the more unexciting parts of a dive) another spectacle is presented to us: an explosion of colour as the sunrays penetrate through the water column and dance on the thriving shallow reef.

The whole scene seems almost unreal, too beautiful to be true. After another exciting 10 minutes we head back to the boat. Many of us need to be careful not to lose regulators because of our huge smiles – wow, that was an intense 50 minutes!

During the 60-minute surface interval the boat is manoeuvred to calmer waters and I have some time to talk to Mike Neumann. With a big grin, he tells me the story of Shark Reef Marine Reserve, Fiji’s first national marine park and officially recognised since 2014.

“Everything started in 2004 with the idea to create a self-sustaining tourism project that would do two things: offer divers an unforgettable experience and protect the resident sharks,” says Mike. “Today, more than 10 years later, we have accomplished both and much more. We have created a win-win situation for everyone.”

Not only are the sharks and other marine species protected by the marine sanctuary, but the local population benefits from the international tourism revenues. “We’ve made arrangements with several villages owning the traditional fishing rights to the area we wanted to protect,” says Mike. Every diver pays a levy of about US $10 “which goes straight to the respective villages, who in turn refrain from fishing in the area.”

This approach has led not only to establishing one of the world’s most famous shark dives but contributing substantially to protection of the resident sharks. By 2007 the Shark Corridor (in which shark-fishing is banned) had been established. Today it covers a 30-mile stretch off Viti Levu’s coast.

This is no “paper park”. Fish wardens actively patrol the area, looking for poachers and illegal fishing activities.

Not only are sharks thriving in the reserve but it appears that other marine animals are benefitting from protection it affords too.

This in turn leads to the “spillover effect” – as the fish population inside the park has increased, populations have extended to areas outside its boundaries, boosting fishing yields in adjacent areas.

THIS IS HOW Marine Protected Areas or MPAs can be a win-win situation for everyone – nature-lovers, fishermen, conservationists and economists alike. “This park is a major conservation success, and shows that small-scale efforts do make a difference,” says Mike.

BAD was also a founder-member of the Global Shark Diving Alliance, a worldwide initiative by operators to set international standards for responsible and long-term sustainable shark-diving. “Besides the safety of the divers and the protection of sharks, we put a strong emphasis on the continuous support of shark research and conservation,” Mike tells me.

Each shark-dive is attended by at least one trained local marine biologist, who records individuals and environmental parameters to feed a long-term database documenting changes within populations.

BAD also supports an international team of scientists researching species movements and population genetics. Its shark-feed dives provide an opportunity to find out more about hierarchies, migration routes and general as well as mating behaviour.

WE PREPARE FOR the second dive. I check my underwater housing – enough space on SD card, settings right, flashes working – I’m good to go!

This dive is a little different to the first. We’re at the same site, but this time we approach another feeding area at 15m. And instead of kneeling, we lie flat on our bellies behind a much shallower wall. We have already been reminded not to stick out any hands or arms, as the sharks will come even closer than on the first dive.

When we’re positioned, Fabiano takes the ropes and starts ascending with the binful of tuna off-cuts. Some 30 sharks are soon as close as they can be! Again and again, seemingly out of nowhere, large bulls appear from the sides and pass us, with sometimes less than a metre to spare.

It feels unreal to be side by side with these fascinating animals, the earliest ancestors of which roamed our oceans more than 400 million years ago.

I note their curiosity and how they observe us as they chase behind the bin for the next 30 minutes. Then the signal sounds and we ascend towards the reef-edge to enjoy another 15 minutes off-gassing at the best safety stop in the world.

Speechless, I climb the ladder back onto Hunter. This has been by far the most exciting dive of my life, and the closest I have been to any sharks. We return exhausted but exhilarated to the base in Pacific Harbor.

It would be hard to sell people the story of sharks as mindless killing machines if they had just spent two hours face to face with them. Many divers leaving Fiji for their home countries will become shark advocates – willingly or unwillingly – as they tell friends and families about their incredible encounters there.

Only when people understand sharks will they start caring about them and their existence. People only protect what they understand and love. Which is what Beqa Adventure Divers is about – not only in facilitating safe and exciting encounters for thousands of tourists every year, but also in educating the public and pushing for the conservation of these important ocean regulators.


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