What in the hell are you thinking right now? Woman, have you completely lost your mind?! These were the thoughts rolling through my brain as I descended into deep blue water toward a swarming school of bull sharks.
Let me just clarify here that this is not normal behavior for me. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I have no desire to skydive, bungee jump, hang glide, ride a motorcycle or participate in any other activity where a minor amount of clumsiness could end in morbid injury. Suffice it to say, shark diving was not on my agenda for our time in Fiji. Scuba diving, maybe. Scuba diving with sharks, umm…not so much. Yet, my curiosity (or stupidity perhaps) got the best of me and here I was. Following a dive master to 30 meters below sea level, watching with anxious awe as the outlines of sharks appeared before my eyes in the murky water.
Shortly after we arrived in Fiji our host, Reuben, told us about the shark dive trip he’d gone on a number of times. It was just 45 minutes from their house in Suva and run by what he considered to be a very reputable and professional team of shark researchers and master divers. Brian was immediately on board and soon the two of them had scheduled a trip with Beqa Adventure Divers in Pacific Harbour. They set out on a beautiful Saturday and came back with not only all of their limbs, but also big smiles and some incredible videos.
I’d expected to watch the footage horrified at the thought my husband had been swimming with these predators. However, I found myself surprisingly jealous. I couldn’t believe it, but as I watched the mass of fish and sharks swirl around Brian’s head I decided I wanted to go shark diving too.
About a week later I was the only woman on a boat speeding toward a reef off Beqa island. Surrounded by six other divers and the Fijian crew that would take me on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, I sat there sucking in deeps breaths and attempting to look calm and casual about the whole thing. However, despite a few fearful thoughts during my descent to the first dive stop, I found shark diving to be a very controlled and safe experience.
Initially I’d felt uncomfortable with the idea of participating in a program which feeds wild sharks. Similar to the heartbreaking things we learned about the elephant riding tours in Thailand, shark diving excursions seemed to be a dangerous and bizarre exploitation of animals. However, having now experienced shark diving I absolutely see the educational and ecological value of it. By partnering with local marine parks and university research teams, shark diving companies help track shark behavior, rebuild the once dwindling populations and educate tourists on the important role these misunderstood predators play in the oceanic ecosystem. And let’s be honest, they’re also making some money on the deal too. Brian and I learned a great deal during our dives from the marine biologists on our boats. We’ve since done our own research on the sharks’ threatened status, including a couple fascinating documentaries on the National Geographic channel. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year, usually for the key ingredient in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, which can cost as much as $2,000 a bowl. While the loss of these fearsome creatures may seem to be of little consequence to us land dwellers, scientists warn of the catastrophic repercussions we humans would face if we let the apex predators of the ocean food chain go extinct.
During our dives around Beqa reef, Brian and I saw a wide variety of sharks, ranging from the menacing 8-foot bull sharks to the smaller reef sharks, which seemed almost cute by comparison. As we sat on the ocean floor under the safety of professionally-trained dive masters armed with long metal rods designed to keep these massive fish at bay, we watched as the sharks were fed from large bins and then, amazingly, by hand. THEY FED SHARKS BY HAND, PEOPLE!! Yet, something about the experience was surprisingly calm and almost relaxing, as crazy as that may sound. It almost felt like being at an aquarium with a sheet of glass separating us from this swarming mass of sea life. Every creature we saw, from the sharks to the tiny butterfly fish, went about its business with little concern for the line of strange-looking things clad in black suits and funny masks. Only toward the end of my last dive, when I felt the bottom of a bull shark’s tail fin graze the top of my head, did my adrenalin start pumping a little. Holy moly, crazy lady, you are swimming with sharks!
Brian and I are so glad we stepped very, very, VERY far outside our comfort zones and took the opportunity to go shark diving in Fiji. It’s an experience we’ll certainly never forget, and it’s forever changed our view of these ocean predators and their role in our global ecosystem. I’ll be honest though, I think once is enough for me. I came back with no new holes or missing limbs, so I figure why push my luck.