Meeting marine predators – Part 1

Helen shark crop

Helen diving with bull sharks. Photo by Michael Sealey

In the lead up to my first dive in Fiji a lot of people asked me if I was scared. Was I nervous? It was going to be my three hundred and somethingth dive, so by now I’m used to being beneath the waves. But the conversation that I had a few times ran like this:

Concerned friend: Are you scared? (subtext: Are you crazy?)

Me: No. Well, maybe a little.

Because this time I would be diving with some of the biggest predators in the ocean and without the comfort blanket of a big metal cage. I was pretty sure that I would love having the chance to come face to face with a bunch of enormous bull sharks. But when I looked deep down in side me I was surprised to find a tiny part that was a little bit nervous. Nervous mainly because I couldn’t be completely sure how I’d react until I got down to thirty metres and got among the sharks myself. And being that far underwater is not a great place to freak out.

I’m in Fiji as a part of a research expedition being led by Dr Joshua Drew from Columbia University. I flew out a few days early and took the chance to drop in on a dive I’ve wanted to do for ages. Beqa Adventure Divers are based in Pacific Habour, an hour west of Fiji’s capital Suva. For a decade now they’ve been taking divers down to meet a large group of bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas). This notoriously chompy shark species isn’t an obvious target for dive ecotourism. They’ve gained a reputation as being aggressive garbage cans of the sea and are widely feared for their habit of lurking in shallow, coastal, murky waters, penetrating up into rivers. But here in Fiji, BAD are proving to dozens of divers a day that they are really not as scary as all that.

“Now is a perfect time to see the sharks”,

my Fijian dive guide Papa told me as we motored out of the river and along the coast of Vanua Levu a short way to the dive site.

“There are a lot sharks right now. A lot, a lot of sharks”.

And he wasn’t kidding.

Jumping in the water and gliding down I caught my first sight of a dozen huge animals cruising below me. They really were gob smackingly enormous.Upwards of seven feet long from snout to tail and fat. These Fijian bull sharks are not so much sleek torpedoes but rather chubby mini submarines. Soon I was surrounded by at least forty massive predators.

On a first dive with these sharks, most people line up a short way back safely tucked in behind a coral wall. But the day before my first dive I met up with BAD boss and shark blogger, Mike Neumann, and over coffee and beer he offered me the chance of taking up the prime spot, a few metres from where the sharks line up to get fed, right in their post-chomp flight path.

Because the truth is, the only reason the sharks show up is for food. It’s really the only way you would reliably encounter these top marine predators.

My general outlook on feeding wildlife is a mixed bag of concerned ecologist and pragmatic conservationist. Plenty of people feed wild birds in their gardens, so why not feed fish? But when it comes to sharks there’s the added frission of feeding a predator – something that could, and occasionally does, eat people too. The question is will feeding sharks teach them to associate people with food?

I went on the shark dive with as open a mind as I could muster. I wanted to find out for myself just how this looks and feels.

And I was about to find out.

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