I’ve dived with sharks. Heaps of them. Black and white tip reef sharks, a couple of greys. I took it in my stride from the very first sighting.
That first sighting, I was diving off the coast of a small island in Vanuatu. The dive guide said we may see a ‘reefie’ or two and I remember being incredibly nervous. I asked my dive buddy to stay close to me as I was likely to panic and bolt to the surface.
Instead he did, and I began my love affair with the ocean’s most misunderstood creatures.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Today, just this morning, I dived with a 16ft tiger shark and countless – literally countless bull sharks. I laughed underwater, realizing I had in fact never dived with real sharks before.
The shark dive operated by Aqua Trek at Club Oceanus Resort at Pacific Harbour in Fiji has been running since May 1999. The controlled (as far as you can control a situation with wild animals) dive is so polished, I wondered what all the fuss was about.
The dive guides calmly gear up, a briefing is over in a few minutes and just when you think , hey – this is going to be a breeze, someone yells from the back of the boat “oh my God there’s a tiger shark down there!”
Aqua Trek’s owner and operations manager Brandon Paige causally laughs and says yes, we’re going to show you some big fish today.
I plunge in to the water, blood pumping around my body and all previous self-calming strategies have gone out the window.
I immediately see tawny nurse sharks and reef sharks. We descend down the line to around 18m and head straight for a coral wall to take position. Immediately there are massive (well to me anything over six foot is massive) bull sharks, lemon sharks, and silvertips.
It’s a rare thing to hear people talking underwater, rarer still to clearly hear nervous laughter and the odd swear word. Not today, however. As we start to settle, me ducking for cover more than once, we watch as the brave, I would argue heroic dive guides cross over the wall and get amongst the sharks.
The feeding commences and with it the 16-foot tiger shark arrives on the scene. The other sharks get out of her way and after a feed of tuna head, she decides to check us out.
That beautiful, majestic creature who I later find is named Survivor casually swims straight over my head. If I was stupid enough I could have touched her, but touching, pointing and any sort of movement is discouraged in the dive briefing. I was also pretty keen to keep all of my limbs.
The sharks get in to a frenzy at the smell of food, but they are not aggressive and have little interest in us. They do swim above us, behind us and in some cases in between us, but at no time are their mouths open looking to bite us.
Eight species of shark were there today, surrounded by the most dangerous animals on the planet – humans.
Brandon Paige is passionate about shark welfare and fish sustainability. So much so he hasn’t eaten fish in years – his favourite food.
“There’s not one fisherman who can say there are more fish in the sea today than what there were five years ago. When you think about it, everything we eat on land we replace. We don’t do that with fish.”
Brandon and his team treat the sharks like wild pets. They respect them, trust them and grow to love individual sharks.
“It probably sounds stupid but we had a tiger come to the dive site three times a week for five years. She was 17ft when we first started feeding her. When she didn’t return after the mating season (December-April) it was like losing a family pet. I was devastated,” he said.
Today apparently we were lucky to see Survivor, it’s early in the season for her to be here but Brandon puts that down to there not being enough food in the ocean to keep her away, and that saddens him.
Aqua Trek buy all their tuna heads in Suva, from catch destined for the Japanese market.
“We pay top dollar – they’re well fed sharks,” he laughs.
Aqua Trek’s shark dive operates on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 0900.
“The time is non negotiable. We don’t dictate that – the sharks do,” Brandon says.
Transfers can be arranged from anywhere in Fiji. Two dives (yep, you get to do it twice), all dive gear and marine park entrance fees which go to local landowners are included for $FJD370.
I stayed at the very comfortable and friendly Club Oceanus. Aqua Trek is on the premises, there are 10 large recently renovated air conditioned guest rooms, an open air restaurant and bar serving delicious food (do try the beef curry and dahl soup), swimming pool and authentic Fijian service.
Rooms range from twin, triple share to the loft family room. Some have kitchenettes, all have large bathrooms.
Club Oceanus is on the river at Pacific Harbour. After breakfast, you simply walk the 10 steps to Aqua Trek and prepare for a dive you will never forget.
Oh and in case you were wondering, no, no tourist or dive guide has ever been bitten.