Sport Diver contributor Kate Siber posts a journal entry from her recent assignment to Fiji on Oct. 19 through Oct. 24 for Sport Diver magazine's October 2008 feature, Fiji: Private Island Escape, featuring photography by Tanya Burnett.
When an editor at Sport Diver asked if I could make it to Fiji for a two-week assignment, it didn't take a lot of brainpower to come up with an answer: Um, when do I leave? It wasn't until a few weeks later, however, that I was informed the assignment would involve shark diving. Like most kids whose older brothers convince them there are sharks lurking in the neighborhood lake and underneath swimming pool grates, I had been terrified of them from an early age. It seemed too late, a tad unprofessional and altogether wimpy to back out, so I stayed mum and hoped that a cyclone would blow in at an opportune moment.
I had all but forgotten about the whole diving-with-giant-sharks-without-cages issue when I first met Tanya, the photographer assigned to the story, in the Los Angeles airport. Waiting for our 11 p.m. departure, we yakked about diving and I mentioned I was, oh, a little nervous about the shark day.
"Not to worry!" she said. "You'll be fine. It's excitingthey kind of swarm around. You just have to remember to keep your arms in."
This was not encouraging.
"It's just the tiger sharks that are the scary ones," she added. "They have these big eyes and they see you."
She told me that if anyone was to worry it should be her, since sharks are attracted to the high-pitched whirring noise of her strobes recharging. When they come too close, she said, she simply bops them on the snout with her camera. Again, this was not encouraging at all.
During our first few dives, I was calm enough, enjoying everything from schools of anthias and trevally to triggerfish and bannerfish on Namena Reef and Beqa Island. Sure, we saw a few languid pint-sized reef sharks, but they looked nothing like the giant bulls and swarms I imagined the shark dive would attract, which was never far from my mind.
Day of the Shark Dive
Eventually the day of the shark dive arrived, and we made our way to Beqa Adventure Divers, also known as BAD (www.fiji-sharks.com) in Pacific Harbour on Viti Levu, Fiji's largest island. Judging from the enthusiasm of our group of sundry characters including an Australian divemaster, a dive-geeky American couple, and Tanya, who's completed some 3,000 dives and was still tingling with excitement for this one it seemed BAD had a pretty good reputation. This made me feel better, though the feeder crossing itself when we slowed to a halt at the dive site, a 20-minute ride from the shop, did not. The divemasters tossed over some chum, which was snapped up by a school of giant trevally in a flurry of fins. There was nothing left to do but take the giant stride into the heart of the Shark Reef Marine Reserve.
As conditions calmed when descending from the wind-whipped surface, so did my mood. Soon I was just watching, rapt at the scene before me. Kneeling on a barren area of the reef at 100 feet, a school of giant trevally ballooned around us, and a goliath grouper made tight laps, opening his big maw in slow motion and clamping down laboriously. It wasn't until the second dive that the giant bull shark, whose silhouette we recognized in the distance on the first dive, came in for lunch. It was some 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds and was accompanied by another bull shark, which the divemasters later told us was pregnant. The bulls swam in giant circles, out of our sight, then back in from the deep blue. When the sharks were temporarily absent, Rusi, the feeder, beckoned for me to swim over to him. I looked left and right, wondering why he was singling me out. He beckoned again, so I finally swam down. He motioned for me to open my palm, then placed a single inch-long shark tooth in it.
I didn't realize until later, as we were ascending, that I hadn't even considered my earlier fear. I had only felt the thrill of seeing such a huge predator, so ideally adapted to its habitat, caring not at all about me in my bizarre getup, but only his next viable meal. Our troupe popped up on the surface and made our way onto the boat, one by one. Though I was relieved that it hadn't been so terrifying after all, I was also, admittedly, a bit wistful.
"What did he give you?" Tanya asked as one of the divemasters fired up the engines and we took off again for shore. I pulled the tooth from the sleeve of my wetsuit, and she smiled.
Don't miss Kate's piece, Fiji: Private Island Escape, featuring photography by Tanya Burnett, available by subscription or at newsstands beginning September 2008.Read more about Kate at www.katesiber.com and Tanya at www.islandexposure.us.