Danger… Fiji-style

Some things in life define ‘counter-intuitive.’ Aqua-Trek’s Beqa Lagoon shark dive is one of those things. The brochure features a massive bull shark swimming atop a group of scuba divers. “Come and dive with seven different types of sharks… including tiger shark!” Sharks. They’ve been a constant fear, and I haven’t even seen Jaws. I remember being terrified of swimming in a freshwater cave in Bermuda, for fear of sharks. I remember rushing out of the water at Manly at the first siren of shark warning. And so I can’t believe the idea of diving with sharks appeals to me. But it does. I’ve developed a dangerous streak since being away.

The ‘danger’ begins even before I hit the water. To get to Pacific Harbour, where the shark dive takes place, I have to hitch a ride from the top of the Mango Bay driveway. Hitchhiking is one of those backpacking necessities I swore I would never do. Enough urban legends are firmly ingrained in my memory to frighten me off. But there I am, standing at the top of the road with my massive green backpack at my feet. The lady who dropped me at the top of the driveway gave me one word of advice: “Don’t mind the men walking past you with machetes.” Comforting. And the moment she pulls away, a group of young Fijian men corner the bend with huge long blades swinging in their hands. They smile and yell “Bula!” I tentatively wave back, trying to remember that they were on their way to work in the sugar cane plantations, not out murdering vulnerable backpackers. After a short interval (so easy!) I get picked up by an older Kiwi couple on vacation. We chat about the shark dive, and they drop me outside Pearl Resort, where Aqua-Trek is based. Hitchhiking box… check! I’m a real traveller now.

Eight of us are there for the dive, with four dive masters. The boat ride is short, maybe 15mins tops, and there is a very short briefing. So far, so good. Simple rules: don’t imitate the feeders, if a tiger shark comes, remain as a group. Nothing too hard to remember.

The first dive drops us down to 30m, the deepest I’ve been. We all grab hold of a rope strung along the ocean floor. Immediately there are sharks all around us. The predominant species is the tawny nurse shark, big 2 or 3 metre long monsters with small round mouths like the back of a hairdryer, more to crush than to rip and pull. They suck up the fish guts fed to them by the master feeder and press their flat noses against the big green rubbish bin carrying the carnage. They swarm all around each other, nine or ten of them crowding around. Silvertip sharks remain a little more aloof in the distance. And every so often, the shadow of a ‘big one,’ a bull shark, looms in the deep beyond.

It’s hard to look beyond when there is so much going on right in front. Apart from the nurse sharks, teems of huge groupers and scores of other fish circle and swirl in our faces. The water is thicker with fish than I’ve ever seen it. Suddenly, one of the dive masters calls me over. I swim over the rope tentatively, toward the group of nurse sharks. I am the first one. He gestures for me to touch one. I don’t even hesitate. I reach out and stroke it on top of the head. It feels like sandpaper and is looking at me like a puppy dog waiting for food. I smile and wave for the underwater camera. My shark experience caught on film! Another nurse shark comes at me from the side, almost bumping my hip. I stroke that one was well. Eventually I swim back, chuffed that I’ve swam and now touched the ocean’s most fearsome creatures (hardly!)

It’s been such an amazing experience that when it’s over and we swim over a massive ship wreck –something else I have never seen underwater – I hardly notice. There are reef sharks milling about the wreck. It looks like something out of an underwater horror movie, but I keep grinning.

The next dive, at 18m, is even more amazing, but how much more can I write about sharks? We don’t get pulled out of the line to touch them this time… but that’s because now there are three bull sharks around and they are swimming past us with terrifying proximity. They just look more menacing, with teeth sticking crudely out of their mouths like tiny spears. Someone needs to see a dentist! There are lemon sharks too, followed by gaggles of little yellow fish seeking protection. All kinds of reef sharks (silver tip, black tip, white tip). And nurse sharks too, of course. When we break the surface this time, everyone chatters about the sharks we’ve seen. No, there wasn’t a tiger shark this time… but it’s only an excuse to come back, I suppose!

It is the perfect way to end my week alone in Fiji. I’m now joined by Sarah and Isabel. We head out to Bounty Island. The beach is nice, but all in all it is a disappointment by way of islands. For the price, the facilities are bad, food is close to inedible and the customer service is awful. I say this as a warning; there are much better islands than this one. So we hightail it out of there and make our way back to Walu Beach, where I am somewhat of a local celeb – everyone recognizes me and asks after Lofty. We get upgraded and the hotel staff turn our somewhat sour Fiji experience upside down. The sun is shining, reflecting off the calm waters. Lying on a hammock, I smile a secret smile looking out at the ocean… only I know what’s lurking beneath those shimmering depths and I can safely say: I’m no longer afraid.

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