Day 42 of our Pacific Journey – Diving With Sharks
Friday, November 30, 2007
Getting Our Days Straight
So I finally got around to counting days on the calendar and my previous entry below marked as Day 40, should have really been Day 38 (or technically Day 37 due to the fact we crossed the International Date Line, but I’m not going to deal with that issue). That makes this day I am chronicling about next – November 30th, our 42nd day of travel and excitement.
I need to mention I would have had this posted in a more timely fashion except for the fact that our somewhat pricey but decent Internet connection at the Outrigger On The Lagoon in Fiji went dead on the 30th at 11am, and as of when we left for the airport at 6pm on December 4th, had still not come back to life. So here we are almost a week late, again. Sigh.
Back to our story…
A Diving (for Sharks) We Go…
Linda and I awoke around 5:45am this morning, and at 6:20am, Luci, a nice Fijian woman, showed up to take charge of our young ones. Neither Bas nor Krystyana were inclined to join Linda and I on our great adventure today, and in retrospect, it’s probably a good thing too, as the challenges of our journey would have exceeded their physical limits.
Our great adventure was going on a pair of shark feeding dives in the Beqa Lagoon.
Beqa is a small island atoll located due south of the Pacific Harbor area. The atoll forms a natural lagoon which is reportedly a great place for diving.
Another detour here – when people, especially non-divers, hear that someone is going shark diving, they get all sorts of images, typically ones derived from having read or seen Peter Benchley’s epic, Jaws. Those images involve menacing and calculating sharks looking to sneak up on hapless divers, ready to bite them in half, with blood and carnage everywhere. The reality is that dives where sharks are regular fed by trained feeders are quite safe, and for divers the biggest rush is how cool all the sharks are, and not “I hope I don’t get eaten”. And Peter Benchley himself realized this too, well after the hysteria and fear his works had induced. In the years before his death in 2006 he attempted to fix some of the damage Jaws did to the perception of sharks by working to protect them.
Back to our adventure. To get to where our dive was to occur, we had to drive more or less west for well over an hour to a place called Pacific Harbor, and hook up with Aqua-Trek, a dive shop which does a two-tank (two dives, one scuba tank per dive, hence two tank) dive trip south to the Beqa Lagoon three times a week – Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
We arrived at Aqua-Trek around 8am in our AVIS rental car, checked in, set up our gear on board the Aqua Sport dive boat, and watched (and smelled) days old fish parts and chum being loaded on board. Just before 9am, we and our seven other dive companions were off to the Bistro dive site. One couple was from Vancouver and traveling about the world for a while. Another was a younger couple from San Francisco on a six month world tour. There were two Japanese guys, vaguely reminiscent of Hiro and Ando from the series Heroes, and a young Australian guy who was in Suva on business and managed to work the dive into his schedule.
It was a very short boat ride, perhaps 15-20 minutes, and we found two other dive boats already there – apparently Friday was the day that the Aqua-Trek dive shop ran the shark dive for two resorts located in the Beqa Lagoon as well, so that put us at around 30 divers for the dive, plus a half dozen or so divemasters and handlers.
Entering The Watery Depths
After a briefing where it was explained that we’d be watching the first feeding at a depth of around 30 meters, we all made our way into the water. The current was ripping, and I lost track of Linda for a while as I struggled to get down to the target area – I finally saw her behind me, swimming for all she was worth trying to make headway into the current. We helped each other over a ridge and finally made it to the feeding area, breathing hard. Good thing they gave us generous fills on our tanks (for our fellow divers, tanks were filled to around 3400 psi).
We joined other divers along a rope that had been set up to mark off the viewing area, and watched as ever-increasing numbers of fish of many species mobbed the diver who was dispensing the yummy fish parts. Among the fish we saw were a variety of fusiliers, giant trevally, rainbow runners, butterfly fish, smaller jacks, groupers, and more. And then Linda started hitting me to get my attention – a tiger shark had appeared to our right and was regally swimming through the parting hordes of smaller fish to scope things out. The tiger shark was a female as evidenced by the lack of claspers, a clasper being a shark penis – and most male sharks have two of those, incidentally. She was also around 12 feet long. A big lady indeed! This was a major rush for us, as tiger sharks are rarely seen by people, especially in non-threatening situations. Their name stems from the white tiger-marking-like patterns on their backs.
It should be noted that tiger sharks are the second most dangerous shark (to man) in the world, but mostly to surfers, not divers. And this tiger shark had been acclimated to divers and being fed (and even touched), so we were not in any real danger at any time. However, just in case, a number of the dive guides had aluminum prods (looked a bit like walking canes) which were used to keep sharks away from the paying divers. They must have been doing a good job because we don’t think any divers were lost on our dives.
At one point during the feeding a male nurse shark got in the way of the tiger shark and was almost bitten in half for his insolence.
The tiger shark stayed with us for the entire dive, getting as close as a couple of feet away – I was glad I had my camera system equipped with a wide angle lens – both to capture the full shark even at that distance, as well as a barrier between myself and the shark, just in case this was the one time the tiger shark decided the nearby blond diver might make a good snack.
This was our second tiger shark view on this Pacific journey of ours – but the first was behind glass, however, at the Maui Ocean Center a few weeks ago (more on that at some later point). Much better and cooler to see it in real life right in front of us. There’s also no question that the tiger shark was the queen of these here waters. Where she swam, most other fish rapidly made way for her (except for the stupid nurse shark, and he certainly did not get in the tiger shark’s way again).
As the food ran out, and we were getting close to having to do a decompression dive, we were ushered to head up to the boat. The tiger shark was still prowling about as well, making our handlers a bit jumpy. However, ascending was not quite that simple for me. As I tried to get up from my kneeling position, I found that one of my fins had gotten lodged in under a rock and I could not extract the fin – I was effectively stuck at 80 feet under water. Linda tried to help, but it required the assistance of one of the dive guides to finally dislodge it (and it ended up breaking the rock too). Mind you, I wasn’t too nervous, as I knew I could always take the fin off and either leave it there, or at least have better leverage to get it out without my foot in the fin, but it was nice having the additional assistance. We finally managed to ascend to do our safety stop and then got back on board the boat for a decent surface interval.
The Second Dive – Amusingly, Most Divers Unaware Of Sharks
The weather had gotten a bit sunnier, so we tried to warm up before the next dive. For this one we were going to a shallower feeding ground at only around 15 meters deep. The current was much weaker, fortunately, but even so, this time we used the descent line to get down instead of free swimming. We found the line of divers too crowded to get situated comfortably, and I had to bonk a small moray eel on the nose a few times with my camera strobes to have him give up his perch near where I was trying to kneel. Linda ended up sitting on a rock behind me. However the feeding this time was rather boring – lots of smaller fish, and no sharks, so I left the line of divers with the intention of taking some pictures of other fish in the area.
As I managed to free myself from the other divers and started looking around, I realized that there were a fair number of sharks cruising around behind all the divers, right near me. Linda and I signaled our amusement to each other about how all the divers were focused on watching small fish, and meanwhile the big ones with big teeth were mere meters behind their backs. We ended up seeing up close (within a few feet) a sicklefin lemon shark with her entourage of bright yellow juvenile golden trevally – acting as a type of pilot fish, as well as a silvertip shark. Further off in the distance we also saw whitetip, blacktip, and bull sharks. Quite the shark menagerie, and most of the divers had no clue until the very end as they ascended in a chaotic jumble and saw sharks all around.
As we surfaced from our second dive and got comfortable on the boat, we all had a chance to share our favorite shark tales.
Once we arrived back on shore, we got cleaned up, ordered a DVD of our dive (which featured about 15 minutes of footage from our dive and another 15 minutes of filler about the dive shop and the sharks and other fish we had seen), and then set out in search of lunch.
Lunch, Low Tourism, and Traditional Song & Dance
We found that at the Oasis Restaurant at Arts Village, also in Pacific Harbor. Art Village was supposed to be a recreated old-style Fijian village with additional shops offering local handicraft, but we found it rather quiet and deserted. Another victim of the bad PR created by last year’s coup. Occupancy at the hotels in the area was also way down, just as in the Coral Coast area where we were staying.
The food at the Oasis was excellent, and reasonably priced. I had a local fish soup with some hot sauce they made for me, and Linda had a Thai salad with mango and tamarind dressing. We followed that up with spicy ginger noodles, and a ginger pork dish. Everything had incredibly fresh and crisp, not overcooked, vegetables. It was more food than we could finish, so we skipped desert. And one of the highlights of the meal was our dining companion, a calico cat which belonged to one of the staff. The cat was very friendly and reminded us of our pet family members left back at home.
After the late lunch we checked out some of the shops at Arts Village, found nothing truly worthwhile, and then made our way back to the Outrigger, arriving sometime after 4pm. Luci had taken good care of the kids, and both were in good moods, as was Luci.
After some quiet time, and room service for Bas, we had dinner at the Ivi restaurant with Krystyana while Bas went to the kids’ club. It should be noted that both Bas and I wore a sulu for our evening activities. A sulu is a type of wrap worn by Fijian men. Very comfortable, and it even has pockets. We also wore matching Hawaiian shirts we had picked up at Hilo Hattie’s in Hawaii. Here on Fiji they call them Bula shirts, incidentally.
We hooked up with Bas during the performance of the Meke – a traditional native song and dance ritual. After the Meke we were invited up to dance. I joined in in the hopes of getting Bas to participate, but he weaseled out on me.
We had a fine time, and closed the evening with the nightcap left in our room – one of the benefits of the type of bure (hut) we’re staying in here at the Outrigger. We also get a glass of champagne each with canapés earlier in the evening each night – another nice benefit we have been enjoying regularly.
More photos from this day, including lots of shark shots can be found here.
Thus ends Day 42 of our Pacific Journey.