I’ve been lucky enough to dive 13 different countries so far on my endless laps of the map! And it’s nigh impossible to say which country has been my favourite to dive. Australia, goes without saying. Micronesia, if you’re a wreck enthusiast then absolutely. Iceland definitely. But one of the most exhilarating experiences in my diving career which is touching now on 1000 logged dives, took place in the superb waters off Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, Beqa Lagoon.
Here you have the options of reef/wreck dives and the world famous, Beqa Lagoon Shark Dive. The reefs around Beqa Lagoon are quite stunning, with amazing coral encrusted formations and plenty of macro life to keep the most seasonal photographer snapping away for hours. Sadly, most of the reefs are lacking in larger species, I think, sadly overfished by the locals. You’ll be sure to enjoy your reef dives in Beqa, but if I’m honest, you’re not there for the reef dives.
You dive Beqa for Aqua Trek Dive Centre’s famous baited shark dive. (And before you start getting judgey judgey on the controversial topic of baited shark dives keep on reading with an open mind). The set up at the dive centre is second to none. When you arrive, you’ll be greeted with the most genuine welcome by the Fijian staff (Fijian’s are possibly the most beautifully natured people in the world), and your tanks for the day are already loaded on to the dive boat. All you have to do is set up your equipment (or they will set it up for you if you’re that way inclined), tell the guide how much weight you would like and put on your wetsuit. On the way out of the inlet, the boat will stop by a pier where wheelie bin loads of blood, fish skeletons and pieces will be loaded on to the back of the boat. Yes, it is absolutely putrid, having been sitting in the sun for a day or two getting nice and ripe, ready to entice our sharky friends up from the deep.
The ride out to the site, The Bistro, shouldn’t take anymore then 20min. Mostly nice, flat and calm, seas, on occasion, can get whipped up by strong winds depending on the time of the year. Once you’re out at the dive site, the feeders will have all the smelly fish and blood bins in the water while you’re getting kitted up. By the time you enter the water and descend down the pinnacle to the wall at 19m the feeders would have brewed up probably the biggest fish tornado you’ll ever see. I’m talking, thousands of Sergeant Majors, wrasse, remoras and massive Queensland Groupers the size of a small car. One massive resident Green Moray Eel may also join the pre-feeding party. The feeders with their bin full of fish sit about 2m in front of the short, viewing wall you are kneeling behind. I found the best viewpoint was to try and be positioned along the viewing wall a few meters to the left of the feeders.
The Tawny Nurse Sharks and White Tip Reef Sharks are the first guys on the scene. But when the big boys join the que they seem to know their place and make way. Bull sharks are the main focal attraction. Which, to the faint of heart, may seem like the craziest thing you’ve ever heard of? ‘Why on earth did you choose to get in the water with a bull shark?’, is one of the most common questions I get asked by those who still live in fear of ‘Jaws’. The expression on their faces when I tell them that ‘well it wasn’t just one bull shark, closer to 30 or so’, never fails to disappoint.
But yes, without a lie, you could be in the vicinity of up to 30 or more bull sharks, ranging from small juveniles to the biggest bull sharks in the ocean. The thing about the bull shark is while it generally doesn’t get too much longer than 3.5m or so (relatively shorter than their cousins the Tiger Shark or Great White), they have a girth on them that just takes your breath away. When one of the bigger ladies turns to face you is when you really get an appreciation of just how enormous these guys are.
It’s not just the bull sharks that will grace you with their presence, you will likely come face to face with Lemon Sharks, Oceanic Silver Tip, Black Tip Reef Sharks and Grey Reef Sharks. Totalling 7 different species of shark on one single dive (counting the Tawny Nurse and White Tip Reef Shark). If you are lucky, one of the resident Tiger Sharks may even turn up, totally 8 shark species! Sadly, on my week in Fiji, the tigers didn’t make an appearance, but they were there the week before and the week after I was there. Luck of the draw huh?
The feed takes place twice a day, 2 – 3 days a week. So, while this is ‘frequent’, there is no way that these sharks can solely rely on only the food they are getting from the feeders to survive. They are almost ‘well trained’ in a way. As they know where the feeders are, generally come in at a nice relaxed pace, take the tuna head offered by the feeder, turn and swim right along the wall in front of you, before almost ‘re-joining’ the line again. There is definitely a pecking order among the sharks. The big bulls have right of way, followed by the big lemons, followed by the smaller bulls and other species. I’m told that you know when a Tiger is in the area before you see them because suddenly, all the sharks hang back until the Tiger makes his approach, taking the top spot in the pecking order.
5 minutes or so before the feed is over, a guide will ascend to around 5m, where a bin full of blood and small chunks of fish has been sitting for the entire dive. The purpose of this is to try and keep the swarms of small fish species out of the way so the divers can enjoy the sharks with as little obstruction as possible. When the main feeders have re-joined the rest of the divers behind the safety wall, the bin full of blood and pieces gets emptied, which whips all the species into a feeding frenzy. The schools of fish tornado-ing, with the bigger sharks launching in to the bloody water after anything that happens to end up in their jaws.
Safety wise, Aqua Trek Dive Centre is again second to none. There are almost as many staff in the water as there are paying customers. They position themselves well and carry large aluminium rods. If a nosey shark doesn’t veer his course and appears to be coming straight toward a diver, the safety diver will smack his rod against the wall or rock, this causes vibrations to travel through the water and hit the sharks Ampullae of Lorenzini, which is a sensitive electroreceptor along the shark’s side. This is usually enough to cause the shark to change direction. If he doesn’t, then he receives a tap on the nose from the rod, which turns him around without a doubt. The staff not only have the safety of their customers at the top of their priority, but also work amazingly in a team, to make sure their fellow staff are also safe from any shark that approaches from their blind spot. Watching them work together was almost just as fascinating as watching the feed. They work hard and deserve so much appreciation.
Shark conservation is high priority with Aqua Trek Dive Centre. It is the only centre in the world offering the PADI Distinctive Specialty Course, Extreme Shark Diver. This unique and fun course will teach you all about Beqa Lagoon’s local sharks, highlighting issues with illegal shark fin and fishing and offering insight into conservation techniques. A $20 Fijian Dollar fee is to be paid per diver per shark dive day. This fee goes directly to the local village community, who in turn have agreed to not fish The Bistro, which has allowed these magnificent apex predators and massive Queensland Groupers to live safely, free from the hooks and nets of the local fisherman. It is for this reason that I support this particular baited shark dive. Without it, the bull shark population in Beqa Lagoon would almost certainly be on the brink of collapse and it is a great opportunity to be safely put face to face with one of the most misunderstood animals on our planet, and experience their true power and beauty. I think that it also helps break the façade of sharks being viscous man eaters. It’s an experience you will never forget, will not be disappointed by and will be sure to bring a sparkle to your eye as you talk about it with friends and colleagues many years after you’ve been.