November 9-11 Friday-Sunday (Day 14-16)
After listening to some of the recommendations of the many divers we met on Kadavu, including David Fleetham and some of the dive masters, we decided to spend a couple of days at Beqa Bay to do some shark diving. The place that is closest to the Beqa shark dive tour operators is called Pacific Harbour and it is indeed a slightly strange destination. It seems to be modeled after US golf course communities with its manicured lawns, real estate development going bezerk and a few buildings consisting of shops and restaurants called Arts Village.
For a couple of nights we stayed in a little resort called “Uprising” but in order to get our budget back on track after Kadavu we stayed in a dorm for a couple of nights. It was actually not so bad since we stayed in what was called a mini-dorm, which is basically a small bure/villa that has been transformed into a dorm by putting 4 bunk beds inside instead of a king size bed. So it was quite cozy, really a nice dorm compared to some of the hellholes you occasionally see when looking at the real budget dorms. For one night we actually had the company of 4 fellow travellers, three girls from England, Poland and Canada and a chap from the US who was a bit weird I have to say. I even had to bunk with him, or more correctly, in the bed above him. The girls were actually doing the “Feejee Experience”, which is a bus tour through the country with various “fun” activities – “fun” for the twentysomethings anyway. According to our Lonely Planet guide this generation prefers to do these guided fun tours through the country vs. travelling individually on public transportation, which is quite a bit cheaper. The Gen Y seems to avoid public buses, which we actually found quite comfortable and exciting since you get in close contact with the locals. Anyway, all of them turned out to be nice enough folks and they all left early in the morning and we had the dorm to ourselves for the next night. Besides the very basic accommodation – although we had an outside ‘rainforest shower’, which lost its appeal once it started to rain heavily – the resort was quite nice, located directly at a clean and empty beach. We were also able to book our shark dives for the next morning right there and this included a pick up from the resort.
(Beach at 'Uprising' resort - not too shabby for a backpacker's joint)
The weather next morning was unfortunately not great, it rained steadily and with the wind it was actually getting a bit chilly – if you can call temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius chilly. Anyway, after breakfast someone from Aqua Trek, one of the few companies which organizes shark feeding dives here, picked us up from the resort and drove us to the dive center right at the little lagoon on Pacific Harbor with access to Beqa bay. We got dressed in long 7mm dive suits and hopped on the boat. The only other guests were a couple from Sweden who are living in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. With us on the boat were Brendan, one of the owners of Aqua Trek who is South African and two local dive masters. It was fairly windy and we had some high waves driving out of the lagoon. But after only about 10 minutes we anchored at the dive site and there was just one other boat with divers.
The underwater current was quite strong that morning and we almost didn’t dive due to it but our crew finally decided that it was safe enough. We all had to go down the anchor rope though in order not to drift too far from the dive spot. From there we had to switch to a steel chain at the bottom of the ocean at about 18 meters (60 feet) to reach a small coral reef ledge that we could hold on to while laying on the ground. On the way down our dive partners from Sweden had a bit of a scare since one of their regulators got tangled up in the ropes and he was rapidly losing air. So the dive masters had to take him up on the boat again and change his bottle before descending again. Not something you want to do every time you are diving but definitely good early morning excitement for adrenaline junkies.
What happened then was just incredible and you really have to see it to believe it. The dive crew hauled down a whole big garbage bin full of fish heads and chump. Once they were situated just in front of us, not more than 2-3 meters away, they opened the bin and pulled out the fish heads and other remains of fish that they get from a fish processing plant. And then the big frenzy started – thousands of fish, from smaller trevallies to Spanish mackerels to huge groupers – were swirling around us and the dive master to catch a bit of the chump. Once the whole commotion was in full swing, the bigger fish including sharks arrived to get their piece of the action. And when they say shark feeding, they mean it. We could identify at least six to seven different types of sharks, from white and black tip reef sharks to nurse sharks, lemon sharks, and grey ocean wailers. And finally a couple of large size female bull sharks arrived and it’s easy to identify them – they are the largest of the lot, ranging between 3-5 meters (10-16 feet) in length, big round chest and when they arrive the other fish keep a safe distance. That day we didn’t see tiger sharks, which come to this spot regularly as well. The whole experience was very exciting and at no point there was the feeling that anybody was in danger other then being whisked away by the strong current. The sharks are exclusively focused on the fish and disappear as soon as it’s gone. Some hang around a bit to see whether someone brings some more free fast food but most of the fish seem to be fairly well “conditioned” to know when the big old garbage can is really empty. We did a couple of these dives, the second being a bit less eventful in terms of mishaps and with less current but otherwise this was definitely one of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It’s safe to say that it is almost impossible to find any other spot in the world where you can dive with that many sharks, including ones with a reputation as bad as bulls and tigers, just minutes off the coast.
Now, let me just say a few words about the whole “shark feeding business”. Some of you might have a strong opinion about this, often not a very positive one, and you are not alone. Many folks argue that sharks should be left alone; nature should run its course and I would actually fully agree with this statement. However, reality is that our oceans have been hugely overfished and especially sharks have been at the receiving end of fishing practices that have vastly decimated the world’s shark population, including many Chinese vessels that hunt sharks for their fins in Fijian waters. So, not only are sharks being hunted directly but their typical prey is being overfished as well so that many sharks go hungry for long periods of time.
We had a long discussion with Brendan, the owner of Aqua Trek, about the story behind it and changed out minds about the risks and benefits of controlled shark feeding over the course of our conversation although we were skeptical in the beginning as well. Brendan convincingly told us the story of how he started developing shark feeding sites in Fiji over the years and how it benefits the reefs itself and the local communities. Brendan is also a member of the local council dealing with marine preservation and has been fighting for fishing controls and preservation of endangered species for many years. The reef that we were diving used to be a “dead” reef without the variety of fish that keep a reef alive. After introducing shark feeding to several of these reefs, the fish came back to the reefs and populated them; finally developing a healthy eco system again with a variety of small and large fish. And we were definitely able to witness the health of the reef as a marine ecosystem – in fact, I have never see the amount of different types of fish in one spot before. Also, the local communities benefit from diving at the shark feeding sites since a part of the proceeds from the fees go straight to the local village that owns this part of the beach and reef. Finally, the sharks who frequent this site regularly don’t seem to change their natural behavior and still hunt in the ocean or shallow waters when the supply of fish is abundant. But during times when sharks go hungry for too long due to overfishing they seem to come to shark feeding sites for a “snack in between”. It also doesn’t seem to make them more aggressive and the shark feeding tour operators have never had any shark accidents in the many years they have been practicing in Fiji. But in the end, you should make up your mind about this issue yourself but we definitely found it educational to talk with experts and other fellow divers about the controversial topic of shark feeding.