The “Serious” Sharks of Beqa Lagoon – Fiji 2008 Tour
By Ron Hunter of Dive Forster at Fisherman’s Wharf
Early February 2009 saw a group of eight divers travel to Beqa Lagoon – Fiji. All were very keen shark divers and we set out with great expectations and a little trepidation, for we were to be diving with “serious” sharks. No less than eight species would be possibly sighted including, Tawny Nurse Sharks, Sicklefin Lemon Sharks, Whitetip Reef Sharks, Blacktip Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, Silvertip Sharks, Bull Sharks and maybe even Tiger Sharks.
Beqa Adventure Divers were to be our hosts for the ten days we were to be there. They are the guardians of the Beqa Lagoon “Shark Reef Marine Protected Area” (MPA). This MPA was created to protect and study the precious populations of shark species that are in Beqa Lagoon.
Four mornings per week Beqa Adventure Divers conduct a trio of big fish and shark hand feeds, during a double dive, “The Big Fish Encounter”, at Shark Reef MPA. Each week between eight hundred to one thousand kilos of fish frames and heads are re-introduced to the food chain during these very well controlled and safe shark feeds.
The feed starts the moment the boat pulls up at the mooring when fish frames are tossed over the side, these are immediately devoured by the most aggressive critters in the MPA, the scores of Giant Trevally that maraud here. The sound of the Giant Trevally crunching the fish frames sets of the dinner gong for the rest of the denizens of the MPA.
Very soon we are in the water, gathered around our Fijian dive guides and the shark feeders, we all descend together to the first of three feeding stations at a depth of 29 metres. This is the “Arena”. All the way down we are in a whirlpool of massive Giant Trevally (GTs), Red Bass and hundreds of other smaller fish. We settle along a coral boulder buttress wall and our cameras are soon in action as more fish parts are pulled out of the “wheelie bins”. Now the GTs really get into it, they really are such aggressive fish, swooping in to grab all the fish frames and bits offered by the feeders. The GTs are able to snatch and swallow everything on offer including massive fish heads. We have been advised to wear black gloves lest our “lily-white” hands also become part of the food chain. Cameras are also at risk, best to keep your camera close to your body, not at arms length and certainly not dangled. Black, long-sleeved and legged wetsuits are the order of the day. Following these simple rules keeps body parts and equipment safe from the GTs.
The noise of the GTs feeding has started to attract the bigger residents of the MPA. A huge presence glides into view, a massive Queensland Giant Grouper, estimated to weigh one tonne; this is one of two Giant Grouper that enjoy a hand delivered snack before unhurriedly gliding off into the blue. These Giant Grouper are really the top of the food chain, and the only one of the big fish that is entirely unfazed by the aggressiveness of the GTs.
Three other “characters” of the reef are suddenly with us for their share of the spoils. Three Tawny Nurse Sharks suck in any fish pieces offered to them, but this is not fast enough for their ravenous appetite, now they barge and compete to get their heads right down inside the wheelie bins full of food. These three metre long, gentle sharks invariably bring a smile to everyone there, including the Fijian feeders.
A few of us move down from the observation area to the actual feeding “Arena”, now we are really right in the action, GTS circle around our heads, swirls from their tails buffet our bodies, the Tawny Nurse Sharks swim by almost brushing us with a mouth full of food, there is so much happening so quickly that it is hard to know where or what to photograph.
Other large shapes are circling, coming into view and then disappearing into the blue, before reappearing again. Four, no, five and all of a sudden there are twelve Bull Sharks that have been attracted to the “Arena” feeding station. One of them is a huge female, “Big Momma” she is nearly three metres long her massive girth makes her seem twice as big as the other, two to two and a half metre long Bull Sharks that are also circling.
The Bull Sharks do not, however, come into be fed for they know that they will not get any food here, this is not their designated feeding station, all they might get here is a punch on the nose or a poke with an aluminium prodder. We all can’t help looking over our shoulders however as these are apex predators with a very bad reputation. We are nearing the end of our time at this depth and the GTs are really darting around now as the wheelie bin is emptied of fish parts. Six Bull Sharks are now in the “Arena” and the action has dramatically moved up to another level, we withdraw to the observation area, all of two metres away and leave the Bull Sharks and GTs to sort out the remains of the food, in seconds all is consumed and a relative calm ensues.
Seventeen minutes into the dive our no-deco limit time approaches and we move slowly up the wall to “The Den”, the next feeding station at ten metres.
The GTs are even more aggressive here, at times barging into the feeder, once even knocking him over, no amount of prodding will deter them for more than a second or two. There are other sharks here, Grey Reef and Whitetip Sharks circle endeavouring to get a feed, but they are all intimidated by the marauding GTs. The Whitetip Sharks know the rules and approach the Fijian feeder slowly from the correct direction and are rewarded with hand fed fish scraps. All the while other Fijian dive guides are trying to keep the GTs from snatching everything in sight; prodding them away with the aluminium poles they are only partially successful as the GTs, now numbering around fifty, just keep on coming.
The Grey Reef Sharks are superb looking, bulky, shiny, very fast sharks, they can also be quite ill-mannered, approaching the feeder too fast, from the wrong side or from above, all against the “code of conduct”, and for their trouble are prodded away without receiving any food, slow to learn they attempt again darting in until one or two individuals remember their manners, and although still moving relatively quickly, they at least approach from the correct side and down low and are finally fed.
There is a second stage to this shallow feeding area, as there is no surge on this day, we are able to ascend up to three metres, the very top of the reef. Here in the shallows is where the Blacktip Sharks patrol, beautifully marked, streamlined and very fast sharks, they are only slightly better mannered than the Grey Reef Sharks, dashing in for a feed, all the while competing with the GTs, who basically cause all the problems with their dominant aggressive behaviour. The Whitetip Sharks are also up here in the shallows, and once again are polite and are rewarded with food and affectionate strokes by the Fijian feeder. Photographic opportunities are great here, sparkling light bounces off the glistening bodies of the Blacktip Sharks, and we just have to be quick enough to get the shot. What a great “safety” stop before we finally ascend to the waiting boat.
Our one hour surface interval is spent talking about all we had just seen and experienced, everyone talks about the GTs and the other big fish, but it is the Bull Sharks, their bulk and looming menace that really has us in awe.
Our second dive is to the 16 metre deep third feeding station, the “Take Out”. Here is positioned a perforated, stainless steel box, measuring around one cubic metre it contains the fish pieces and heads for the Bull Sharks. Here is their designated feeding station, and it is here that we may see one of the two Tiger Sharks that are occasional visitors to the MPA, but only if we are lucky (lucky?). We once again line up behind a low (too low?) buttress of coral rubble; the Fijian feeder is just two metres in front of us. Around one hundred or more GTs are swirling around the box and the feeder as he positions himself, the other Fijian feeders and guides now are positioned strategically behind and to the side of us, all are armed with aluminium prodders. Safety concerns are paramount and the tried and tested feeding procedure commences. One of the Fijian feeders will swim an armful of fish pieces to around six metres above the feeding station, prodding the GTs away before letting the lot go and swimming back down to the group. All hell now breaks loose, with the GTs in an absolute feeding frenzy, Red Bass and other smaller predatory fish dart in for any opportunistic morsel that the GTs miss; and then they are there, circling, darting massive shapes join the fray; the Bull Sharks have arrived in numbers.
At first cautious the Bull Sharks swim by the feeding box and the waiting Fijian feeder, Rusi, who is easily recognised by his bright yellow hood. The smaller Bull Sharks dash in much too quickly and get punched on the nose to remind them of the rules, they are soon replaced by the big Bull Sharks who are much better mannered, approaching Rusi slowly and then opening their mouths they take the offered fish head biting onto it, before gulping it down as they speed away. As quickly as one is fed, there is another lining up and cruising in for her share, the big females appear to be more dominant and the smaller males and lesser females now hang back waiting their turn in the “pecking order”. It is very hard to count the sharks, the visibility is only around twenty to twenty-five metres when we start, but this reduces at times as the GTs and Bull Sharks stir up the coral sand from the bottom. Visibility now is only around eight to ten metres and this adds another dimension as the Bull Sharks appear out of the floating detritus. We now have at least thirty Bull Sharks in attendance, all lining up for their feed or swimming rapidly by in anticipation, things are getting very exciting. One large female instead of turning to her left after being fed, turns to her right and speed past us less than a metre away, eyes wide, cameras blazing away, it is a “puckering moment” for us all. Then there is another and yet another shark being fed, they just keep on coming. And every so often one comes right up to our faces, its mouth full of fish head, displaying all those teeth between its drawn back lips, and before you can blink its tail has swept past your face as it speeds off to our right
The frenetic action has everyone alert, none more so than Rusi who must maintain utmost concentration. Three smaller, around two metre long, Bull Sharks are tussling over a dropped fish head right in the feeding area next to Rusi, he kicks them away with his fins and gives one a belt on the nose for good measure. After fifteen minutes Rusi is exhausted, he vacates the feeder’s spot; and taking a bunch of fish frames with him he draws the Bull Sharks up above us and lets the food go, before he then takes up a guarding roll behind us. Wati is the new feeder, not as experienced as Rusi, but with cat-like reflexes and an unbelievably calm demeanour, he begins to feed the line up of sharks.
One smaller male Bull Shark dashes in looking for food and head butts Wati, just a mistake on the shark’s part Wati explains later, but at the time bad manners and the shark gets a punch on the nose to remind him of the rules. Wati keeps up a constant feed for the next ten minutes or so, and the Bulls just keep on coming. Pedro now replaces Wati as the feeder and the concentrated action continues. Another ten minutes and the fish pieces are now exhausted and without any food on offer, comparative calm returns to Shark Reef. Our dive time of forty minutes is now up and we cautiously make our way back up the reef wall, but there are only the GTs and other opportunistic fish around now, a safety stop at five metres under the boat and a punch to the nose of a GT that has come too close and finally climb back onboard the boat. Just another dive in a tropical paradise!
I cannot stress enough that the shark feed at Shark Reef in Beqa Lagoon, Fiji is conducted under very strict and very safe procedures, The attentiveness and skills, not to mention plain guts of the Fijian dive guides and feeders is absolutely amazing and without them this fantastic experience would not in any way be possible.
When in Beqa Lagoon we interspersed our Shark Dives with soft coral reef and wreck dives. These dives are a story unto themselves and are a must do when you are there. The reef dives are once again made so good by the knowledge of the Fijian dive guides
On one memorable day we were travelling across Beqa Lagoon on our way to dive the reefs near Beqa Island. Around half-way there we came upon a huge pod of Pilot Whales. David immediately called a halt to the boat and said, “let’s get in the water and swim with them”. The Fijian dive guides who are absolutely fearless when it comes to the Bull and Tiger Sharks, all rolled their eyes and said “no it’s too dangerous, we might get eaten”. David’s years of experience swimming with whales including Humpback and Pilot Whales in Tonga won out, and everyone got into the water and swam with these Pilot Whales for over an hour. Pilot Whales are usually on the move and most swims with them, consist of them swimming by. Not on this occasion, these whales swam up to and around the snorkelers that were in the water, coming as close as two metres away checking us out. The Fijian dive guides once back onboard were all cheering and smiling having experienced such a great unplanned stop on the way to the dive sites.
Would I go back to do it again? Hell yes!
Oh! And by the way, we did not get to see a Tiger Shark this time, but when we return next time?
Dive Forster at Fisherman’s Wharf will be running another tour to Shark Reef and Beqa Lagoon in Fiji in February 2010 for this is when the biggest concentration of Bull Sharks happens. This tour will be led by World famous Shark Expert, David Hinshelwood. David will be conducting at no charge, a PADI Shark Awareness course whilst he is there, only for the first eight divers to book though, early bookings are advisable.