For many years I have wondered what it would be like to dive with Bull sharks. They are a well known species of shark and sit in peoples’ imaginations alongside Great Whites, Hammerheads and Tiger sharks. Bull sharks are classified by some as dangerous to humans and as having an aggressive nature due to their supposedly high testosterone levels. Would they be intimidating to dive with, given that reputation? Should I expect them to be frenzied during a baited shark dive? Or would their reputation as ‘dangerous sharks to dive with’ be, as with many shark reputations, sensationalised and mostly fictitious? I couldn’t wait to enter the water and find out during two days of shark diving with Aquatrek and Beqa Adventure Divers in Pacific Harbour, Fiji.
My partner Nicholas and I run a shark conservation cause called Friends for Sharks and, being huge fans of any type of shark, were wildly excited to be finally getting in the water after a year away from shark dives during our educational and charitable World Tour for Sharks in 2015. A very tight budget and hectic tour schedule spanning six countries and in excess of 80 events had left little room for underwater shark encounters! I was up and awake a long time before the alarm clock went off, with a slightly manic look in my eyes. It had been a long year of shark abstinence and I just couldn’t wait any longer to do the ‘World’s No.1 Shark Dive’. That title meant the dives had a lot to live up to and at 7am I was ready to go and clutching my dive computer and mask tightly as I awaited our transfer bus. Nicholas meanwhile was slowly waking up to the sound of the gentle alarm clock.
Our first day of diving was to be with Aquatrek diving centre and we were expecting to do two shark dives during the morning. The sea state was predicted to be rough that day and it lived up to that; with a reasonable swell and plenty of choppy waves making our boat rock merrily on the ocean. Thankfully I had remembered in my excitement to take sea sickness tablets and all was well. There were four boats at the dive site, approximately 30+ divers, and we were mostly left to our own devices to kit up and prepare for a giant stride entry into the crystal clear and warm waters. That was fine for us being experienced divers and all was well as I entered the water and then realised I had utterly neglected to de-fog my mask and the waves were actually quite big. Waves and I really don’t mix, they scare me something silly, and I couldn’t see. Unfortunately old diving fears resurfaced and I began to panic as I clutched on to the line with Nicholas and the other divers descended. My breaths came in fast succession, my chest tightened, I could see almost nothing through my mask, waves kept splashing in my face and I knew I had a narrow window of opportunity to regain rational thought processes before I bolted out of the water faster than you could say ‘look there’s a shark!’ Nicholas tried to encourage me to take my mask off, which would have been game over for me and my mind, but instead I did the one thing I knew would work to end my panic….put my face in the water, stare at the reef below me (which had a lovely ethereal feel to it thanks to my fogged up mask) and descend.
By the time we did that, the current had picked up enormously and we had to drag ourselves down to the reef by pulling ourselves down the rope line to the feeding station. It was hard work holding on, I still couldn’t see much and I managed to squash some poor creature, cut my hand open on another one and lost a fin momentarily in the process. Once at the 18m depth feeding arena, we saw the other divers were lined up like sardines along an area of dead reef wall ready for the shark feeding to begin. There was no room left for us and Nicholas had to pull us along the reef whilst grabbing hold of an anchor chain we found to prevent us from being whipped away with the current. It was then we realised other divers were being pulled up and over the arena where the sharks were due to be fed, one diver had lost his fin, others were holding on for dear life and we simply couldn’t let go of our old anchor chain. Hectic was an understatement and it made photography near impossible.
The shark feeding began, I found a patch of vision through the right hand side of my mask, and it was calm and magical watching different sharks glide in amongst a curtain of tropical fish species. The sharks remained approximately 5m distance from us and we saw 4 or 5 Bull sharks, 3 or 4 Sickle Fin Lemon sharks, Tawny Nurse sharks, one or two Grey Reef sharks, a Black-tip Reef shark and a tiny White-tip Reef shark. It was hard to see the sharks well whilst trying to manage the current and peer through the other divers’ bubbles that covered a portion of the feeding area. Nonetheless, the time flew by and after 20 minutes of watching it was time to ascend for our safety stop.
It was bedlam as the mass of divers attempted to leave the reef wall in the strong current and I was kicked in the face by numerous fins as we battled our way back to the line. It didn’t escape my attention as we hung at 5m for our safety stop that we all resembled a line of bunting as our rope arched with the current and fins fluttered behind us like flags. The exit from the water was equally challenging as the rope didn’t extend to the dive step and the step was crashing up and down with the waves. It was a leap of faith to let go of the rope, fin like crazy and hope for the best. Evidently we made it safely onboard and I was a little bewildered to be honest. I had expected to surface feeling ecstatic about the dive, elated from the site of so many different shark species and yet I felt disappointed.
My own diving anxieties and the current had clearly affected that but even seeing the sharks had been marred by them not being clearly visible from my perspective. I knew that Nicholas felt the same. I had expected a more intimate experience, an opportunity to get to know the sharks’ behaviours and personalities, and it had failed to meet up to that. We were saddened, though not surprised, when the second dive was cancelled due to the ridiculous current and we realised there would be no partial refund. We made our way back to shore feeling glad we had completed the dive and proud of my efforts to tackle the challenging conditions, but equally we were a little downcast as we had expected more.
We are both well aware of the unpredictable nature of the oceans and are used to working at sea from our previous roles as Great White shark dive guides in South Africa. We know how hard providing a top-notch experience can be when you’re at the mercy of nature and the elements. We hoped our second day of diving, this time with Beqa Adventure Divers, would be more successful. I lowered my expectations accordingly during our weekend wait, just to be on the safe side.