There are many great shark dives in the world, but how many of those sites offer a multi level dive all year round privileging those who dive it with close encounters of up to 9 different species of shark (black-tip, white-tip, grey-reef, silver-tip, tawny, sickle fin, lemon, tiger and bull sharks) - the answers is none. Just 20 minutes by boat from Fiji’s Pacific Harbor lays a very special marine park where over the years, important shark research and conservation work has brought the marine life back to this once over fished area. With support from both the Fijian government and the traditional owners of the area, as well as a lot of hard work from the Beqa Adventure Diver’s organisation, Beqa Shark Reef Marine Reserve has turned into a hugely successful eco-tourism shark project. What makes this site especially unique is the impressive numbers of bull sharks that visit the marine park throughout the year and although the temptation of food is the main encouragement for these sharks to visit, as I found out over my 12 days photographing this marine park, these sharks are far from being conditioned to just relying on eating fish scraps every day of the year and sharks that I saw at the beginning of my visit were no where to be seen by the end of it.
Dive 1. Shark Encounter 1 of 4 – Putting the bins out…27 metres – CAMERA TIP: it can be a little dark at this depth first thing in the morning so try and push your ISO up to a maximum level that you know your camera is comfortable with and avoid kicking up the sediment. Fire off some test shots to get your strobe angle and power right before the feeding starts – just me mindful of illuminating sediment that the sharks stir up.
As the group and I descended down the reef slope to the Arena my first bull shark came into view. I had seen nothing from the surface but as we approached the man made reef-rock wall, the sharks seemed to appear from no-where. With great efficiency the whole group, were quickly guided into position behind the waist high wall by the B.A.D. divemasters. Equipped with their aluminum shark staffs, the supervisors evenly spaced themselves behind the group ensuring that everyone was safe and secure. Meanwhile, in front of the group, bull sharks of all sizes slowly cruised the length of the wall looking at their spectators very closely. From behind the curtain of bubbles created by the line of divers, appeared Fabiano, towing what looked like a wheelie bin. As he hovered 10 metres above the Arena, the sharks become less interested in the divers and more in Fabiano. Surrounded by a dense cloud of reef fish, Fabiano checked the shark’s behavior and after the all-clear signal from the divemasters was given, the wheelie bin was inverted and the lid was partially opened. Slowly, several large football sized tuna fish heads emerged and as they gently sank into the Arena, the slow cruising sharks gave a display of just how fast and maneuverable they can as they rushed to get to the food first. Without bumping into each other and in an almost orderly fashion the sharks accelerated with great speed to get to the food before the other and within moments the food was consumed. With the sharks now swimming slightly faster and perhaps a little more excited, Fabiano allowed a minute or so for the sharks to re-group and settle. Constantly watching their behavior and communicating with the divemasters, he dictated the momentum of the feed ensuring that it was conducted responsibly. As the feed was resumed, Gape, a 2.5 metre pregnant bull shark turned vertically within a moment to get to the feed first and as the group followed her she quickly grabbed one of the fish heads and with urgency changed her course and swam parallel to the line of spectators with her large mouth open displaying her prize for all to see. Twenty fish heads later, the dive leader alerted the group that it was time to ascend to the next stage of the dive and so as the group headed for the shallower water the dive masters followed and guided everyone safely to their next vantage point.
Dive 1. Shark Encounter 2 of 4 – Sharks behaving badly…17 metres – CAMERA TIP: nice light, still use those strobes, perhaps reduce your ISO slightly and increase that shutter speed for these fast moving sharks.
With everyone in position for the next part of this shark dive, the divemasters performed a quick check to ensure everyone was concentrating on matter in hand. Prior to the dive, the group had been thoroughly briefed on the safety guidelines and on this part of the dive it was all about keeping you’re hands down and definitely not picking up bits of food that might float past. At no time do the sharks on this part of the dive ever behave badly towards the divers but unlike the bull sharks who are extremely well behaved, the grey reef and silver tip sharks can get very excitable and sometimes forget their manners when it comes to feeding time. Our feeding expert on this part of the dive was Papa who was equipped with chain mail protection to his hands and arms as well as having a dive master with a shark staff as an extra pair of eyes just behind him. With everyone in position, the feed began and the rules of shark engagement were exercised from the very start. Only one shark may come in for food at any one time and although some may consider this to be conditioning, it is purely for the safety of the group that this discipline is enforced. Within a blink of an eye a grey shark swept in and took the food from Papa’s hand and instantly propelled itself like a rocket over the heads of the group. Over the ten minutes of feeding we watched as certain individuals tried to bully their way in front of the more well behaved sharks so to avoid having to observe the pecking order but Papa and his buddy were certainly in control and ensured that bad behavior was not rewarded. With group once again alerted it was time to ascend to the final part of this dive.
Dive 1. Shark Encounter 3 of 4 – A safety stop with a difference…5 metres – CAMERA TIP: avoid wanting to photograph every shark and instead be patient and watch the swimming pattern of individual sharks that swim close or past you – its likely they will repeat this pattern during your safety stop, allowing you to get the shot you want.
What more could you ask for…..more sharks and on your safety stop. This time Mansa slid into position with his chain mail protection ready for the barrage of white tip, black tip and young grey reef sharks. Positioned on the edge of the shallow reef, the sharks were patiently waiting with the shoals of snapper and other reef fish. Holding a horizontal roped line at 5 metres the group were able to observe the sharks perfectly as they slid down of the top of the reef to feed from him. With the surface interval completed with a few extra minutes added for good measure the team exited the water to start their surface interval.
Dive 2. Shark Encounter 4 of 4 – Rusi’s Big Encounter…15 metres – CAMERA TIP WARNING PHOTO BOMBERS: take multiple shots of your subject as it moves in and out of your frame - there are many sergeant major damselfish that love to photo bomb photographs – advise a fast shutter speed for increased frame rate.
During the 60 minute surface interval I had spent time listening to Rusi and his Fijian comrades talk about the research that the project carries out as well as explaining their cultural relationship with the sharks that inhabit this reef and the surrounding waters. It was very evident that they were extremely proud of their achievements and the conservational research work that they were part of. It was not long before it was time to get back into the water for the final shark dive experience of the day and with everyone full briefed, we got back into the water. Lying down on a man made gulley to the sloping reef I had the perfect vantage point of Rusi who had two of his colleagues equipped with their shark staffs standing either side to the rear of him. From the surface, Fabiano slowly descended with his wheelie bin and as he did, more bull sharks started to appear from the deeper water. Looking back down at Rusi, I noticed he had a large tuna fish head in his hand with a 3 metre bull shark swimming up the reef towards him. Very precisely, Rusi lured the shark away from him and at the last moment, gently let go of the fish head, which was immediately engulfed by the jaws of the large shark. With a flick of its tail, the shark powered itself up through the cloud of damselfish and over the group. With several sharks now queuing up for Rusi to feed them, Fabiano opened the lid to his wheelie bin, which distracted drew the sharks back into the blue water. As the team alternated between the two feeding stations, the sharks appeared to get closer to the group and as we watched in awe, the time quickly flew by. Finally, the sound that we had all dreaded to hear was upon and it was time to head carry out our last safety stop of the day.
Over my two weeks with the Beqa Adventure Dive team I really got to see how extremely well organized and professional the operation was and that the team itself were made up of a truly unique bunch of passionate people who really loved the work that they do. As for the sharks….if you love sharks….you’ll love this place and once you visit it….you’ll find yourself wanting to go back.