Among being called the soft coral capital of the world and offering some amazing magazine-like coconut palm tree beaches, Fiji is well known for its sharkfeeding dives in the Beqa Channel just off the main island Viti Levu. While sharkfeeding is a highly controversial topic among scientists, divers and environmental groups I just want to talk about the experience we had and additionally have an in-depth article about the pros and cons of these dives in the making.
The Beqa Channel (pronounced BeNqa) is around 100m deep and segregates Beqa island from Viti Levu. It is reachable in about 15min-20min from Pacific Harbour with one of the two vessels from Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD), the “MV Predator” and the “MV Hunter“. The day we went out, both vessels carried around 20 divers in total (the maximum amount set by BAD themselves) excluding the dive guides and feeders. The organization was phenomenal. As we arrived we handed our equipment and our cameras over and boarded the vessel a few minutes later with our dive gear mounted and the cameras each stored safely in their own freshwater tanks.
We double-checked everything, sat down half-dressed and enjoyed the twenty-minute boat ride to Shark Reef. Both vessels were full of eager divers wanting to see the sharks and experience something very unusual (for most of us at least). It was a cloudy day and a bit windy, but the dive conditions were still pretty good. Sure, sunshine would have been a little better for photography but anyways, I was looking very much forward and I was quite excited! This would be the first time I’d be using my new BS Kinetics GmbH housing in the ocean after testing it in the Hemmoor lake in Germany a few weeks ago.
We had a very good in-depth briefing by one of the local staff members, explaining the sites, recommending behavior and explaining the species we would be likely to see. Just after attaching to the buoy lines (it is great that they use these fixed mooring buoys as unfortunately in many places still very common to just anchor on the reef), we all suited up and got ready to jump in one by one. The first in the water is always one of the staff. Common trash bins are used to keep the bait and the system they have worked out over the years works well and is extremely organized. After all divers had entered the water and descended to 30m depth we situated ourselves around the Arena, where the sharks would be fed. There is a little wall made out of dead corals that people sit behind and could hold on to. The existing current was weak but still strong enough to make it a bit tricky to take photos, adjust the settings, keep in place and watch the sharks. Underwater-Photography is really multitasking 😉
Michael, Amanda, Andi and I swam to the right side of the wall hoping to get a good view of the sharks. We assumed the sharks might be swimming to the right after talking bait out of the right hand of a feeder. The main feeder is flanked by two spotters with blunt metal poles who would have his back in case sharks would try and approach the feeder from behind.
A few bull sharks were already circling in the distance and observing the space in the Arena. Everything was super exciting! The first tuna heads were taken out the metal container and offered to the sharks. Other than many people might assume, sharks are very careful animals and won’t just mindlessly swim towards the bait and grab it; in fact, most of them appeared pretty shy to me and did not show too much interest in the bait (maybe just today?). After a few minutes, we had about a dozen bull sharks swimming around us. Among them some very big and well-fed animals (and potentially pregnant as the parturition period is just about to start) reaching a size of approximately 3.5m.
During this dive up eight different shark species can be observed:
Of course, we were hoping for one of the tiger sharks to show up – the biggest guys around – but were actually told that BAD hadn’t seen a tiger in around two years here at Shark Reef. Although we didn’t have the luck on our side this time, just a few days later a tiger shark joined the Arena and made another group of divers very happy… One of the joys about the ocean is the unpredictability of what you may find- I love it!
I was playing with my strobes and camera settings and I am pretty happy with some of the results. As always in wildlife photography, there are many images that do not make it onto my page, but it is an important and necessary process to analyze them and seek improvement for the next time. Photography is a never-ending process consisting of many failures and constant development. Though I know my Nikon D7100 very well, it behaves differently underwater and there are many new things to learn and study. It’s so much fun and I am extremely happy about each and every single dive that I am able to do, be it shallow or deep, full of fish or corals, big animals or small. I simply love what I am doing.
After around 17min of bottom time, we ascended to the shallower feeding site “the Den” on 15m. Here, the attention was turned to feeding smaller sharks which were being excluded at the deeper sites by the massive bulls. Loads of smaller sharks and hundreds of fish were energetically swarming around the bait. Everything quickly became very crowded with grey reef sharks speeding over the top of our heads and even hitting some of us. I had a rather shitty place to take photos and my neighbor constantly kept on bumping into me.
After a couple of minutes, the spectacle was over and we ascended further for the safety stop. Some of the divers seemed pretty inexperienced and I really had to watch out not to get any fins in my face and stayed away from the huge bulk of divers. After 47 minutes we surfaced very happy with biiig smiles on our faces. The dive was just insane and it would need lots of time to digest this experience! I was so so happy that I had finally seen these big guys underwater; so graceful, so beautiful, so peaceful. Sure, they are predators just like lions, and there is always a risk but these animals are so far away from the image that a big portion of our society still sadly holds.During the surface interval of approximately one hour we moved inshore to calmer waters and had some time to warm up. As usual, I was freezing and shaking quite a lot. I just had a 3mm long suit and on top of that another 3mm shorty, but since this dive is pretty much stationary I still got really cold. However, I did warm up for our second dive at “the Take out” at around 20m halfway down the reef slope. We stayed for another 35 minutes to observe the bulls before having a little swim along the reef crest. The current had picked up a little and the visibility was not as clear as during the first dive, but nevertheless, the dive was beautiful and I enjoyed every minute with all these magnificent creatures. You simply gotta love those sharks!
After several years of effort, The Shark Reef Marine Reserve was finally established in 2004, creating a protected sanctuary primarily for sharks. However, by protecting a larger area, not only sharks benefit from the protection
but also all other kinds of fish and corals living here. As the fish populations increased over the years the fishing yields in adjacent areas increased as well. This phenomenon is called spillover effect and has been demonstrated in many studies worldwide (e.g. Gell & Roberts (2003): Benefits beyond boundaries – The fishery effects of marine reserves). Creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can be a win-win situation for everyone – nature lovers, conservationists, fishermen and economists at the same time.
In 2007, the already existing protected area was greatly expanded and now comprised the two qoliqolis of the aforementioned villages, as well as a third qoliqoli from the village Deuba. A shark corridor was established stretching for around 30 miles from Navua all the way to the foreshore and includes the Shark Reef, the Lake Reef (where Aquatrek is running dive trips to) and the Combe Reef Marine Reserve. Several fish wardens from each of the villages have been trained (partly by BAD) and are patrolling the waters to ensure that rules are being obeyed and that no fishing occurs in the protected areas. In November 2014 the Shark Reef Marine Reserve has finally been designated Fiji’s first National Marine Park. This park is a major conservation success and shows that small-scale efforts do make a difference – everyone can make a change or be part of one!
Beqa Adventure Divers supports an international team of scientists by conducting regular fish counts and surveys documenting the changes and current status of populations. Research on multi-species shark feeding dives is still in its infancy and data is much needed. A couple of papers have been produced by Juerg Brunnschweiler; a renowned shark scientist from Switzerland. Many of their dives are accompanied by a marine biologist collecting long-term data. The sharkfeeding dives offer great opportunities to study these apex predators and find out more about their behavior among themselves, the hierarchies within the larger groups, the migration routes and also offers insights in their mating behavior.
Beqa Adventure Divers also teamed up with Global Shark Diving – an initiative of shark diving operators that set global standards for responsible and longterm sustainable shark diving.
Besides supporting communities by training villagers to become divers, feeders and fish wardens, BAD has sponsored the replanting of several hectares of mangroves to meet their annual carbon footprint (mainly due to the engines on their vessels). As of 2010, they were able to claim that they could compensate not only for their own carbon footprint but also that of their customers traveling to Fiji (fijisharkdive.com). They are part of the project Mangroves for Fiji that supports and enables Mangrove reforestation. BAD pays FJD $1000 per hectare, actively helping conservation of these critical and important trees. If you want to know more about mangrove forests and how they help us battle climate change have a read through this article.
All in all, we had a fantastic and very well-organized dive trip, and everyone returned back to the BAD base in Pacific Harbour feeling exhilarated. A couple of new shark lovers might have been added to the already existing ones, and I am sure that one or the other opinion of the so often titled “beasts” has been changed for the better. Most of the divers leaving Fiji to their countries will become shark advocates – willingly or unwillingly – by telling their friends and families about their incredible encounters here. By correcting the publicly perceived image of sharks and drawing a more complete picture of their functions and roles in the oceans, people start to understand sharks better. And if they understand them, they care about them and their existence. Eventually, it comes down to the fact, that people only protect what they understand and love. Let’s keep building a lobby for these critically important apex predators and help them to survive many millions of years to come.
Note: I have not been compensated or paid in any form by BAD for writing this article.
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.