Juliette Sivertsen gets up close and personal with a shark feeding frenzy — and hopes the invited guests are polite and stick to the tuna.
In the world of shark diving, a successful excursion is based on how many fin slaps a scuba diver receives. Three slaps is good, five is brilliant and a head-butt — well, you might as well change your name to Sharknado.
I bury my face against some rocks, as I lie face down on a dead coral wall, 30 metres deep.
Something brushes against my calf. I feel a current of water rush over the backs of my legs and notice my scuba fin is pinned to the ocean floor. Fear grips my windpipe, as if she's slowly turning off the airflow from my dive tank. I don't want to look around. I can only trust that my divemaster is doing his best to protect me from an inquisitive, but also rather hungry, 3m bull shark.
I begin my fin-slap tally.
To the average person, scuba diving with bull sharks in Fiji — without the safety of a cage — could seem like a death wish. But for scuba enthusiasts and underwater photographers, the concept of being surrounded by a feeding frenzy of 30-odd bull sharks, all the size of an SUV, in Pacific Harbour, is quite the adventure.
Our dive vessel on the day is Hunter, a 35 foot-aluminum catamaran. I'm joined by a bunch of trainee underwater videographers. I peer over at my companions' gear and work out that my trusty Olympus camera and single strobe light is approximately one-30th the size of their beasty set-ups. I see someone with a GoPro which makes me feel marginally better and finish adjusting my settings.
Manoa is Beqa Adventure Divers' resident marine biologist. He pulls out a whiteboard covered in arrows and diagrams resembling some form of military tactical training strategy and outlines the safety protocol and dive plan. The divemasters — aka our protectors — will be armed with metal rods to fend off any sharks that get too close. The feeders will be controlling a wheelie bin of tuna heads, before handfeeding the predators. That explains the pile of chainmail next to me.
At the bottom of the whiteboard, I focus on a single word which sends a chill down my neoprene-covered spine.
This isn't some cruisy coral dive — I'm about to witness something so dramatic, it requires an arena.
Our first dive is to 30 metres. I try to lie down as flat as possible so as not to draw any attention from what's circling ahead. Even though I'm on a shark dive, I still get a fright when a giant pair of jaws appears a metre in front of my face. I squeal into my scuba regulator and focus on the coral. I begin some self-affirmations mixed with a desperate request for survival. Juliette, you can do this. Oh God, please make the bull shark stop staring at me with its tiny-but-intensely-creepy beady eyes.
I decide to focus on the tinny sound of each inhalation through my regulator. I try to count the bubbles from each exhalation, before staring back into the arena.
A green wheelie bin on a pulley system floats ahead. There's a diver controlling the ropes of the pulley, carefully tipping the bin just enough to empty out a few tuna heads. That's when the madness starts.
Caudal fins are thrusting through the ocean, creating a powerful current. The sharks are torpedoing towards the bin, headbutting one another out of the way in the competition for food. Angular pointy teeth are exposed followed by a last-minute roll sideways to capture whatever remnants of a tuna fish they can find.
As if that isn't enough to give us the heebie-jeebies, the feeders and divemasters decide to step it up a notch, dragging the wheelie bin directly over the heads of us divers. The feeding frenzy is no longer in front of us; white shark bellies are now directly above us.
I can't look up. I try but I'm frozen in fear. I point my camera up in the vague direction where I can feel a looming presence overhead and hope to capture something. I've stopped caring about a perfectly composed image and shoot blindly into the ocean.
It feels like much longer, but we're only at the 30-metre mark for 10 minutes before I hear the metal clink of the feeders' pole against their dive cylinders, indicating it's time to back away from the arena.
At 15 metres, we are granted a reprieve to observe what now seems quite cute — little reef sharks cruising around the coral. I'm drawn to the striking black and white stripes on their dorsal fins and the funny little whiskers of the lemon shark. I feel quite a fondness for what looks like a bunch of babies in comparison.
With heart rates returned to normal, we resurface for a break.
Beqa Adventure divers name all the sharks. They have named 186 bull sharks, and 248 sharks across all species. One of the bull sharks is called Coke.
"As in Coca-Cola?" I innocently ask. The Fijians laugh.
"He has a white strip under his nose," Manoa tells me.
Another is called Grandma — she has a bung right eye and is one of two sharks allowed to be handfed from the right side of the feeder. All the other sharks must come from the left. The other bull shark to feed from the right is Whitenose.
"She's our oldest bull shark, but she's a bit cuckoo," Manoa explains, twirling his finger around the side of his head.
During the surface interval, we're given hot sugary tea and biscuits. Small dive boats don't have toilets onboard. Standard practice is to drop the wetsuit, enter the ocean waist-deep from the back of the boat and pee while hanging off the boat's ladder.
"But don't drift away from the boat," the boys onboard warn. "Remember what's beneath you in the ocean."
With that thought, I opted to test the limits of my bladder control. For those not familiar with underwater etiquette, peeing in a rental wetsuit is a major scuba diving faux pas.
After all, a wetsuit is designed to trap a layer of water between you and the suit.
Our second dive sees the handfeeding of the bull sharks. By the time we get to our spots, the sharks are investigating some covered containers. The feeders, their arms covered in chainmail, kneel on the ocean floor, pulling out tuna heads one at a time, dragging them from left to right.
The divers lie on the right side, so we get full view of the open jaws of each shark. Most of the sharks learn the process. Except for Whitenose. Whitenose doesn't give two hoots about a queue and launches herself into container. The feeders push her back a little, before handing out the goods.
Shark feeding can be a controversial practice, with some marine activists believing it teaches them to become reliant on humans and boats for food. But Beqa Adventure Divers takes pride in its efforts to ensure they're not changing behaviours.
Once a week, they take a sample from one bull shark.
That sample is sent to Australia, where it's analysed for tuna content. Tuna is not a typical food source for the bull sharks, so measuring it is an effective way of seeing whether they are becoming reliant on the shark feeding to survive. If there's too much tuna, they stop feeding to ensure the sharks still hunt for themselves.
The area of the dive is called Shark Reef Marine Reserve. Seafood is a crucial part of the Fijian diet, but like many seaside communities in the Pacific, fish stocks are depleting. It's a tricky balance between ensuring communities have food resources to survive, while ensuring the ocean remains plentiful. So, each diver pays a $25 levy. That money goes back to the local village, in exchange for them not fishing in the area.
The team at Beqa consider themselves guardians of the sea. During our return to dry land, they notice a net in the river mouth. That's illegal and they refuse to turn a blind eye. They turn the boat around and spend the next 15 minutes dragging up the net and throwing the fish back into the sea. Most are dead, but a large mud crab gets a second chance at life.
On the boat, I look down at my foot, which is starting to sting. Blood is trickling down from the top. I suddenly remember hitting my foot on a piece of coral on the second dive, but I didn't pay further attention at the time. It dawns on me that I've been in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy with a bleeding foot.
No wonder the sharks were so enthusiastic.
Fiji Airways flies daily from Auckland to Nadi.
For information and bookings with Beqa Adventure Divers, go to fijisharkdive.com.