Saturday, February 18, 2012

4 Species or more.

I love Scuba diving. I have done it since I was 8 years old. I enjoy every single dive, no matter what the objective or the location is. Being underwater and surrounded by such diverse marine life is for me the best place to be.

Over the years, I have had hundreds of memorable dives. My dives became more special to me when ever I encounter the odd Shark or two. Up until 2009, coming face to face with the Great White Sharks in South Africa had been the highlight of my life. I never imagined that this awesome experience could be beaten. I was so very wrong.

As part of the “2009 – International Year Of The Shark” campaign, I was invited by Beqa Adventure Divers to go to Fiji and take part in the Fiji Shark Conservation & Awareness Project. I was to join them for diving and observing sharks at the Shark Reef Marine Reserve at Beqa Lagoon and also to give a few interviews to the media.

It took me about 40 hours to travel half way round the world, from Malta to Fiji (via London and Los Angeles). A total distance of over 19,800 km (12,300 miles).

Beqa Adventure Divers are located at the Lagoon Resort in Pacific Harbour. It is a very quiet area on the banks of one of the many mangroves. This is the exact location were the movie Anacondas was filmed in 2003. In fact, the boat used in the film, the “Bloody Mary” can still be seen behind the diving centre.

B.A.D. was set up in 2004, and that same year they established the Shark Reef Marine Reserve . The entire reef and all it's inhabitants are totally protected. Divers wishing to dive at this reef have to pay a small fee. The money collected is than given to the two villages that own the “rights” to the reef.

On arriving at the base, I met Mike, who is one on the owners. Although we had known about each other for quite some time, we had only been in contact for a few months during the 2009 campaign. He than introduced me to his business partner Andrew and the rest of the team.

Since I had been out of the water for a few months, and the fact that it was the first time in Fiji, the first 2 dives I did the following morning were easy “test” dives on one of the house reefs. The second I dived in, I was surrounded by a magical world so full of life. Hundreds of different fish, of all shapes and colours live on these reefs and for the first couple of minutes I just stood there watching them, before moving on to explore the reef. On both of these 2 dives I saw a Whitetip Reef Shark. The start could not have been better.
Whitetip Reef Shark

The next morning, we all set out for the famous Shark Dive at the Marine Reserve. On the way out to the reef, Manasa, one of the two main shark feeders, who is affectionately known as “Papa”, gave a full briefing of the dive and explained all the do's and don'ts. B.A.D. is very strict on both Diver and Shark safety. Besides Mike and the 2 feeders, there were also 6 other safety divers and 8 guests.

The minute we arrived and the boat was anchored, one of the crew threw a piece of bait into the water and suddenly to everyone's surprise the sea erupted!! Papa saw the looks on some of the guests faces and smilingly assured everyone that it was only a shoal of giant Trevallies attacking the bait.

As soon as we dived in, we went down along the reef wall to a 30m shelf where we were instructed to kneel down. 3 safety divers stayed with us. On the way down, I had already spotted a few Whitetips and also Blacktips. Directly in front of the shelf at a depth of about 33m is the “Arena”. This is the place where Rusi does all the shark feeding.

When everyone was settled, Rusi took out the first piece of bait and the Grey Reef Sharks started to come in. Soon we were surrounded by some 20 sharks, all coming in one at a time to take the bait out of Rusi's hand. These sharks are “trained” to come in from the left side, take the bait and keep moving to the right. The sharks seemed so relaxed even when they passed very close to us.

After about 15 minutes the feeding here stopped and we went up slowly to 15m were a few more sharks were fed. It was here that the Bull Sharks arrived. These sharks are much heavier set than the slim reef sharks, and there is something about them that “demands” respect. Even thought they seemed very quiet, one can still sense the “power” they possess.

From there we would move up to the 4m area at the top of the reef. Here Papa would be feeding the large numbers of Blacktips and Whitetips. These sharks would come in and zig zag between the divers. The divers are warned not to touch the sharks but it happens quite a few times that the sharks brush fractionally against us.

"Papa" Manasa and Sharkman
As soon as we surfaced, the crew were there to help with the equipment and also change our cylinders. I also welcomed to nice hot coffee they offered me.

The second dive of the day was at a depth of 15m and its the Bull Shark dive. Between 20 to 40 sharks would be coming in for Rusi's hand outs... mostly Tuna heads. I was snapping away with my camera and trying to note special markings and sexes of the sharks. Later on, I would talk with Mike about the sharks and he would tell me “who” they are. He has photo I.D's of most of the sharks, including over 120 Bulls.

From the second day onwards, I would dive with Mike and stay at the edge of the feeding area or in the “Pit”. These are the best spots to be in for good photography. The Pit is normally occupied by some world famous photographer who happens to be visiting. In fact, during my time there I had the pleasure to meet and dive with Klaus Jost and Lill Haugen.

A few days after my arrival, Gary Adkison also showed up. Gary is running the Bull Shark tagging programme at the Marine Reserve. It was great to work with him as well. What I found really amazing was the fact that even though the 3 of us have totally different characters, Gary, Mike and myself totally clicked. We have shared not only awesome dives together, but also great conversations and dinners..... plus Kava and Maltese Anisette too. We have bonded even more than brothers.

The entire team at Beqa Adventure Divers were just fantastic and very professional. I have made many new friends. One my last night with them, they surprised me with a farewell dinner. Thank you.

At Shark Reef, one can see up to a maximum of 9 different shark species on just one dive. During my 3 weeks there I did 24 dives at the reef and I never had less than 4 species. Blacktips, Whitetips, Grey Reefs and Bull sharks. On many dives, a Tawny Nurse would show up as well. On one dive we also had one Silvertip making a quick brief appearance. 6 out of 9 ain't bad at all. I do not know of any other shark spot with so many different species on a single dive.

Diving legends Ron & Valerie Taylor have labelled this as “The Best Shark Dive In The World.” Now I understand why and I totally agree.

No comments: