by Mariah Boyle, Ichthyology Lab
I’m sitting on the dive boat bouncing around as we speed off to our dive site. Normally I wouldn’t be this nervous, I’ve logged plenty of dives – honestly I’m surprised I don’t have gills after my childhood spent in the ocean. But today is different. Today we are in Fiji (during my trip as part of Tribewanted), heading towards Beqa (pronounced benga) Passage and the Shark Reef Preserve.
This reef is owned by two villages who allow for operators to bring divers in, while charging $10 FJD per person for all that participate with the money going back to the villages. The outfitter I’m with, Beqa Adventure Divers, has trained 12 Reef Wardens from the local community to patrol the reef and keep an eye out for illegal fishing, the biggest threat to this protected area.
The boats motor cuts out and we start our dive briefing.
“Safety is our number one concern” the Divemaster says. He reminds us to watch our air and the sharks. “No one has ever been hurt here in five years, since we started.” We are given black neoprene gloves to wear as our white hands and palms can be mistaken for fish.
What did I get myself into? I keep thinking at how strange this feels, how in California white sharks have been known to nibble on things looking like seals, which is exactly how the crew was telling us to dress. When in Fiji…
After more prep we finally descend as a group, with divemasters all around us in a circle. They drop down a huge garbage can of fish.
This could get ugly, I think.
I squeeze myself behind the coral wall and between some other dives, sitting on the floor.
I contemplate peeing in my wetsuit, for warmth of course, though I have a feeling that is a convenient excuse.
This is a deep dive, we have to be careful about watching our computers so we don’t run out of air or stay at depth too long. Then the show begins. The garbage can is opened and fish swarm the feeder. All of a sudden circling us in the blue haze are big shadows, big beefy shadows. The sharks come closer, bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), one of the sharks on the list not to mess with. They are all just under 3m long and stocky sharks, thick like a white shark. The sharks start to move in, swooping in effortlessly and gracefully for a piece of fish.
This is awesome.
I’m smiling so much I get seawater in my mouth. Then I feel it.
Ouch, something bit me…
Not of a bull shark, but a tiny damselfish in the rocks. I’m sitting next to his territory and he is letting me know. Luckily the gloves don’t let him break the skin but it hurts, and he won’t stop attacking my knuckles. I cross my arms to bury my knuckles, and then he goes for the knees. I laugh, I’m here watching bull sharks be fed and am getting pecked by a tiny damselfish. We can’t stay at this depth long, and leave as a group to the shallow reef top where we watch all types of reef sharks feed, and feed up close. Then get so excited and in such a frenzy that they brush against you and even bump into you, close encounters all around.
“Woohoooo, that was awesome” a fellow diver yells when we surface. High fives are exchanged, because we saw such awesome sharks, and because we all still have all of our hands. I’m stoked. All of us have the biggest smiles on our faces. The smile you get when you know you’ve cheated something and witnessed an unprecedented event.