Anyone who has followed me over the years knows by now that I have a passion for sharks. My shark spiels to my students at times sound a bit like Hagrid going on about hippogriffs or dragons being seriously misunderstood creatures. They are in a certain respect. Our fear stems from the unknown mixed with information we glean from pop culture. The author of the novel upon which Jaws was based, came out years later with a statement regretting that he ever wrote the story upon which so many of our fears are based. The story was purely fiction. Now he is a major shark activist. 

But this is not going to be a spiel about how everyone should love sharks. This is a story about one of my greatest encounters with them to date!

I like to think that I have a little bit of experience in the field of shark dives, both natural encounters, and fabricated experiences. My first dive out of my open water certification was in the shark tank at the Denver Aquarium. Before I even had ten dives under my belt I was at Stuart Cove’s in the Bahamas, a shop world famous for their shark feeding dives. Every year, Shark Week seems to include at least one episode at this renowned dive shop. Several months later I was in South Africa, cage diving with the great whites. And while that would be enough to scare most people out of the water for life, it had me hooked to the ocean, so much so that I abandoned my fancy college degree for a life as a dive bum. I spent a year in Palau, the world's first shark sanctuary, a place where sharks were as common as butterflyfish on the outer reefs. I traveled to a little island in the Philippines, solely because it is home to the only known thresher shark cleaning station within recreational dive limits in the world. And then I found myself in Fiji, looking at a job that, as it turned out, was partner to the world famous Beqa Lagoon shark dive.

I got to go to Beqa (pronounced BANG-uh) Lagoon first as a tourist. There was no once-in-a-lifetime anticipation leading up to the dive as many who come to this part of the world describe. I honestly knew nothing about the dive. Aaron, the friend we were visiting and who’s job we were looking at, asked Fletch and I if we wanted to go on the shark dive the following day, an we of course said yes. I didn’t realize at the time that we were going on a world famous shark dive; I was just elated to go see some sharks.

The shop made everyone wear skins, so that the sharks wouldn’t be tempted by the alluring shades of our bare skin I guess (though this is completely absurd because sharks really don’t hunt by color). Nevertheless, we donned the black onesies, most of which had holes in the crotches. We probably should have just brought our wetsuits.

The scariest moment of a shark dive is entering the water. It doesn’t get me so much anymore, but I remember my first dive in the aquarium, and then the ones at Stuart Cove’s. There’s a brief moment before jumping into the water where you do envision Jaws racing up to the surface to devour you in half. It’s that fear of the unknown, and not being able to see what’s lurking beneath the surface. Then you’re underwater, and the calm is almost overwhelming. There is no sinister music. There are no ominous shadows. Just clear blue water, the sound of your own breathing, and the sight of some of the ocean’s most magnificent creatures. Such moments of zen are hard to find anywhere else. As for the sharks, they're like seeing the big cats at the zoo. Could they hurt you if they wanted to? Of course. Do they actually care that you’re there though? No. Are they beautiful to look at? You bet.

The dive was about as easy as dives get. We descended down a line that led to a stone wall that all of the divers lined up behind. Then we knelt there and watched the show. Trash bins full of chum were brought down by the feeders, and immediately the sharks appeared as though a dinner bell had been rung. It was a sight I will never forget. Tawny nurse sharks, bigger than any I ever saw in the Caribbean, slunk around in the shadows like cats. Lemon sharks with their ugly grins dominated the show, wandering close enough to the line of divers a few times to warrant a prod to the nose with a metal rod. All the dive guides had metal rods shaped like shepherds’ staffs to push the sharks away if they got too curious. And then there were the bull sharks.

I saw my first bull shark in Palau during a red snapper spawning. They came out for the free meal and I came face to face with one, which caused my heart to beat deafeningly in my eardrums. I’m the biggest culprit of preaching that sharks don’t like the taste of human. But when you’re that close to one, you can’t help but realize that you would make a much larger meal than a fish. I didn’t expect to see bulls again so soon, and so many of them!

Three shark species are responsible for the majority of all shark attacks: great whites (314 recorded attacks since 1580, 80 of which were fatal*), tigers (111 recorded attacks, 31 of which were fatal*), and bulls (100 attacks, 27 of which were fatal*). Bulls intimidate me the most, simply because they can’t be stopped by fresh water. Most creatures that live in salt water cannot survive in fresh water. Not the case with the bull though. Bulls have been found miles and miles upstream in freshwater rivers. That impresses me more than anything.

Bull Shark

So there I was, with nothing but a foot-tall stone wall barricading me from dozens and dozens of apex predators. None of them cared that I was there. No matter what wild places your mind goes to when faced with some of the ocean’s fiercest predators, the fact remains that sharks don’t like the taste of human. And with plenty of food being handed to them that they do like, why would they come after us?

A lemon shark and his entourage. 

The show was mesmerizing. I’ve never seen so many large sharks at once! Dozens of them, as many as fifty fish the size of Volkswagen busses zoomed around in a frenzy, eager to get fed a fish head. I was blown away by the spectacle. Nothing could have prepared me for the the amazement that is witnessing so many of the ocean’s biggest savages all in one place. I hate to say it, but the world famous Stuart Cove’s doesn’t hold a candle to Beqa. They may have a greater number of sharks, but Beqa has the big boys. 

A lemon shark smiling for the camera. 

The divemasters were lined up behind us with their metal rods should any of the sharks get too frisky. Several got prodded away with a blunt thrust to the nose when they came too close to our wall. That isn’t to say we didn’t see them up close. There was always at least one shark that would have been close enough to reach out and touch if that was a good idea. But reaching out towards a mouthful of sharp teeth is generally not a good idea. 

A tawny nurse shark coming over to say 'hello.'

We did two dives at the same site, both times sitting behind the rock wall while we marveled at the show. The second dive was a smaller spectacle, as most of the sharks seemed to have had their fill. When the dive was over, a few of the divemasters scoured the sandy bottom for shark teeth, which they handed out to us after the dive. I was dying to go look with them, but when you’re a tourist they don’t let you do the riskier things like go beyond the wall. Back on the boat one of the divemasters gave me a nice bull shark’s tooth with a cavity to keep as a souvenir.

Fletch and I ended up taking Aarons job in Fiji, and when we started working, there was one thing on our minds. When would we get to go on the shark dive again? Finally, one of our guests signed up to go and there was nothing else going on at our dive shop to occupy our attention. It was time for Beqa round two. This time not as tourists, but as shark wranglers.

We descended with the guests who were diving down the same line leading to the same stone wall. Fletch handed me one of the metal rods, and I stationed myself behind the line of divers. The bins of chum came down, and dozens of gentle nurse sharks glided in for the meal, right on cue. There weren’t any bulls or lemons to be seen. I wondered if my first time seeing the show had just been amplified in my mind to a grander spectacle than it actually was. Suddenly I felt a slight twinge of disappointment, wondering if this was one of those all too familiar cases where something that was mind blowing the first time around just didn’t live up the second time around.

Then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and turned around to make sure we were covered from behind. A large shark with a sleek, pointed nose was swimming behind us. One of the other divers with rods motioned at me to keep an eye on it. I braced myself, and stood on the sand floor with my rod ready. The same large silvertip sped several times down the entire line of divers, unbeknownst to any of them who were watching the show in front. Soon there were several silvertips, creeping closer and closer each time they darted past the line of turned backs. One came straight at me, and it all happened in such slow motion that I jutted my rod towards it before he was actually close enough to make contact. When he was close enough, he bit down on the rod and tried to wrestle it from me. Or maybe that last part was just my imagination. He definitely did swim straight at me and bite down on the stick though. My heart was racing with terror and excitement all at once.

The feeders, realizing that the real show was going on behind the line of guests, brought some of the fish heads behind to feed to the silvertips. That’s when things got really crazy and we were bumping curious noses away left and right. I tried to pull my camera out of my pocket and managed, but after that I was too preoccupied with my only measure of defense to be able to sneak in a photo between bumping sharks away.

We all came up from the dive buzzing with excitement. Some people had never turned away from the nurse sharks in front to notice that there was a completely separate show of silvertips happening from behind.

The second dive the bulls graced us with their presence. It was a much more relaxed dive, as the bulls, while bigger, are also slower and not quite as sneaky. They are the bulldogs of the shark family. They stayed where we could see them and just wanted their free meal.

I would recommend this dive to anyone who is a shark enthusiast, or an avid diver, or just looking for an exciting experience in Fiji. It is really a thrill to end all thrills; nature at her most exhilarating.

*Stats from the International Shark Attack File.