Village communities in Fiji are reaping the rewards of an extraordinary shark dive that has transformed a dead reef into a fish paradise
A man in all-black scuba gear – with the notable exception of a bright yellow hood – crouches next to a metal box placed at a depth of 20m on the slope of a rubble-strewn coral reef. The yellow hood is a deliberate choice, to separate this diver from all others in the perspective of the gathering sharks. He is the Feeder. Above and all around the man, the water churns with frenzied activity: an enormous school of giant trevally, rainbow runners and grouper swirls in a cyclonic torrent, jostling for position to snatch any scraps of food. Past the tornado of hyped-up fish, in the deeper waters beyond, large sharks patrol in languid patterns.
A dozen divers kneel behind a wall that is fashioned from dead coral boulders and positioned 5m up and behind the man next to the metal box on the reef slope, giving them a clear view of the action: the sharks, the Feeder and his baitbox, and the fish swarm. Behind the diving onlookers are several ‘guardian angels’ – dive guides with long metal staffs to shepherd away any sharks that might come too close for comfort.
With the grace of a matador, the Feeder – his name is Rusi – removes some bait from the metal box and presents a tuna head to a bull shark approaching from the depths. Rusi watches the shark attentively but without fear; he has done this many, many times. The shark approaches, its yellow eyes locked on the bait. Rusi releases his grip and the tuna head tumbles forward, completing a few slow rotations in the water; he then withdraws his hand and arm, and the shark closes the distance to the tuna head. It opens its mouth wide and its jaws gape outwards to their maximum extension, finally exposing the big teeth in its upper and lower jaws. It inhales the tuna head and closes its mouth, the teeth hidden from view once again as it swallows the bait with a slight shudder and a pronounced gulp.
Looking south from Pacific Harbour, Fiji’s ‘adventure capital’ on the country’s main island of Viti Levu, the small isle of Beqa (pronounced ‘bengka’) dominates the horizon. The seas are relatively calm, as a barrier reef encircles Beqa and nearly connects it to the mainland, forming the 64-square-kilometre Beqa Lagoon. Beqa is the ancestral home of Fiji’s famous firewalkers and the birthplace of the shark-god Dakuwaqa, who is still very much a part of the lives of the Beqa islanders. They see Dakuwaga as their protector in the sea and the shark as their ally, not their enemy. As Manasa Bulivou, the speaker for his village, explains: ‘Shark is our sea god. The sharks will never get on to me. This relationship has been carried on for many, many years. The sharks are not allowed to take us.’
Galoa and Wainiyabia, two villages to the west of Pacific Harbour, have ownership of the reefs closest to the mainland, and many of the villagers originally came from Beqa. Unfortunately, over the years, the closest local reefs – Combe Reef, Lake Reef, and Shark Reef – had been overfished and were degraded by environmental factors such as increased sea temperatures, so they appeared more like wrecks than viable coral communities.
‘You can see up to eight species on a single dive…no other location in the world matches this’
In 1998, South African dive guide Brandon Paige began looking for a site for a shark dive. The fortuitously named Shark Reef looked promising on the charts, even if Paige’s initial visits to the site did not exactly enthuse in terms of sightings. ‘The reef was dead, and when I say dead, I really mean dead – there were no goatfish, no sergeant majors on the reef; there was just nothing, it was totally devoid of life.’ But Paige asked for permission from the Wainiyabia chief to try to create a shark-feeding site on the dead reef – as the clansmen had given up the reef for lost, permission was granted.
For the first year, Paige and the Fijian guides saw nothing. But he persisted in regularly dragging out 100kg of fish scraps from a fish-processing plant in Suva and dumping them in the same area on the reef. Over time, fish began to appear, migrating from other areas of the lagoon and beyond, induced by a new abundance of food in the water. Eventually, there was so many large fish – hundreds of trevally, snappers and the like – that the site was being successfully marketed as ‘The Big Fish Dive’.
The first shark species to appear were the ones most commonly seen in the lagoon by local people: grey reef, blacktip, whitetip reef and nurse sharks. Then, as time went by, larger and less commonly seen sharks began arriving and residing: bulls and silvertips, with the occasional visit by a lemon or tiger shark. By 2003, fish life and the sharks had returned to Shark Reef – and all because of the introduction of nutrients in the form of fish carcasses and other scraps that had previously gone into landfill.
The experience was vetted by Australian shark-diving pioneers Ron and Valerie Taylor, who rated it as the world’s greatest shark-diving site. Certainly, if you use the criteria of number of species – up to eight – regularly seen on a single dive, no other location in the world can match Shark Reef.
Valerie taught the local Fijian divemasters to hand-feed sharks in an orderly manner. She insisted that sharks should be fed small pieces of bait one at a time, with the option to stop the feeding at any moment by keeping the bait in an enclosure, enabling the denial of further food in the event of misbehaviour.
She was adamant that the locals wear gloves, so the sharks would not mistakenly bite the hand that feeds. Manasa and Rusi, the village elders on the staff and both experienced divemasters, were hesitant to wear gloves because of their macho tendencies and cultural beliefs: they felt they had nothing to fear of the sharks. As Manasa put it: ‘Something that is right inside my heart – I don’t have fear at all, of sharks, any sharks at all, even the tiger sharks. I count this animal as my family, something that is very close to me.’
‘In Fiji, the local people who live under the protection of the shark god Dakuwaqa neither fear nor demonise sharks’
Eventually, Valerie’s powers of persuasion worked when she convinced the feeders that while they were quite right that the sharks would not hurt them, the giant trevally and snappers were truly sloppy eaters and vicious biters. So, the feeders began to wear a chain-mail sleeve, running from fingertips to shoulder, under their wetsuits.
Enter retired Swiss banker Mike Neumann, now enjoying a second career devoted to ocean-related environmental projects, with a particularly avid interest in sharks. As a life-long diver and trained biologist, Neumann had travelled the world, seeing conservation programs that had succeeded and witnessing disappointing failures, so he took he did the most sensible thing imaginable: he met with the chiefs of the villages that had ownership rights to the reefs and took control by way of consensus with local leaders and with the villagers’ blessing.
In return for designating Shark Reef a ‘no-take’ marine protected area, where all fishing and any marine harvesting is tabu (forbidden) to all by order of the local chief and stakeholders, the dive operation would hire its staff from the villages (which it was already doing) and would levy a park fee of FJ$20 (about £6) per diver.
The chiefs agreed, and so, after many meetings and political arm-twisting, the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries was persuaded to designate official status to Shark Reef Marine Reserve. The Shark Foundation donated a patrol boat, and police power was granted to specially trained wardens who monitor the area to halt any illegal fishing. Violators have had their boats confiscated and heavy fines have been levied.
John Earle from Hawaii’s Bishop Museum has been counting fish species at Shark Reef annually for the past five years. In addition to the shark varieties that now frequent the site, the number of species now exceeds 430; Shark Reef’s corals may be degraded, but in terms of fish life, it has come back from the dead. The locals have benefited in other ways, too: in addition to steady employment with the dive operation for some villagers, in 2008 alone, the fees have enabled one village to renovate a church and the other to build a community centre.
In Fiji, the local people who live under the protection of the shark god Dakuwaqa neither fear nor demonise sharks. They understand the value of a living reef; it is the aquatic extension of their ancestral home, a place where they feel comfortable and that sustains them. And with the help of well-intentioned friends, they can create a success for their own livelihoods and for the enduring life of the ocean that has always sustained them. It is the most natural thing in the world.
This feature would not have been possible without the generous support of Beqa Adventure Divers +679 3450 911 www.fiji-sharks.com