On a memorable recent trip, we swam with bulls. No, not ran with bulls, the Spanish tradition immortalized in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Surely, that would be foolhardy and dangerous, to put oneself voluntarily in the way of unpredictable, wild, beefy animals! No, we swam with bull sharks, dozens of them.
But wait, aren’t bull sharks also unpredictable, wild, beefy, and dangerous? Beefy, burly, yes! Wild, definitely! Carcharhinus leucas has a reputation for unpredictability and is regularly implicated in “attacks” on humans in shallow warm coastal waters. Whether this reputation is deserved is debatable. Most likely, the frequent murkiness of this habitat brings bull sharks into contact with humans more frequently than other types of sharks. Bites are probably investigation, accidents, rather than actual “attacks”, which are quite rare. They are apex predators, whose preferred diet includes fish, other sharks, turtles, stingrays, mollusks, and even birds, but not humans.
This diving trip to Fiji, in September-October, 2016, was part 2 in our ongoing experiment in diving “closer to home”. Part 1 of our effort to find a dive destination we like as well as Indonesia, reachable by a non-stop from LAX, was in April, to the Philippines.
OK, Fiji isn’t that close, but it is reachable by a single 11-hour flight from LAX. By comparison with our favorite place to dive, Indonesia, that is marvelously simple and swift. For reference, once one reaches an Indonesian gateway (Singapore, Jakarta or Bali, after at least 18 hours), there are still two 2-hour flights on 2 different carriers to go, not coordinated time-wise to avoid another overnight en route.
We had other motivations as well. Fiji was dubbed the “Soft Coral Capital of the World” by none other than Jean-Michel Cousteau, and the shark diving at the southern end of Viti Levu has been called “The #1 Shark Dive in the World”. That’s a lot of superlatives to be investigated. Our friend Martin, CEO of San Diego-based Shark Diver, regularly posts pictures on Facebook during his annual May trips, with up to 70 bull sharks in a single frame. We had once booked a bull shark dive in the Yucatan, but they didn’t materialize when we went.
We had a few other rationalizations for this trip, namely Steve’s 59th birthday and celebrating our meeting in St. Louis in August, 1986, 30 years ago.
This was not our first time in Fiji, but our first dedicated Fijian dive trip. Around 1995, I went to Fiji for a week with a group of medical surfers from Scripps. I was new to Scripps Green Hospital and this seemed a good way to get to know some of the other medical staff. This was a longstanding tradition, an annual surfing trip to Tavarua, a tiny island off the west coast of Viti Levu. The group ran a medical clinic while there, and selected patients with difficult medical problems were transported back for treatment at Scripps. I dove a couple of half days, which was pleasant enough, but sensed I wasn’t in the sweet spot of Fijian diving, this being a famed surfing destination.
Some years later, Steve and I spent a 24-hour layover in Fiji, en route to the Solomon Islands to dive. The early morning arrival was not early enough to connect with an ongoing Solomons bound flight. Most of the group laid around the hotel pool catching up on sleep, but I had other ideas, hiring a driver to take us on a day tour. Our first stop was a market. Within minutes of our arrival, rhythmic clapping rang out, heralding a kava ceremony. Although the warnings of the traffic clinic doctor were still fresh in our minds, to refuse was impolite, so we had no choice but to accept the root-based potion, resembling dirty dishwater, drawn out of a Volkswagon hubcap bowl and filtered through an old T-shirt. Thankfully, we had no untoward GI consequences, but it was a memorable introduction to an integral element of Fijian culture, performed for meetings, ceremonies or just about any social occasion.
September 21, 2016 was an all day long packing marathon. The phone rang in the morning. It was Greg, our usual diving trip companion. Seeing his name light up my phone, I answered:
“What, you changed your mind, you’re coming with us after all?”
Greg: “Well, if I were, I would have had to cancel.”
It wasn’t good news. The night before, Greg’s girlfriend, Sarah, had been struck on her scooter by a hit and run driver. Thankfully, although she had cervical spine fractures, she had no neurological impairment, but would have to undergo surgery.
Then there was an email from our friend and neighbor in Sedona, Tom, saying we had a water leak at the top of the guest house driveway. This required squaring away immediately, prompting a series of emails and texts to our tenant, landscaper and Arizona Water Company.
This was all before 10 am, when the plumber arrived, as well as our gardeners and landscape architect, causing a near traffic jam in our driveway.
From that start, the rest of the packing decathlon went better. Procrastinating until the final day before departure to confirm an underwater camera is working is inadvisable, but we got away with it-everything was working fine.
Somehow, the accumulated piles of dive gear, camera lenses, bits, pieces and more eventually disappeared into bags, and the exploded dive shop appearance of the house improved. Order was gradually restored.
The stress must have had an effect, though. Our driver George missed I- 405, and so did we. I also managed to shortchange him-I intended to give George $160 (his $150 fee and a little extra), only to learn by text later I had only given him $120-I guess my higher math abilities were strained by the day’s proceedings.
The flight itself was the usual steerage misery. I inadvertently packed our Ambien in our checked luggage, so we didn’t have pharmacological aid to smooth out the ride. We did have an entertainment system, but the selections were uninspiring, leading me to decide “Money Monster” was my best option.
Leaving LAX before midnight on a Wednesday for Fiji results in an early Friday morning arrival in Fiji, before 6 am, thanks to the International Dateline traverse.
Friday, September 23, 2016
It was pleasantly cool in Fiji, not the tropical blast we were expecting. Steve had to fill out an extra form to bring his newly acquired birthday drone into Fiji, but otherwise it was painless. He had discharged the batteries, bought special damage-minimizing bags in which to transport them, and devoted a fair amount of time to researching the ins and outs of international drone transportation.
We met up with Gotmuck trip leader Hergen in the airport, as well as fellow travelers Dave from Williamsburg, Virginia; Las Vegas gynecological-oncologic surgeon Lynn, and John and Stacey from Dallas. We had met Lynn in April in Anilao. The several hour transit by van to The Pearl South Pacific, in Pacific Harbour on the south coast of Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian Islands, was enlivened by catching up with Lynn and Hergen and getting acquainted with rocket scientist Dave, Stacey and John, with a coffee and souvenir shopping stop en route, at which I found a lovely, lightweight souvenir, a Tahitian pearl lariat necklace.
Once installed at The Pearl, a modern and attractive resort, the first order of business was building our underwater cameras, before the fog of jet travel and little sleep set in.
Steve napped instead of eating lunch. I headed into town with Stacey before a late afternoon massage, which left my hair so coated with oil it looked wet. We met the rest of the group poolside at a briefing with Hergen and our other trip leader, Burt Jones of Secret Sea Visions, including Roseann and John, John’s sister Sharon and her French chef husband Pascal, and a childhood friend of Stacey’s, Ann, and her family (husband Tom, 12 year old son Liam and 16 year old daughter, Cate).
We walked to town with Roseann and John, and Pascal and Sharon, and had a quiet meal at the Oasis in the Artist’s Village complex. We passed a truck on the road, with its driver’s side smashed in and front bumper off, which Stacey and I had witnessed being involved earlier in the afternoon in a loud collision with a car which failed to brake in time to avoid it, resulting a long skid, a tremendous crash and both vehicles losing their bumpers and sustaining tremendous damage. Thankfully, there were no injuries, but it required several men to wrench the truck’s driver’s side door open in order to free the driver.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
Shark Diving with Aqua-Trek Beqa Divers
We were picked up in the lobby for a ridiculously short transfer to the dive operation, which proved to be just across the road and on the same sea inlet. The hardest part was transporting our gear downstairs to the lobby without a dive bag. Herg suggested using the BCD to bundle everything up into a portable package, which worked. En route to the buffet breakfast, we dropped our dive gear bundles off in the growing pile in the lobby, and then made a separate schlep with the cameras for the 2-minute van ride. Paperwork signed and certification cards checked, we divided into 2 groups and were assigned to the “smaller” boat, with Stacey, and Ann, Tom, Liam and Cate.
The ride to the dive site was also just a few minutes and soon we plunged into the cool water, an initial relief from the warm, 7 mm wetsuit. It took about 15 pounds (I think, the weights reportedly were 3 pounds each, but some seemed lighter and thinner than others) to sink me and the suit, but with concentration, I could descend, albeit slowly.
Chaos! That was my first impression of the swirling tornado of feeding fish and circling sharks. I eventually calmed down enough to more fully appreciate the amazing numbers of swooping fish and sharks, the water clarity and the general organization of the operation. We were aligned along a manmade underwater stone wall, in front of which were buoys with bait and a shark wrangler in chainmail gloves handed fish heads to the sleek sharks.
Nurse sharks, blocky bull sharks, lemon sharks, and white tip reef sharks were abundant.
Sargent majors were so thick they were problematic photographically (black and white striped, above). The shark wrangler was continually surrounded by a cloud of fish. We dove on air and the depth was about 60 feet, limiting our bottom time there to about 25 minutes.
We dove on air and the depth was about 60 feet, limiting our bottom time there to about 25 minutes.
The dive guides watched our backs, literally, and nudged divers over to allow others privileged vantage points, including a lower reef formation in front of the stone wall, which was closer and a clearer viewpoint. Down in front, there was a small moray eel to be avoided, residing right in front of me in the mini-wall. We were also warned to look for stonefish before settling down on the sand and had already seen one in the water from the dock. The first dive, I could hardly concentrate on settings, but the second definitely benefited from the dress rehearsal. I shot with shutter priority, having learned from our experience in Socorro that I lose too many shots when the action is happening fast and can’t react on the fly fast enough when on manual.
When the time on the wall was up after 20 minutes or so, there were adjacent wrecks to check out.
I crashed in the afternoon, while Steve did a successful drone launch. Just before sunset, the clouds and light improved enough that we did another launch, this time with me flying it for the first time.
At dinner at the seafood restaurant Seduce, I probably lost weight, expending more calories than ingested, working away with my nutcracker on my chile mud crab, but it was delicious. Steve enjoyed his pesto risotto and pepper shrimp.
Shark diving day 2: Sunday, September 25, 2016
The stone jetty out in front of the resort is the perfect launching point for the drone. We made 2 early morning flights before breakfast and resolved to get up for the sunrise the following morning.
I switched photographic strategies today, bumping the ISO to 400 and switching to aperture priority. At f11, I had shutter speeds of 1/60, almost too slow. I should have kept an eye on it and used a wider aperture, but in the heat of shark action, it is hard to think, all too easy to shoot reflexively. I also switched the strobes to TTL, but wasn’t sure that was an improvement over manual. It turns out I neglected to switch to TTL in the camera’s menu.
We had a substantial lunch, late enough that we had a liquid dinner. It was Sunday, seafood buffet day, and I dawdled at the table afterwards, writing and editing images, nursing a banana milk shake, after a meal of mahi-mahi with paw-paw sauce. In late afternoon, we were back out on the stone jetty, flying the drone, accompanied by Liam and Cate.
We walked down the pristine sand beach, remarkably free of development and trash, dotted with Fijian families playing in the surf, to another resort, the Uprising, to which much of the group had walked the night before for dinner. It was buffet night there, so we opted for drinks, a pina colada, complete with umbrella, maraschino cherry and pineapple wedge, for me and a Fiji bitter beer for Steve. It was dark walking back. White ghost-like crabs started and scuttled away from the circle of our torch’s light, but we had essentially no other company.
Shark dive day 3: Monday, September 26, 2016
Steve and I made good on our plan to arise for the sunrise and headed out to the jetty with the drone.
Half of the group headed out early for a daylong Navua river rafting excursion, including Lynn, Ann, Tom, Liam, Cate, Roseann and John, Stacey and John, and Pascal and Sharon, leaving Steve and me, Hergen, Burt, Joyce and Micheal, and Dave for a third day of shark diving with Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD). Our friend Martin, experienced shark diver and CEO of San Diego-based Shark Divers, brings groups to Fiji each May and between the two outfits, has a strong preference for BAD, on safety grounds. They were indeed a highly rigorous and organized outfit, with a regimented and orderly way of shark diving, from which there was no deviation. Their shop is situated higher up the river, the same in which bull sharks, being tolerant of fresh water, give birth to their pups. From the resort, it was a few minute longer drive, as well as a longer (but still short) boat ride.
The first dive was a 3 level dive, beginning at a manmade coral rock wall at 90 feet, behind which we were lined up. Guides armed with large blunt-tipped metal eyehole prods (imagine a huge sewing needle) kept an eye out for errant sharks. The feeding was mobile, and moved along in front of the line up to give everyone some close encounters.
From there, we ascended to a mid-level perch, and ended at what was purported to be an “unforgettable” safety stop. It was beautiful, with colorful reef fish and sleek blacktip and whitetip reef sharks zooming through a sun-dappled shallow hard coral garden.
I was struggling at that point, being seriously underweighted, so much so that a guide literally pulled me, via his shark prodder, underwater to start my descent. He also pulled Dave down as well. Ordinarily, we would add weight at the surface to a pocket if unable to descend. However, we had swum away from the boat as instructed and stayed on the surface until the group formed up and then were told to descend, leaving no opportunity to trim weight. The result was that even at 90 feet, I had no need to add ANY air to my BCD. This wasn’t a problem, but ascending with a lighter tank, it was touch and go at 15 feet to stay down. A rope was rigged up at the edge of the reef, to which we were instructed to hang on, and hang on I did. My feet were trying to go to the surface, and it was virtually impossible to work even the Info button on the camera to see if my exposures were in the ballpark. Even if I could hang on to the camera and punch that one button with the same hand, getting my face down to the same level to read it was another story, what with my feet going skyward.
On the safety stop, we recognized a celebrity fellow diver in the adjacent sister ship, Snatch star Jason Statham. Burt ended up next to him in the line-up on the second dive. By this time, I had rectified the weight situation, but my mask was fogging and I inadvertently used too slow of shutter speeds for the fast-moving bull sharks. This was a single-level, mid-depth dive, designed for us to lie prone, propped up on a low coral rock wall. Despite my photographic bumbling, I still ended up with a few shots I liked, mostly thanks to the law of averages.
In the van back to the hotel, Burt got into it with the driver. He was driving fast enough on the potholed road that Herg, with his camera rig balanced on his lap, ended up with a cut lip when the camera arm bounced up. Of course, the story morphed, aided by the convenient presence of Jason Statham, into an underwater, tough guy altercation, James Bond style.
When the van momentarily became airborne, a nervous titer broke out. Maybe that contributed to the driver not reacting in a suitably deferential enough manner for Burt, who addressed the driver angrily:
“Slow down! I’m not kidding! There’s delicate gear back there!”
Disembarking, he asked the driver his name, intimating he was in trouble.
Later, we ran into Burt, Herg, Joyce and Micheal at lunch at Water’s Edge in the Arts Village, and heard that, of all the cab drivers in all the waterside joints in Pacific Harbour, they had the same driver into town.
Chatting with an Australian bloke at the Aqua-Trek dive resort, I had received a strong endorsement of the goat curry at Water’s Edge.
Steve and I shared a starter of homemade, piping hot, vegetable samosas. I was stuffed after my meal of goat curry , and Steve after his butter chicken pizza, so full we again skipped dinner. Indian food or Indian-influenced or spiced dishes were among the better culinary offerings. Indians are a large presence in Fiji, with most descending from Indians who came to Fiji as indentured sugar cane labourers from around 1880-1920.
The lingering presence of the British Empire is palpable in Fiji: driving on the left-hand side, the perimeter road around the south end of the island named the Queen’s Road, the yield signs which politely instruct drivers to “Give Way”, bus admonitions to “Mind your head”, even the monarch’s picture on currency, not to mention the spelling of “Harbour” in Pacific Harbour.
We walked down the beach for a drone launch late afternoon, hoping to draw children playing in the surf, but found it much quieter than the prior day. Of course, the prior day was Sunday, we soon realized. We did have a nice conversation with a Fijian father with his beautiful 2 year old daughter in his arms, drawn out of their house by curiosity about the drone.
After dark, we were lured out of the room by boisterous singing emanating from the dining room. Clad in a riot of floral prints, a group of Fijian singers was seated on the floor. Four men in grass skirts were dancing accompanied by the spirited singing of the women, who swayed and clapped in unison. Their energy was infectious, and even reluctant-to-dance Steve could not refuse being drawn out to dance.
It was a nice send-off for this 3-stage Fijian dive adventure. The following morning, we were off to Lautoka, north of Nadi, on Viti Levu’s western shore, where we boarded the Nai’a, our floating home for the next week, our ticket to explore the waters north and northeast of Viti Levu.
As I reflect on our bull shark encounters, safely back at home in sunny San Diego, the Internet is lighting up with discussions concerning 2 recent episodes of white sharks inadvertently breaching cages (one with a diver in it) at Guadalupe Island, 24 hours by boat from San Diego. To be clear, these were not shark “attacks”, but sharks lunging at bait, ending up stuck or in cages. No human was injured. This happened with 2 different operations, one of which we know, having dove in Socorros on a manta trip with the Nautilus Explorer earlier this year. Neither involved outfit is the one our friend “safe and sane shark diving” Martin runs, which is the one I did in August 2014.
Incidents like these inevitably led some to suggest all shark feeding should be banned. Having experienced both shark attraction (bait in the water but no feeding), shark feeding and cage diving, I strongly side with the majority who think such operations improve the lot of sharks and ocean health. Sharks don’t benefit directly from feeding; they clearly are quite capable of procuring their own food without human aid. No, the direct benefit to sharks is preventing poaching and fishing. In Guadalupe, Martin argues (and I agree) that the presence of the dive boats is a deterrent to poaching. In Fiji, where Beqa Adventure Divers bills themselves as a “shark conservation project that includes a dive operation”, the establishment of Shark Reef Marine Reserve can be traced to the original agreements made by BAD with local villages to ban fishing and permit shark diving . The villagers are compensated for each visit made by divers. Since the Reserve was established, periodic fish counts have documented an increase in the number of species, from 267 in 2004 to 427 in 2009 and more since. Fishermen working outside the Reserve in adjacent unprotected waters report increased yields from the spill-over effects of this fishing ban. The 30-mile long corridor was designated a National Marine Park in 2014, the first in Fiji. This seems a clear win-win arrangement, with dive masters, boat captains and fish wardens employed by the operations drawn from the neighboring villages.
Back to our experience, was this a crazy thing to do? Unequivocably, I can say , NO! It was a genuine adrenaline thrill, but seemed appropriately regulated. It was a rush to see apex predators outside of a cage, and did not feel like a terribly rash activity. The current operators have an excellent safety record, take appropriate precautions and have created a sustainable operation which promotes reef health. In short, it wouldn’t take much arm-twisting to lure me back!
Enough for Part 1; Part 2 (Diving the Bligh Waters on the Nai’a) is here. For a vicarious experience of white shark cage diving, here’s a link: