Have you ever been on a dive where they actually feed the sharks? It’s the kind of dive you have to experience at least once in your life.
There are many shark feeds around the globe but one of my favourites is close to home. It’s a four-hour flight from Brisbane to Fiji followed by a three-hour road trip to Pacific Harbour.
Pacific Harbour is a small town near Beqa Island at the southern end of the Coral Coast on Viti Levu. It has branded itself as Fiji’s adventure capital. There are activities like zip lines, white water rafting and kayaking, forest river adventures, jet boats, fishing, surfing, free diving and shark encounters.
Diving with sharks
There are two scuba diving operations, Aqua-Trek and Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD). Both Aqua-Trek and BAD will pick you up from any of the Pacific Harbour resorts.
The area has a range of accommodation that caters for most budgets. I have stayed in dormitories at Club Oceanus and The Uprising and at the Fiji Palms timeshare. For disabled divers, Club Oceanus, Brizos Bar and Grill and Aqua-Trek Dive Shop and wharf are perfect.
Brandon Paige, whose nickname is the shark whisperer, was the driving force behind two shark marine reserves that involve Fijian people in the protection of sharks.
It is within these protected areas that Brandon offers Aqua-Trek’s Ultimate Shark Encounter. The experience is held at The Bistro, which is a ten-minute boat trip from shore.
Two kilometres west of The Bistro is where Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD) runs their World’s Number One Shark Dive.
A marine park fee of FJD20 for each diver is paid to the villages for shark conservation and preservation of the marine protected area.
No fishing zones have been part of community tradition in Fiji for generations. The practice has extended to protected areas like the shark reserves in Beqa Lagoon.
They operate successfully when village elders declare their support for the levels of protection declared by government.
Beqa Lagoon is the only place in the world where eight species of shark can be encountered on one dive. Bull sharks, white tip reef sharks, black tip reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks, lemon sharks, grey reef sharks, silvertip sharks and tiger sharks make Beqa Lagoon a shark lover’s dream destination.
Oh and did I mention you’re likely to see huge Queensland groupers too?
The two operations are on the northern edge of a deep shark corridor and the same sharks snack with Aqua-Trek and BAD.
They are different experiences and it’s worth organising your stay to do both. Book well ahead as winging it like I have done can mean being on a waiting list.
You’ll be disappointed on those special days when a tiger shark turns up. It has happened to me many times.
So, what are the differences between The Bistro and Shark Reef? How to choose which operator to dive with may depend on what you want to see or photograph.
Aqua-Trek experiences at The Bistro attract many hundreds of thousands of fish. They source about three or more wheelie bins of tuna heads and fish entrails for each feed from local fish processors. And yes, I did say wheelie bins!
These are pre-filled with food and taken to the dive site earlier in the day. They are lowered to the feeding area and food is transferred into a metal treasure chest that is secured to the sea floor.
With Aqua-Trek, you have two 20-minute dives, one at 24m and another at 16m. On the first dive, divers are lined up on the sea floor behind a rope which makes you ‘invisible to the sharks,’ says our diving instructor Pedro Niurou.
Wearing chainmail gloves under regular dive gloves, they guys work both sides of the treasure chest to feed the sharks with tuna heads.
On the second shallower dive, they feed tuna heads in a variety of ways and empty the entrails, skin and blood into the water.
This causes a feeding frenzy that has to be seen to be believed. During these dives, more than a dozen bull sharks can lurk less than 10m away from you yet hidden from view by the thousands of schooling fish and reef residents.
This celebration of ocean life can be frustrating for photographers who might be hoping to get sharks swimming in open water. Too many fish – what a problem to have!
Aqua-Trek is feeding a reef community and in doing so, the frenzied feeding actions of thousands of fish could be the key for attracting more silver tip, lemon sharks and significantly more visits by the elusive tiger sharks.
They have also purposefully positioned two ship wrecks, one upside down for marine life (no divers allowed to enter) and a second, deck side up for divers to explore after the timed shark feeds.
The tiger shark season used to start in February when I first visited 10 years ago. But over the last few years the sharks have been coming much later, in May. This year appears to be following the old pattern, possibly due to the change from La Nina to El Nino.
Beqa Adventure Divers
Beqa Adventure Divers conduct their feeds at Shark Reef at about the same depths and times. But bull sharks are their main event, and whilst each shark is also fed tuna heads, individually by their highly trained feeding divers, it is a shark feed and not food for hundreds of thousands of fish.
They also keep a record of what sharks are fed and how much they eat.
An interesting story is that Rusi, the man in the yellow hood, was training a new feeder. He gave his yellow hood to another feeder, expecting the sharks would recognize it. Instead, the sharks ignored the new feeder and headed for Rusi.
The sharks are offered tuna heads when they approach from the left. The feed is controlled and photos are reasonably easy to anticipate. If a shark comes in from the wrong side, it is refused and very few sharks make the same mistake twice.
This conditioned behaviour combined with the way the tuna heads are offered means that the photographers can line themselves up for those jaw-thrusting bite-down photographs.
Most photographers get great shots, including close-ups of wide open jaws taken without thousands of fish in the same image.
Divers can book well ahead for both operations, but your flexibility on the day for where spots are available on these dives will be a key to your success if you are not with an organized dive group.
Good luck. It is worth the effort!