Diving With Bull Sharks in Fiji

The boat started pulling out of the lagoon while we were still zipping up our wet suits. There was excitement in the air as the divers were chatting with each other in various languages. It’s not every day that you can do one of the scariest dives in the world. If you have ever watched Shark Week (and who hasn’t?), you probably know that bull  sharks are among the most fierce and  dangerous sharks on the planet. That’s why someone came up with the bright idea to put together a tour where you jump right into the middle of them and feed them. What could possibly go wrong?

As the boat made it’s way out of the inlet, one of the dive masters noticed the large hole in my rented wet suit at the knee. It was the last one they had in my size and I hadn’t really thought about it when I started putting it on, but what exactly had happened that would tear a giant hole in the knee of a wet suit? I unconsciously looked for blood stains. My guide called another man over and they started furiously trying to patch the hole with some tape. Why? Would my delicious human aroma start wafting out of the hole as soon as I got in the water? Would I  be like catnip for bull sharks?

There’s a weird feeling knowing that you’re about to  jump into the water with no clue of what creature might be waiting below. Even if the water is crystal clear and you can make out shapes below, refraction and distance can play tricks on your eyes. I jumped out of a boat in the Maldives one time right next to a whale shark and was immediately startled to see how big he really was once I got in the water with him. Whale sharks don’t eat people though, but bull sharks do. The three most dangerous sharks are the bull sharks, the great whites and the tiger sharks. As I was going through shark attack statistics in my mind, the boat dropped anchor.

We were told to stay close, be alert and go straight down to the bottom. It was a relatively deep dive at 100 feet, so to keep from having decompression issues, you’re limited to that depth for no more than about 15 minutes. I looked once more before I leaped out of the boat for any signs of white jagged teeth or pools of red. Fortunately I saw none.

There’s a moment of disorientation when you hit the water, clear your mask and try to get just the right amount of air in your vest so that you have neutral buoyancy. That moment is when you’re at your most vulnerable as you try to quickly adjust to your new surroundings. Once I could see below me, I marveled at the eerie picture of divers descending at different levels with their bubbles rising above them like a scene from the movie Abyss. Th plan was to get to the ocean bed as soon as possible. The tour had set up a cement ridge that allowed you to have something to hold onto once you reached the bottom. It keeps you from drifting with the tide and provides you a little shelter if you need to duck behind it. It’s an acquired skill to stay in one place without kicking coral and stirring up the sandy bottom.

Once the divers had all reached the bottom, I noticed that the tour company reps had created a circle around our group and were all armed with spears like modern day Poseidons. They had already dropped 55 gallon sealed barrels at the dive site before we had arrived. These barrels were filled with shark bait. What do sharks eat exactly? Pretty much anything that looks or tastes like meat or fish. The first barrel was secured in place and the man who was in charge of opening it didn’t even look slightly nervous. Of course who really can see terror through a SCUBA mask from 50 feet away? To this date, no one has ever gotten eaten on this tour, but you don’t want to be the first guy to break that record! The barrel was opened and the chum juices started oozing into the water. There were all kinds of fish parts that must have been discarded by restaurants or fish processing plants and ready to be shark fodder. Suddenly there was some movement in the murky water ahead. The sharks had arrived!

They were more than aggressive. The man who was feeding them kept his distance and had two men with spears next to him in the event that the sharks changed their preference to red meat. They seemed like they had almost been trained as they would swim by, grab a chunk of chum and then circle around for a second and third helping. I don’t think that sharks are really that trainable, so every once in a while when they started heading  towards a diver, they would be prodded with a spear. Sharks don’t chew their food gracefully. They gulp down chunks and shake their heads back and forth like they’re ripping meat off a bone. I’m sure every diver there was imagining what it would feel like to be a piece of meat in  the shark’s jaws.

Suddenly one of the bull sharks headed straight towards me. He was 4 feet away before I could even react. He took a hard left, swishing his tail a foot from my face and knocking my mask off. Did I panic and start inhaling sea water? No. Was I nervous? Hell yes! This is the reason it’s important to take diving courses and they’re so vital before you ever do a real dive. You never know when you’re going to be underwater at 100 feet and a shark knocks off your SCUBA mask. Does anybody really imagine that would ever happen? If you had no training, you’d probably panic, start inhaling water or try to make it to the surface and give yourself an embolism. When you’re getting your PADI certification, you’re required to pull off your mask underwater, put it back on and then clear the water out of it. Years of experience teach you how to get leaking water out of your mask without freaking out. That’s exactly what happened. I straightened out my mask, blew out the water and everything was immediately back  to normal. A quick check to make sure no limbs were missing, and I was feeling happy to experience such an “outside the box” adventure.

After the food was gone, so were the sharks. They might have been hiding out waiting for the one slow diver for dessert but the coast seemed clear. We all got back in the boat and talked about the experience. I even bought the video once we returned to the dive shop. Now I’m trying to figure out  what I did with it….

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