Swimming With Sharks

I n Fiji, the sun pours down like honey. It delves through the sea, lighting swathes of blues and greens. Leaning out of our boat, we trail our fingers through schools of flirty fish. Perfect. Except, I’m worrying about becoming a shark’s lunch.

The adventure seemed so much more fun earlier that afternoon, when I was safely eating fish fingers at the sprawling Mana Island Resort. Fiji comprises 330 islands strewn across the South Pacific Ocean. Mana’s the largest on the Mamanuca chain, renowned for silky white beaches, bustling coral reefs and Tom Hanks’ “Castaway” (shot on Monuriki). We land at Nadi Airport on Viti Levu, then take a graceful yacht (aptly named Opulence) from Port Denaru marina to Mana Island, about 45 minutes west.

I’m slathering myself in sun block, airily discussing the merits of snorkelling over scuba diving when the team from Aqua Trek arrives with a boisterous round of ‘Bulas’. Over here, the cheery Fijian greeting ‘bula’ is as ubiquitous as frangipani, which is threaded into welcome garlands, piled atop fluffy beach towels and tucked behind the ears of the hunky local men.

A dive for conservation

Aqua Trek’s popular with divers for its experienced local instructors and ‘shark encounters’. In 1999, the company’s Brandon Paige (or as they like to call him — ‘The Shark Whisperer’) created a dive to educate people and aid in the conservation of these creatures.

Divers get to watch up to eight species of shark — from silvertips to 16-ft tiger sharks — get fed.

It’s safe because they operate on mutual respect. Besides, the Aqua Trek guys grin, there hasn’t been a shark attack in Fiji in years. “There’s always a first,” I mutter darkly, as the music of the movie “Jaws” swells up threateningly in my head.

Half-an-hour later, we’re at the Dive Shop, getting outfitted for our swim before clambering on to the boat. Dives offered from here include the South Beach dive, “home to many stingrays”. If that doesn’t excite you, there’s ‘Gotham City’, hangout of the batfish. And, of course, The Supermarket, where the shark encounter takes place. Further north, they offer “beautiful wall dive where you can swim with schools of Barracuda”.

We’re headed to the North Reef, guided by dive masters Jonetani Rokoua and Ilisoni Vaniqi. The sun’s gentle on our faces, the wind’s in our hair, and I’m sidling up to Ilisoni. “So, any sharks expected?” I say, my air of breeziness only slightly marred by the fact that I’m chewing nervously on my cheery orange flippers. “Sure,” he grins, gently pulling them away, and indicating it’s time I put them on. I gulp. “The thing is, I ate fish fingers,” I quaver. “They might, you know… um… want revenge?”

He looks concerned. “Okay, remember this.” I grab a notepad, and nod rapidly. “When you see a shark, look him in the eye…” “And?” I say, breathlessly. Ilisoni finishes: “And say, bula.” He dives off the boat.

I slide into the water, warm enough for a baby’s bath, adjust the snorkelling mask, and look into the sea. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Intensely coloured corals form a swaying backdrop to bustling crowds of flamboyant fish. Every colour in the palatte is represented, in fearless combinations.

We swim over schools of self-important Sergeant Major fish, striped convict fish with guilty expressions, ill-tempered triggerfish biting off coral bits. A triggerfish pulls faces at me, wriggling his fat little Picasso-bright body, as his partner pouts her Angelina Jolie lips. A brilliant cloud of tiny blue and green chromis rises up out of the corals.

You never realise how much personality fish have till you go underwater. After snorkeling, we scuba dive, becoming participants rather than audience, swimming carefully to avoid harming corals as delicate as lace. The soft corals gently sway as we swim past spotting electric blue starfish between them. We wriggle between schools of zipping, darting and laughing parrotfish. Angel fish float about thoughtfully as if they’re composing sonnets. Jonetani points out the clownfish. Glowing orange with artfully placed streaks, the local variety — the Fiji Barbari, is loved for its playfulness, and is an unofficial mascot for the divers.

It’s certainly lucky for us. While we affectionately blow bubbles at Nemo, Jonetani tugs my hand. We watch in awe as a majestic baby white-tip reef shark glides past regally. Following from a respectable distance, we see another. And, then comes the black tip reef shark — with that characteristic triangular fin, the staple of screechy horror flicks. I’m too fascinated to worry.

Back in the boat, we head to a sand spit: our own little island. Jonetani bounces ashore with a picnic basket: hot tea and bags of chocolate cookies. We walk about jabbing our bare feet on prickly pretty corals, soak up the sun, and finally dive right back into the invitingly blue sea.

(The writer was in Fiji on the invitation of Tourism Fiji)

This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at the cove, This little piggy got sunburnt…

We notice Joshua’s flaming red flower as he helps us out of the boat at Castaway Island. As we wade through the waves, wriggling our toes in the warm sand of yet another dazzling Fijian beach, he explains the significance. “In Fiji, we have no wedding rings. So wear a flower behind your left ear if you’re single, right if you’re married.”

We thoughtfully sip on chilled Chardonnay cocktails served in tender coconuts as Joshua sums up our first class on Fijian dating. “So, left ear if you’re looking and right if you’re cooking.”

The irony seems a bit unfortunate for the pig-on-a-spit at the Musket Cove Island resort, wearing a jaunty frangipani behind his right ear. Served with tapioca, bowls of bright salad and piles of juicy skewered prawns, this dinner’s an attempt to rediscover the food of traditional Fiji. Destination of choice for tourists from New Zealand and Australia for decades, the islands’ resorts — many owned by expatriates — have spent years focusing on International food with imported ingredients. They now realise it’s time to introduce more local recipes for food tourists and culture-vultures.

Fiji comprises 330 islands in all, of which less than one-third are inhabited. The islanders are so friendly, it’s difficult to believe that this was once a land of fierce cannibals. All that’s left of that lifestyle today are cute brain-picking forks sold in chic boutiques on Viti Levu (site of the nation’s capital city Suva). Apparently they’re great for salads.

Our cooking class is conducted by the beach at Musket Cove Island Resort just before Mr Piggy makes his debut. Under a spectacular island sunset, we learn how to make the much-loved Kokodo. Fresh Mahi Mahi fish is cubed and marinated in lemon, salt and vinegar overnight. Then it’s mixed with finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, and capsicum. Finally, the whole concoction is slathered in cool, rich, luxurious coconut cream.

At the local market in Nadi, Viti Levu, we weave between bundles of emerald spinach, chunky taro roots and piles of fat ginger. Though lots of produce comes from Australia and New Zealand, the government is now encouraging local farms, and requesting resorts to buy from them. Fish is plentiful, of course. A long, laden counter glistening with Red snappers and Barracuda. Sea bream and Coral trout. Blue fin trevally, Long-nosed emperors and knots of eels. The small fish are tied on a string, forming a necklace only Lady Gaga could wear, and sold in sets of 10.

Over here, families celebrate major occasions with a Lovo feast, also a staple at almost every resort. The work begins early in the day, as the Lovo pit is filled with wood, then set on fire. Rocks are placed on top of this, so they turn red hot. Then food — wrapped in plaited banana leaves — is placed inside, covered and left to cook for hours. The result is delicious: tender vegetables infused with the flavour of charcoal and spices. Meat so luscious it practically falls off the bone.

On our last day we dive off a boat, to swim in the warm Pacific waters clutching a fistful of soggy bread to feed the fish. They swim towards us indolently and nibble delicately, like socialites at brunch. In the evening, despite our sea-tangled hair and flaming sunburns, we make an effort to glam up for dinner. We’re headed to The Plantation, a fine-dining restaurant at the Sonaisali Island resort. After a flurry of dainty starters, we eat slow cooked pork set on a crab cabbage roll paired with a delicate apple and muscatel confit teamed with glasses of heady red wine. Dessert’s a delicate toffee basket filled with ripe tropical fruit topped with sorbet.

Our host suggests we end our evening with Angry Fijians — a wicked shooter comprising banana liqueur, Malibu rum and Bailey’s Irish cream. He kicks off his shoes and leads us to the Zero Bar at the other end of the property, insisting we walk to enjoy the balmy sea breeze. The perfect Fijian antidote to la-di-dah dining: star strewn skies, barefoot bars and giddy nightcaps.