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)


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