“At first, there were just two or three and they just circled us. Each day moving a little bit closer. We would just sit on the bottom…and wait,” Papa says, his voice quieting for effect like a trained storyteller trying to excite a group of boy scouts around a campfire. Manasa Bulivou, or ‘Papa’, is well known to those both above and below the water. As a local dive leader, fish warden and shark feeder, he was integral in the establishment of Shark Reef Marine Reserve in Beqa, Fiji.
I listen carefully as he tells us a detailed account of the first time he hand-fed the bull sharks (an idea that formed during a brilliant night of drinking, of course!) and how they spent many days courting the sharks before they would accept the free fish on offer. In the beginning, the sharks were afraid.
But today it’s a different story, one that our research team discusses fervently the minute we surface and spit out our regulators. One hundred feet below, no less than thirty 500-lb adult bull sharks swam laps around us, many times passing so close to our faces we could have kissed them.
Filled with adrenaline, awe and wearing smiles as wide as the Texas sky, even as shark researchers, we’re moved by the close encounter with one of nature’s apex predators. I look at the faces of the divers in a nearby group and say a quiet thank you to the sea for giving them such a positive experience with sharks, a message I hope they pass on.
We didn’t satellite tag the bull sharks, nor did we place cameras on the reef to document their interactions with other reef-dwelling cohabitants—the two main research objectives of this expedition. For once, we had the opportunity to simply observe.
It’s no secret that shark-feeding dives are controversial amongst both science and conservation communities. Even in our small team, there were mixed feelings about the operation. But no one second-guessed the value in having divers share positive interactions with sharks, to help dissolve the inherent fear propagated by mainstream media. More importantly, not one of us could argue the authenticity of the experience. The dive operation is run by locals, from the dive master in training to the boat captain. And most assuring is that the local villages, the true caretakers of the sea, are compensated for their stewardship. Ownership of natural resources is a birthright in the Pacific islands and respect of this custom is paramount to our work here in Fiji.
Before we deployed a single camera or fished for bait, which we use to attract pelagic sharks for satellite tagging, we went into each village to uphold the local custom for a sevusevu, a traditional ceremony. Led by our Fijian researchers, we met the village chief and presented a bundle of kava root, or yaqona. On hand-woven pandanus mats, we sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor while the kava root was prepared in a carved, wooden bowl at the center. Children peeked through the open windows; we made eye contact and giggled. In some villages we drank kava and in others we danced and sang, but in each, we humbly requested from the chief and village elders permission to perform research on their reefs. And with a promise to share our data back to the community, we reach an agreement as to what is acceptable and are given a blessing for our work, which we are excited to begin.