LIKE MOST DIVERS, I’m not scared of sharks. I’ve seen them, I like to see them. Their behaviour is, within reasonable limits, predictable. When it comes to photographs, the usual problem with sharks is that they are scared of me.
No, the fish that worry me most are titan triggerfish, especially when they’re guarding a nest.
Accidentally stray into the exclusion zone that extends in a cone above that nest and a titan can be persistently aggressive, snapping viciously at anything it can get its teeth into.
They don’t want to eat you, they just want to draw blood and maim you. There are many more stories of divers being attacked by titan triggerfish than of divers being attacked by sharks.
I was attacked by a titan in Fiji.
I swam a good 10m above a nest, and she swam up to latch onto my fin, and wouldn’t let go.
I have been attacked by a much smaller orange-striped triggerfish in Thailand. I was photographing a lionfish and she came in from the side and took a chunk out of my finger.
A titan triggerfish in a similar attack could easily have taken the whole finger, and part of the hand as well. The water turned green with my blood. I have never been attacked by a shark, but titan triggerfish scare me enough to make me very wary of them.
“Did we tell you about the titan triggerfish” says my host Hugues Vitry, as we prepare to jump in.
“Don’t worry, they are used to divers.”
It’s a good job he warned me, because an enormous titan triggerfish comes rushing in as we descend to the reef.
Fortunately for me, it’s Hugues she says hello to, so I get a chance to assess the situation, rather than worrying about being a target.
She circles and approaches several times and looks us both in the eye, generally staying in front of Hugues.
He keeps his hands closed, only opening his left to cup the titan under the chin when she comes particularly close.
After five minutes or so, he reaches into his pocket and brings out a small scrap of shrimp.
The titan approaches head-on. Hugues cups her chin in his left hand and places the snack in her mouth with his right. I notice that he is very careful how he holds the food while doing this. The fish may be tame, but he doesn’t trust her completely.

THE DEEPER REEFS off Trou Aux Biches are all volcanic; fractured grey lava flows and big boulders that are a legacy of the underwater eruption that formed the island of Mauritius 10 million years ago. The reefs run roughly out to sea, with walls and valleys of varying widths in-between.
Dives at Corsair Wall, Stenopus Reef, Peter Holt Rocks, Batfish Reef and the Stella Maru, which is a wreck that happens to nestle between spurs of reef, all lead to friendly titan triggerfish coming to say hello.
After a couple of dives, I realise that Hugues is not really feeding the fish to attract them. What he is actually doing is using small handouts as rewards for good behaviour. He is training them as you would a dog.
Dogs may get treats as rewards, but their main meal comes in a dog-bowl at the end of the day. The triggerfish get fed only when they approach correctly and hold still, and even then, only just enough to reinforce the training.
Their main meal still comes from their normal hunting and grazing behaviour.
Titan triggerfish hunt for shellfish, urchins and octopus, and also use their strong bites to scrape at coral.
“They particularly like shrimp,” Hugues tells me. The resort restaurant across the road from the Blue Water Diving Centre takes shrimp out of the freezer each evening; any that don’t
get ordered by customers become titan-treats instead of going to waste.
Sometimes a pair of titans join us, but usually they attend one at a time. “When they have eggs they take it in turns to guard the nest,” says Hugues. “One will leave us, and a minute later the other one will arrive.”
Getting up close and personal with titan triggerfish is quite an experience, but for divers with Blue Water it is only the supporting act. Hugues also has a wonderful relationship with some
of his local moray eels.
Again, some fish snacks are involved as treats or rewards, but very little gets handed out to the morays. Hugues makes grunting noises through his regulator, and a moray rises from
its hole and slithers around him.
“The noise is part of a conditioning process so they recognise me,” he says.
The play involves much more contact than with the triggerfish. The moray eel slithers round Hugues and into his arms.
As it passes through, he gently takes her head to point her back the other way, and she wraps around again.
Up to Hugues, a few wraps round and a cuddle, then back to her hole.
After several repetitions, Hugues hands out a reward, a small piece of fish, but only while her head is safely cupped in his other hand.
The moray immediately swims back to her hole to swallow the snack, but soon returns to Hugues’ grunting call.
And the moray brings her cleaner wrasse with her, and some of the cleaners stay with us at the end of the dive. “Check your pockets for hitch-hikers,” Hugues warns me as we return to the boat. “I wouldn’t want to take a wrasse home by mistake.”
Over a particularly fine Chinese meal one evening, Hugues explains more of how his relationship with the eels works.
“I have known the moray we met this afternoon since 1987, when I opened the dive centre,” he says. “She used to share a hole with and follow a bigger honeycomb moray to me.”
Some quick maths reveals that Hugues has known this moray for 24 years.
If she has lived this long, the friendship can’t have been bad for the eel. So how do you build a relationship with a moray
“I let them get used to me for at least two years, visiting them almost daily, making the grunting noise so they know it’s me. I usually take my camera, so they also associate me with that, and become used to cameras.
“They hunt by smell, so it’s important that they learn what you smell like without any food being involved to confuse them. Only after a few years do I reward them with small pieces of fish. You can’t rush this,” says Hugues.

THE NEED FOR PATIENCE is emphasised when I ask about the photogenic honeycomb moray that stars in a picture on the dive-centre wall. I had not seen her while diving.
“An instructor from another dive centre wanted to show off to his customers and was impatient. He just held out food and got bitten, so he declared the beautiful honeycomb moray dangerous.
“She was not dangerous. She was always very gentle when handled properly. The instructor later returned with a spear-gun and killed her. He boasted about it afterwards. Fortunately, he no longer works in Mauritius.”
Has Hugues ever been bitten He shows me a scar on the side of his hand. “It’s the smaller and less mature morays you have to be careful with. I was with one of the big ones when a small moray that was new to the location came in from the side and snapped at my hand.”
I clarify at this point that he is referring to smaller and less mature individuals of the giant moray species, and not the snake and ribbon eels and snowflake morays we have seen on some patches of reef while looking for macro subjects.

THIS LEADS ON to why Hugues mostly stays clear of the seabed when working with his moray eels.
“They have swim bladders that expand and become uncomfortable if they ascend too far,” he says. “By staying a little bit up, all you have to do is ascend a little further and they will leave you.
“This also helps to keep good visibility, avoids confusion and makes it easier to stay safe from small interlopers.”
I now understand why he kept higher than usual while introducing his young nephew to a moray eel for the first time.
On another subject, I had checked that shark-fin soup was not on the menu of the restaurant before ordering. I have made a point of leaving offending Chinese restaurants on other dive trips.
Sharks are however on the menu of Mauritian diving attractions. On any tropical wall dive there is always the chance of spotting one out in the blue, and we had kept an eye out in between getting familiar with moray eels and titan triggerfish to see lowly contrasted outlines in the distance.
For a close encounter, we take the boat north to Round Island and Flat Island. Here the groundswell is big and crashes over submerged volcanic reefs, rattling boulders and gouging big scour pits in the seabed.
The turbulent water is highly oxygenated, making the scour pits ideal hang-outs for lazy sharks that don’t have to swim too hard to breathe.
The Cathedral is hidden in the lee of a reef that almost breaks the surface. There is no time to loiter as the boat swings in front of the reef, and we get under water as quickly as possible to enter a 15m-wide scour pit through a valley and a small tunnel.
A few grey reef sharks are initially spooked by our presence, retreating into a valley beyond the pit, though soon returning to resume their lazy circling.
Unlike titan triggerfish and moray eels, with the sharks there is no direct interaction, training or rewarding with snacks. There is no need; with patience they swim close between us.

FROM THE SCOUR PIT we follow winding canyons in the grey rock to get well clear of the shallow reef before surfacing. As with the start of the dive, sea conditions make climbing the ladder challenging, but easily handled by divers who are either regular visitors or locals.
We had been hoping to make a second dive in a shallower pit reputedly teeming with sharks, but the surface conditions prohibit this. Instead, we retreat to the wreck of the Djabeda, a steel-hulled long-liner, now at 34m and sheltered behind Gunner’s Quoin Island (named after the wedge used to set a cannon’s elevation).
Has anyone noticed that I have mentioned just two wrecks, and then only in passing. They are large enough wrecks, well worth a dive, and there are others, but the unique thing about this trip is the way Hugues interacts with his underwater friends, whether on a wreck or a reef.
Judging by the locals I meet diving at weekends or on a day off, diving is a popular pastime among the island’s population of 1.3 million. With the sizeable Air Mauritius based on the island, several airline staff, from pilots to ground crew, dive.
A large educated workforce is also needed for businesses such as banks and offshore services in addition to tourism.
There are several serious underwater photographers among the local divers I meet. Perhaps Hugues being a photographer good enough to judge on CMAS world championships attracts them to the Blue Water Diving Centre.
Which brings me to a serious question. Mauritius is not considered a major diving destination among UK divers, but French divers return again and again. I would guess that the local BSAC club, the Mauritius Underwater Group, is the only one where French is the main language (though members I meet are also fluent in English).
What do the French divers see in Mauritius that we don’t I found the island friendly without being pushy – I wasn’t harassed by hawkers – but that should be the same for all visitors.
The roads are relatively sane and people drive on the left, though that should attract the English. But French is widely spoken, so there is no language barrier.

ALL THE REPEAT VISITORS I meet have chosen an independent dive centre rather than one that is almost an afterthought among the watersports facilities of a honeymoon hotel.
Mauritius is a big island at 720sq miles. With 110 miles of coastline, there is a big variety of diving and diving conditions. Even though Blue Water is limited by sensible boat range to the north and north-west of the island, it wanted to be a dive centre that puts that little bit extra into going to the best diving available on any day.
And then there is the food. The French influence on quality food has remained since the island was a French colony. French divers consider fine dining as important as fine diving.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with Air Mauritius from Heathrow, www.airmauritius.com.
DIVING: Blue Water Diving Centre, www.bluewaterdivingcenter.com
ACCOMMODATION: John Liddiard stayed in a large apartment above the dive centre in Trou Aux Biches on the north-west coast. There are several hotels with various levels of accommodation at a range of prices within a few minutes’ walk of the centre.
MONEY: Mauritius rupee. Pounds and euros are widely accepted.
PRICES: A return flight costs about £700, with an additional 50 euros each way for a dive bag. Single dives at Blue Water cost 35 euros, a 10-dive package 315 euros.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.mauritius.net