I FELT THE OLD DEMONS OF DOUBT, followed by Panic, begin to raise their ugly heads. And then my eye caught shadowy silhouettes in the blue - sharks, scores of them!
About a year before, I had had a close call on a dive. I wont bore you with the details but it had been my fault, and progressively played on my mind in subsequent dives. I think the fear of
not being able to trust myself under water manifested itself in several panic attacks while diving.
Eventually I wrote in my log: Thats it - the end - Im hanging up my reg and fins.
I had been diving for just under 20 years. I loved the sport. I had dived all over the world, often in difficult circumstances, but for more than a year, wild horses wouldnt drag me back into the water.
The sage advice that I received from fellow-divers was to try shallow, easy dives to regain my confidence, but I had made my decision.
Besides, the thought of panicking at 10m or so was far too embarrassing.
So you might think it strange that the first dive I actually did, after writing my final log entry, was into the warm waters of Shark Reef, Fiji, with two wheelie-bins full of dead fish, about 30 or more bull sharks and scores of other sharks of various species.
The trip with Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD) had been arranged shortly after I resolved never to dive again.
My partner Robin, an underwater photographer, wanted to get some good shots of sharks. BAD ran a shark-feeding and conservation programme, and these dives seemed to offer an excellent opportunity.
I was persuaded to tag along just to see how thing went, and to help topside with the photography - in other words, to carry the bags!
Yet such was the professionalism of the BAD staff, as well as the pull of this extraordinary dive site that, almost a year to the day, I found myself slipping on my fins once again and dropping through the beautifully clear South Pacific, onto a reef brimming with life.
BAD was founded by Mike Neumann, a Swiss investment banker turned conservationist, with the help of local dive professionals and marine rangers Manasa Papa Bulivou, Seruvatu and Balenagasau, or Rusi.
Its primary purpose was the protection of, and research into, sharks.
The project now runs with the approval of the Fijian government and, crucially, the support of the community. Sharks are encouraged to come close to researchers and clients, with regular and well-organised feeding sessions.
The paying guests help to make the organisation viable, and indirectly help the local village.

THE BAD SHARK-FEEDING DIVE has attracted world-renowned underwater photographers, shark-researchers and experts, and has been described as the best shark dive in the world. So, you can imagine how frustrating and embarrassing it was for me on arrival to be unable even to get into the water.
I thought about making up some story about having a cold to save face, but decided to be honest with the staff and other divers.
I explained that I was not concerned about diving with sharks, but of panicking under water and becoming a danger to myself and other divers.
Manager Andrew Cummings seemed to understand completely, but arranged to have kit put on the dive-boat for me each time it went out, just in case I felt I could dive.
The first shark dive came around, and from the moment I set foot in the dive store, people were supportive, understanding and reassuring.
Mike and Papa told me what to expect under water, and patiently talked me through the dive, should I decide to take the plunge. There was no pressure or macho rubbish about pulling myself together - they were simply eager for me not to miss this unique experience.
After loading several large, fly-covered sacks of fish carcasses onto the boat, and a 20-minute journey, we arrived at Shark Reef. The crew tied off and began baiting the water, which instantly boiled with life. We saw the silver flashes of 1m-long trevallies as they seized the bait.
The fish are telling the sharks lunch is ready, explained Papa, as the crew prepared the wheelie-bins. We invite all the sharks in Fiji to come and stay with us in this protected area...
Papa and BAD are actively involved in protecting Shark Reef.
The crew are government-registered marine rangers, with the power to stop boats and arrest anyone fishing illegally in protected areas.
The success of the BAD project, and Shark Reef as a protected area, is also due in part to the village community, to which the reef effectively belongs.
Papa, a village elder, explained that the FJ $20 daily levy on each diver is used for the benefit of the community. The money goes into a trust that pays for university fees, scholarships and other items, such as renovating the village hall.
Jobs are also created, as BAD trains and employs villagers as dive guides and instructors. They have a stake in keeping Shark Reef pristine and free from long-liners and commercial fishing vessels.
The result is a section of the Beqa channel in which marine life thrives. Where the villagers do allow fishing, it has improved dramatically over the 10 years in which the project has run.
Papa briefed the divers, with safety aspects paramount. Divers and sharks would be kept separate at all times.
Mike, the founder of BAD, had explained earlier: Its a bit of a boot-camp down there, but thats the way it has to be unless you want cages or other barriers... if you keep the sharks and humans separate, there can be no incident.

I STAYED ON THE BOAT during the first dive, miserably watching the bubbles over Shark Reef. After about 40 minutes, in which some good surf had formed and was crashing over the reef, the group ascended.
People seemed to be reduced to speaking in adjectives: Amazing! Unbelievable! Magical! Unforgettable! Incredible! I began to get itchy feet, as the pull of the sharks began to chip away at my irrational fear of diving.
I got into my wetsuit - just in case.
It wasnt until I was getting into my BC, putting on my fins and doing my final checks that I realised that I was going to do this! Papa had arranged for one of the crew to keep an eye on me and, before I knew it, I was descending the 15m or so to the feeding arena below.
BAD designed this arena to maintain a natural environment while keeping sharks and humans separate. The staff use their deep understanding of shark behaviour to instruct divers on how to blend in.
Once I was in place, the giant trevallies, red bass, rainbow runners, surgeonfish and an incredible number of smaller fish created a melee as the feeder, Rusi, released a small amount
of bait. This was deliberate, as the sounds and smells of the smaller fish feeding draws in the sharks.
Doubt and Panic were lurking again when my eye caught some shadowy silhouettes in the blue. I was transfixed as the first became a solid 3m bull shark, and politely took a tuna head from Rusis hand. Another equally large
bull shark, probably pregnant, emerged from the gloom and, approaching from the left, accepted another fish head.
When Mike had spoken of a boot-camp, I had thought he was just referring to the divers. But the sharks have learnt that they will get fed only if they behave in a certain way.
They must approach the feeder from the left, take the fish from his hand, swim off to the right and back out into the blue.
The sharks learn quickly that if they try to take food in a different manner they get nothing, Mike had told me.
Guests are positioned within a few metres of the action and get an excellent view without interfering in the process.
The training of both human and shark, combined with the sharks natural reluctance to go near scuba-divers, means that the two species dont mix on the dive.
So you might say that the feeding changes the behaviour of the sharks, and it does. However, this is not just another activity for adrenaline-junkie tourists. Mike has collected valuable data on the sharks, more than 50 of which now have names.
Shark-researchers, conservationists and marine academics regularly attend the feedings to observe shark behaviour. While we were around there were two scientists from Fiji and New Zealand and, from the USA, a group of scientists and budding marine biologists on a college trip.
The feeding progressed in an orderly way, one piece of bait at a time - there was no crazed feeding frenzy, or bits of dead fish polluting the reef.
Most of the sharks were bulls, ranging from 2 to 3.5m. Several were heavily pregnant. Tiger sharks are occasional visitors, but we saw none.
After the feeding, we ascended the buoy-line as a single group while the sharks disappeared into the blue rather than following us - evidence, to my mind, that they dont associate divers with food.
Indeed, some sharks will take food only from a particular feeder, and we saw no evidence of any approaching the non-feeding divers.

I WAS BACK ON THE BOAT soaking up the sunshine before I realised what had transpired. With the help of BAD and the sharks, I had returned to the water after a year on dry land. Elated, I couldnt wait for the next days diving.
BAD has not had a shark accident in its 10 years. If shark-feeding is done responsibly by people who understand the sharks, it is as safe as, if not safer than, any other form of recreational diving - even for the sort of nervous diver I had become.
Purists argue that feeding is bad for sharks and the environment. Whatever the truth of this, what is the alternative The answer is simple, as Mike puts it: Shark-fin soup. Chinas obsession with shark fin as one of the heavenly foods, despite it being a flavourless thickening agent for soup, will drive sharks to the brink of extinction.
By encouraging sharks to stay in protected areas, we ensure the survival of a small but thriving population - and its gene pool.

Beqa Adventure Divers is located in Pacific Harbour, Viti Levu island in Fiji - contact it through www.fijisharkdive.com