I HUNG ON FOR LIFE AS 3 KNOTS OF CURRENT SWIRLED PAST ME. I was 20m under water and faced a never-ending squadron of bold and increasingly agitated grey reef sharks. While ducking and dodging them, I snapped off photographs as fast as my camera would function.
Its debatable whether this was due to a quest for great photos or simply as an act of self-defence. In the centre of this maelstrom was an incredibly brave (or incredibly stupid) diver handing out dead fish to passing sharks.
As the sharks became more fearless, I began to feel a little nervous. Suddenly, I heard a strange sound. What was it I hoped it wasnt some sort of communication sharks transmit before embarking on a full-force feeding frenzy.
Peering in all directions, I focused on the shark-inundated feeder and realised that the noise was coming from him. To my horror, I realised that this crazed man was laughing. How could he be laughing at a time like this As an increasing number of sharks pressed down upon us, I wondered: How on earth did I get into this mess
I guess I shouldnt have been surprised. After all, I had travelled to French Polynesia looking for just this sort of opportunity. As a shark photographer, Im always on the lookout for new thrills, and friends had told me about a group of fearless shark-feeders living in the islands around Tahiti. They were said to feed sharks in the old-fashioned way, by hand - in other words, no sticks, no buckets and no protective chain mail.
These were not little sharks either; grey reefs, silvertips, lemons, and even the occasional tiger are regular visitors in these waters. For years, dive shops
in the Caribbean have offered well-organised affairs featuring feeders in suits of chain-mail armour. Could the shark-feeders of Polynesia be so different Or was this tale of crazy Frenchmen just a myth discussed among shark-divers I had gone to find out.
The relatively unpopulated islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago lie about 250 miles north-east of Tahiti and consist
of atolls - lagoons encircled by a narrow strip of land.
The lagoons are connected to the ocean through several narrow channels. In these confines, the current can sweep through at up to 10 knots, and this consistent flow of water, which brings fresh nutrients from the ocean, attracts schools of fish to the passes.
And where there are fish, there are sharks. The Tuamotu island chain is blessed with a large shark population. In fact, this is the shark capital of the South Pacific, home to possibly the largest population of grey reefs anywhere.
Territorial packs of up to 150 sharks are not uncommon and, as I discovered, shark-feeding is a national sport in French Polynesia.
During my visit, I hooked up with a transplanted French citizen named Sebastien Bertaut. After spending time learning the art of shark-feeding from experts in Tahiti and Moorea, he had moved to the island of Rangiroa. I had teamed up with Seb because he was regarded as a confident and proficient shark-feeder. As we chatted and got to know each other,
I decided that he was a normal person with a great love of sharks. He didnt seem crazy - what was all the fuss about
For our first shark-feeding encounter, we travelled to Apataki, a remote island accessible only by liveaboard. Apataki has the largest pack of sharks around, Seb informed me. There can be up to
200 travelling in a circle along the bottom of this channel, he said.
I watched as he prepared food for the sharks, fish scraps as well as the head from a large mahi-mahi. To transport this feast under water, Seb used nothing but a plastic bag for the scraps and simply stuffed the fish-head between his chest and BC.
This is the first sign of a crazy Frenchman, I said to myself.
I asked Seb if he wore a steel mesh glove when he was working. No, he replied, theyre expensive and I dont need one.
But what if you get bit I responded.
Never happens, he replied confidently.
Do you use a stick or a spear to protect yourself I continued.
Oh no, he answered affably, but I do have my video-camera housing. My confidence was plummeting. Why was I jumping into the water with 9kg of plastic-wrapped fish and one insane Frenchman
We jumped in anyway. Reaching the bottom at 25m, I was whisked downstream at a hefty 4 or 5 knots. Gliding above the bottom, we quickly reached the sharks home range and, directed by Seb,
I nestled against a rock with my back to the current. Seb situated himself half a metre away.
After finding a comfortable position,
I turned to face downstream. A wall of sharks was casually drifting with the current not 20 paces away. But this was no ordinary school - there had to be at least 200 sharks in this pack!
With poise born of practice, Seb began chumming the water, and the sharks at once flew at us from all sides. Being so completely surrounded by sharks didnt faze Seb in the slightest, unlike me.
Casually, he presented fish to every passing shark, and as our new friends developed a taste for these treats, the competition among them increased.
I found myself ducking as sharks passed within centimetres of my head. After a few minutes, my heart slowed enough for me to think about my camera, and I began to photograph any silver streak flashing past me.
Seb signalled for my attention and, not sure what he was up to, I raised my camera to the set position. What happened next blew my mind.
Removing a large piece of fish from his bag, Seb held it at arms length. Like a dive-bombing eagle, a shark launched itself towards this meaty offering. Seb then led the shark directly toward my camera and, with perfect timing, let go as the shark opened up for a bite.
I pulled the trigger as fast as I could, hoping to capture a mouthful of teeth.
Not knowing if Id got the shot, I tried yelling through my regulator: Do that again! With a nod, Seb pulled out another piece and continued to stuff fish inside the mouth of passing sharks.
Eventually, I realised that this wasnt just a way of getting me great photos.
If he didnt shove the food directly at the sharks, the more agile reef fish would eat all the bait.
With a watch this glance at me, Seb produced the mahi head from inside his BC. If Id thought the sharks were flying before, that head made them go nuts!
I glanced at Seb - would he look nervous or scared No, he was laughing. With sharks bombarding him from all sides, he was having a grand old time.
Offering the fish head to a shark, he began a game of tug-of-war. To free the food from Sebs grasp, the shark viciously swung its head from side to side. Then, with an abrupt explosion of motion, we were alone. The victorious shark swam off with the prize.
Within moments, the sharks had devoured the fish-head and, settling down, re-established their orderly procession. The frenzy of activity moments before reverted to a scene of serenity, the sharks swimming along the bottom as if nothing had happened.
What a rush! I exclaimed as we exited. That was the most exciting thing Ive ever done. Seb, you are crazy!
He waved his hand airily. Oh that's nothing, he said. I believe I understand shark behaviour to a certain extent. I've learned to anticipate their reactions.
After experiencing several more hand-feedings, Seb's calm and humble approach no longer surprised me. I was impressed by his confident manner. He wasn't feeding sharks for others benefit so much as from pure enjoyment. After spending years studying the nature of these animals, he was able to use his knowledge to interact safely with them.
At no time did I feel that a shark would attack me. I was not a food source for them. Seb explained that he could get bitten on the hand, but understood that it would be an accident and therefore his own fault, not the sharks.
Crazy? Certainly not. I don't think rock-climbers, sky-divers, or bungee-jumpers are crazy either. I would classify this form of shark-feeding as adrenaline sport - it certainly set my heart rate through the roof.
To quote an old saying: You don't have to be crazy, but it helps.
Its a hand to mouth existence for shark-wrangler Seb - and he loves it
No chain-mail or even gloves necessary - Seb holds out the fish for the shark, and it does the rest
The sharks may be in your face, but they are interested only in fish.
Its not unusual for 200 or more reef sharks to gather for a feed