FEEDING FISH WHILE SCUBA DIVING can be both a spectacular and a hazardous business. Wild animals, and that includes those encountered under water, take the chance of a free meal very seriously. Even the ubiquitous pan-tropical Napoleon wrasse has teeth for crunching up the food it sucks into its mouth.
A hundred or so bohar snappers competing for food can be both noisy and frenetic. Get too close and you could easily suffer a painful nip.
Add to this mix a good helping of surgeonfish, with their scalpel-like anal fins, and you will see that injuries can easily happen. Then include a few evil-looking black jacks and giant trevallies, all with mouths full of incisors, and the chance of a casual observer getting bitten rises exponentially.
Fish eat fish, and they are especially good at clearing up the remains of dead fish. Its amazing that in the chaos of bouillabaisse that happens when lots of bait and fish blood is released into the water, the fish dont accidentally bite each other, but strict rules apply in this world. Among fish, size matters.
That said, few of us would view the scene with much trepidation. Its not as if sharks are involved.
But then, all too often, they hear the noise of fish feeding and are drawn to the spot. Among competing sharks, size matters very much indeed.
Sharks boost adrenalin levels among divers. The first shark we are thrilled to see, early in our tropical diving outings, is most likely a little whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus).
As a species, its a voracious nocturnal hunter but it spends many of its daylight hours resting on a sandy patch of seabed, pumping water through its gill slits. This rubbery species can grow impressively big, yet there is always that nagging feeling that what we are really looking at is a big dogfish with ideas above its station.
Not so the little blacktip reef shark (Carchahinus melanopterus). This can be encountered nervously speeding about in the shallow water of the reef top.
Its a pretty, two-toned job, has the proportions of a real shark and can look impressive in photographs, where the casual observer cannot tell that this species is rarely more than a metre long. Blacktips and whitetips both defer to the larger grey reef shark.
This, Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos, is
a proper shark, the type you see in movies. Take a photo home of yourself with one of these and you will certainly impress your non-diving neighbours.
Grey reef sharks tend to patrol the fringes of the reef where it meets deeper water. They are quick and perpetually looking for the next meal. Grey reef sharks defer to larger lemon sharks.
Lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) are elegant-looking creatures. Its nice to see one cruising around, escorted by a bundle of little pilotfish keeping station at its nose and anticipating its every change in direction.
Lemon sharks have two dorsal fins of almost equal size, and a long slim body.
During a fish-feed I attended, one kept at a discreet distance from us and never came in to accept any offered shark bait. However, it was not averse to grabbing something another fish had dropped.
It postured. It seemed to say: Hey, look at me. Im a shark, and a bloody good-looking one too. If you took down a large mirror you could probably keep a lemon sharks attention all day, far better and longer than with a bagful of tuna heads.
Lemon sharks seem unaggressive, and to defer to tawny nurse sharks when half-heartedly competing for food.
Tawny nurses (Ginglymostoma cirratum) dont mess about when it comes to eating. They are large sharks with small mouths. They can suck their prey right out from under a rock and,
I am reliably informed, can suck the flesh off the thigh of any diver that bugs them. They will dive in and suck all the bait from its container if you let them.
Nurse sharks lie about on the seabed, usually safely under overhangs, when they are not actively hunting, which they do at night.
They are powerful. Watch several full-grown specimens skirmish over a meal and you will want to keep your distance.
They prefer not to swim in open water, and stay close to the substrate. During squabbles, their long tail fins churn the seabed up, soon reducing the visibility to a murkiness that can lead to the accidents that happen when sharks cant see what theyre doing.
If an encounter with any of these sharks has put the wind up you, you havent seen a big shark!
Tawny nurse sharks defer to bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas). Bull sharks like murky conditions and have poor eyesight. They have been implicated in plenty of attacks on swimmers, though these were probably all accidents.
In my experience these large sharks are ordinarily exceedingly timid, despite their massive girth and equally wide maw. They look very scary but in fact keep their distance unless there is food in the water and the visibility has been reduced, say by a couple of squabbling nurse sharks.
Its then that bull sharks become bold. A large bold predator like this can be impressive, especially once youve noted its tiny piggy eyes and realised that it is probably not very good at grabbing precisely what it was aiming for. It just opens its terrifying mouth, closes its eyes and goes for it.
Bull sharks start by circling in pairs. Its all very leisurely at first, but gradually they get confident and the carousel begins to speed up.
Once you are surrounded by half a dozen or more competing bull sharks and things are getting a little frenzied, you start to ignore what the other fish are doing. These are the sharks of nightmares, a cross between Jaws and Mr Magoo. They add a distinct edge to a fish-feed.
Big, grey and purposeful, they need a lot of food every day and are determined to get it. The Sumo wrestlers of the shark world, even a bull only 3m long is a very heavy animal.
When they start to come very close indeed, I stop looking through the eyepiece of my camera and start looking nervously over the top of it. I have a very wide-angle lens but it takes nerve to hold fire until one of these awesome creatures is within a foot or so and still coming forwards. Its then that its best to squeeze the trigger and get the shot.
Too often I press the button when the thing is still a metre away, and duck behind the convenient barrier formed by a large camera housing and two substantial flashguns on long mounting arms. Unfortunately, photographically speaking, the largest shark a metre away is almost out of sight in the murk produced by a lot of bait, blood and detritus in the water.
If I hold my nerve, I find myself stabbing furiously at the shutter-release button, often to no effect. The skin of the approaching bull shark is so evenly toned that there is nothing onto which the auto-focus mechanism can latch.
Sharks are designed to appear suddenly out of the gloom. Its often the last thing a hapless prey will see.
Still, I persevere and the other divers watching think I must have some wonderful pictures, whereas I am hoping to get just one that is wonderful. And all the time Im wondering what the other bull sharks are doing behind me.
But bull sharks soon get forgotten when the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) arrives. Bull sharks defer to tigers.
In fact, while the tiger is there, they make themselves scarce. Tigers defy description. Impressed I was.
Look out of your window at passing cars. If a grey reef shark is a Ford Focus and a bull shark a Mercedes limousine, the tiger shark is a cross between a Hummer and a JCB. Any of them can kill you if it hits you, but if its the tiger shark, no one will bury your remains. There will be precious little left as evidence that you ever existed.
The tiger shark arrives wraith-like. Suddenly its there and nothing else seems to matter. This particular tiger shark is 5-6m long, and thats a lot of shark! It has distinctive stripes on its flanks, and textbooks tell us that the stripes disappear with adulthood.
Well, if this one is an adolescent, I wouldnt want to meet its dad!
Yes, youve guessed it. This is not a catalogue of sharks you might meet on different dives. This is a description of a single dive experience at one dive-site - Shark Reef in Beqa (pronounced Benga) Lagoon in Fiji. But more of that later.
Tiger sharks are the garbage men of the ocean. The stomachs of caught specimens have revealed all sorts of paraphernalia, including car tyres and tin cans. A tiger shark is as likely to gobble up your flashgun as any offered bait, on the off-chance that it might taste good. Know what Youd let it!
This one had two or three large hooks festering in the corner of her mouth, presumably left there by some fishermen whod gone home to get a bigger boat.
I mused that these were probably making the animal quite irritable. She also had some horrible sore red marks left by one or two large remoras, or had they been lampreys
Then I stopped musing. The idea of being in the water with a monster that might be a bit moody did not bear thinking about.
It especially concentrated my mind when she suddenly spiralled upwards, scattering the massing snappers and surgeonfish above me, turned on a sixpence and started making a vertical dive directly back down towards me.
It made an unusual shot and, you guessed right, she turned away at the last minute. Well, I wouldnt be writing this otherwise, would I
Scarface, as she is named, is a regular at the shark feeds orchestrated by Beqa Adventure Divers, BAD for short. Evidently shark-diving legends Ron and Valerie Taylor have called it the best shark dive in the world. My own opinion was that it was really BAD!
The dive involves a lot of BAD divers armed with long, heavy, metal shark poles, for steering away those sharks that become over-bold; a couple of full-size wheelie-bins loaded with tuna fish heads, fish cleanings and fish blood; and one brave guy called Manasa who wears a chain-mail glove and offers the bait piece by piece at outstretched arms length.
Meanwhile his mates drop more bait and blood on top of him from above.
I could see it all ending in tears when one fish-head dropped down and lodged between his BC and his tank, but 100 bohar snappers took care of that before a shark could do any damage.
When Scarface turns up, all the other sharks remember urgent things they should be doing elsewhere. Tiger sharks are partial to dining on smaller sharks, especially little blacktips and grey reefs.
Beqa Lagoon surrounds Beqa Island, which is a satellite island of Viti Levu, the large Fijian island. Viti Levu carries both the capital city Suva and the international airport at Nadi (pronounced Nan-di).
Pacific Harbour is about 60 miles from Nadi and opposite the lagoon, on the mainland. This man-made feature comprises a few canals that are a good refuge from storms, fed by one of Viti Levus rivers. Beqa Adventure Divers is based at the Lagoon Resort, well within Pacific Harbour.
The area is like part of the set from The African Queen. You half-expect to see Bogart heaving Ingrid Bergman on the boat through the swamp. In fact they made the less well-known movie Anaconda there.
The entrance to Pacific Harbour meets the ocean at the Beqa Channel. This separates the lagoon from the mainland. The lagoon is unusual in that it is hundreds of metres deep, but the ocean around it is thousands of metres deeper.
This deep water makes a perfect environment for a wide range of shark species, and the BAD boys chose a site at aptly named Shark Reef to do their regular shark-feed dive. Other dive centres use other sites, so there is never any jostling for position. Of course there can be a lot of jostling between sharks, and between the divers trying to get the best shots of them!
Beqa Island is home to Fijis famous firewalkers. I suppose a job feeding sharks is small beer if the alternative is a regular evening stroll across red-hot stones for the benefit of gawping tourists. We do our gawping under water.
Its a quick ride to Shark Reef in BADs New Zealand-built twin-hulled tinnie, and the first dive is down to the rocky seabed at 32m. A bag of fish-heads and blood is released, drawing in the snapper, surgeons, black jacks and trevallies in chaotic proportions.
The nurse sharks make their first appearance, and bulky bull sharks skirt the margins on the edge of vision.
Other big fish turn up on the off-chance of something for nothing, often including big grouper.
Then its up to around 11m, where grey reef and a few bolder whitetip reef sharks get hand-fed from a large plastic tube of food, and perhaps the resident Napoleon wrasse. Blacktip reef sharks are fed in a few metres at the reef top.
Meanwhile, other BAD boys go and fill a special food cage at 18m with bait from their wheelie bins. This oozes its delicious fishy odours out into the water all the time we are back on the boat, reloading cameras, having a cup of tea and a cookie, and otherwise happily wiling away an hour of surface interval.
Once we get back down to the food cage at 18m, the snapper, surgeons and trevallies are flocking like noisy pigeons.
The nurse sharks have made their way up from deeper water, as have the bull sharks, which skirt the margins of visibility in an ever more agitated display of frustrated tension.
Meanwhile the lemon shark glides past magnificently, pilotfish at its nose.
The divers gather round a specially constructed fortress of stones. This is there probably to stop them crowding the feeder more than as any barrier to a free-swimming shark.
Let the show commence! The designated feeder, usually Manasa, proffers the food.
Other BAD boys chum the water around us. The jacks and trevallies swirl in an ever-speeding carousel with the snappers and other fish.
The visibility is not helped by the fact that Fijis big rivers discharge into the ocean nearby, but it soon gets reduced to that of a thick chicken stock, not helped by the nurse sharks.
Eventually the bull sharks let their greed get the better of their caution.
And just as it all starts happening, those of us with European computers discover that we are into around 20 minutes of decompression stops and have to leave the scene.
A short time later, those divers with US-made computers who have been no-stop diving throughout the dive pass us where we hang on the mooring line.
They are back on the boat dressed and groomed, clutching another cup of tea while we are still eking out our ever-dwindling supplies of air, and trying not to become a new host to a bunch of remoras displaced during the chaos of the feed. These swim round lost and looking for a new home.
Back on the boat, we can recount having seen seven different species of shark on the dive, all of them in extreme close-up. Someone complains that we never saw a silvertip!
One thing I learnt that day was that, in the shark world, size matters.