Diving with the BIG 5 is a diving magnet in South Africa, and these encounters with great whites, Zambezies (bull sharks), raggies (grey nurse sharks), tigers and hammerheads are increasingly popular with freedivers and scuba divers.
My mentor re multi award winning, eco-friendly and sustainable shark feeding is Brandon Paige, a South African and dive manager living in Fiji. Brandon convinced traditional custodians of Shark Reef in Beqa Lagoon to reinvent recreational diving operations following devastating and successive coral bleaching events of the early 1990’s. His idea was to have the Fijian village receive a $15 payment from each diver in exchange for access to offer tuna heads and fish frames from local fishing cooperatives and attract up to eight shark species to the one location. After a period of experimentation, physical interaction with tawny nurse sharks was safe for recreational divers. Tactile contact with the tawnys, Queensland groper and morays stopped upon arrival of mostly female bull sharks. White tips, black tips, silver tips, grey reef and lemon sharks all snack at the paved feeding platforms next to a deep channel and shark corridor. All give bull sharks the respect that they command. Seasonal arrivals of ocean ranging tiger sharks are the ultimate encounters.
Dive staff monitor each shark that feeds and when a tiger shark turns up, all eyes are on it and subordinate species including the bulls yield to their slow, cautious and deliberate demeanor. Staff use chainmail gloves, an occasional prod with the blunt end of an aluminium shepherd crook and a knowledge of resident individuals and opportunistic visitors to keep 6 to 40 recreational divers safe. There is a head feeder, an assistant who watches their back, wranglers on both sides of the feeding stage and one or two watching from behind. Incident free since the early 1990’s and so successful is the Shark Reef operation that the Fijians who started the shark feeds with Brandon are now training a younger generation of feeders and Brandon started a second operation with a different village a few kilometres closer to Pacific Harbour. This time, a whole reef approach is used and there is an increase in both the number and diversity of fish that are responsible for dusting off sediments from forestry and agricultural activities to allow the bleached reefs to flourish again. A win-win-win for the village, sharks and the reef.
Negative buoyancy behind a roped line to separate the feeding/photography stage from the access and exit corridors is combined with time limited schedules suitable for able and disabled divers at 26 and 16 metres. Best experiences and action happens on days when a ripping outgoing tide broadcasts the tuna oil and scent of processed fish to sharks using the main channel between Pacific Harbour and Beqa Island. Dive and travel buddy Justin Bruhn posted some of Brandon’s views about shark feeds at:
Fern Perry of Lutwala Dive/Nomad Safaris viewed my Beqa Lagoon action at ODEX in Brisbane and by November, 2011 I was in South Africa with her and Dive Adventures Tracy Price to witness very different styles of shark encounters. Baited shark dives attract uncountable numbers of oceanic black tipped sharks, duskies, Zambezies, the occasional tiger and a great white now and then. The point of difference is neutral buoyancy in open water drifting with baited drums at 5 and 12 metres. The rules are simple. Stay vertical in the water and remain in a tight group to appear as a single imposing object to all sharks. The lower barrel is for tigers that tend to rise from deep water whereas the stainless steel washing machine barrel at 5 metres is full of whole fish for the oceanic black tip sharks whose buzz above, below, in front of and behind divers sends vibrations into the water column to broadcast that the party is on. Following experiences like this, the thought of returning for the sardine run and to be witness to one of nature’s most stunning spectacles is not such a big backward role as it might have been for me ten years ago.
If I have whet your appetite for shark adventures contact Scuba World and let us know. I’m looking for like minded divers 7th – 21st October, Cape Town whites to baited shark encounters near Durban. My tickets are booked already, just need travel companions and a dive schedule.