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Shark Feeding, Social Empowerment and Surfers
By Lia Barrett, January 14, 2015 @ 05:00 AM (EST)

In this latest article in The Guide, Lia Barrett heads to Fiji, famed both for its baited shark dive and its world-class surf, and wonders whether shark feeding really is a win-win for all concerned…
 

Shark feeder Tuks hands off a large fish head to a bull shark


The Dilemma

Feeders are considered rock stars in Fiji—and they are one of the main reasons the shark dive is so successful.

I admit it: I once felt discomfort about shark feedings. It was never enough to be up in arms, or to decry fellow photographers’ images that depict baited sharks. But I guess my real discomfort stemmed from a lack of real knowledge about the subject, coupled with the fact that everyone else seemed to be so uneasy with the idea. Not to mention the sensitivity towards tampering with wildlife in nature photography. So I thought, “Why touch it?” 

But at some point, I realized that the debate over shark feeding is an important one. Whether it is done from a cage or by hand, each location, operator, and methodology is different. And in a broader sense, there are wider implications in terms of media representation, economic and educational standpoints. So on my recent excursion to Fiji, I went on shark dive not only to capture images—but more importantly to pose questions to the people who interact with sharks day in and day out.
 

A bull shark scampering away with a snack
 

Feeding a large goliath grouper


The Dive

A swirl of life ravishes the remains of a few fellow swimmers, as a green plume of blood and carcass debris flies from the mayhem.

An almost orchestrated symphony of survival of the fittest with fishes of all denominations: this is Fiji’s infamous shark dive. Tawny nurse sharks roam around the bottom like stray dogs, oceanic whitetips nervously pace in the background, while scraggly toothed lemon sharks lurk about like stalkers in a nightclub. Finally, the fat bull sharks make their entrance like a group of bloated mobsters, ready to take their pick of the best cuts, while leaving the scraps to the scavengers and the other rug rats. 

The site is awe-inducing, and fear is replaced by adrenaline. A swirl of life ravishes the remains of a few fellow swimmers, as a green plume of blood and carcass debris flies from the mayhem. The feeders go to the treasure chest of fish heads, grab a few, and begin hand-feeding the bigger bulls. Clearly, they are trained for this, as they can read the sharks’ approaches.

Lifting a head in front of my dome port, Tuks, one of the feeders from the local village, lets go as the shark extends its jaw to take in the juicy nourishment. The shark makes a sharp turn just before bumping into my port, as if to say, “Excuse me, sorry I almost bumped into you.” If the shark advances too close, the feeders apply light pressure to their noses, which proves to be an immediate and effective deterrence. Feeders such as Tuks are considered rock stars in Fiji—and they are one of the main reasons the shark dive is so successful. 
 

Aqua-Trek owner Brandon Paige clutching a round of fish heads
 

A bull with a fresh score from a feeder


Social Impact

In an agreement with the local village and its chief, marine parks were established instead of traditional fishing grounds on the local reefs. In exchange, a fee of 20 Fijian dollars (about USD10) per diver goes directly towards the local villagers’ wellbeing. In return, the village has become quite a comfortable place to live (by Fijian standards), and thus have an honest stake in protecting the reefs. The local economy has profited from tourism, and shark awareness has spread to become a nationally recognized issue. Even Fijian Airways has banned the shipment of shark fins.

On safety, the operator that I chose to go with, Aquatrek, has never had an incident, and there have not been any increased signs of aggression by sharks in the area within the past 20 years of operation. In fact, on a typical reef dive in Fiji, it is rare to see a shark that is not a whitetip or perhaps a gray reef shark.
 

Tawny nurse sharks trying to find scraps that fit into their small mouths
 

A diver exploring the brightly colored reefs and vast swim-throughs located away from the shark dive


Sharks and Surfing

In an area where surfing and diving converge, you can imagine the hesitation from the surfers, a group who are traditionally very sensitive to the “s” word. 

“I believed like many others that it altered shark behavior—there was no need for it,” explains Kristi, co-manager of Waidroka Bay Resort, a surf and dive operation. “Basically it was the same thing as running around a game reserve waving bits of impala at prides of lions.”

Kristi’s opinion of shark feeding changed after her first in-water encounter, and she soon realized that there was a place for both sharks and surfers in Fijian tourism. The shark dives have proved eye-opening, even for the staunchest surfers who avoid the toothy fish at all costs.
 

Bull sharks arriving for a feed


“If we manage to get surfers on the shark dive, it is almost like they are disappointed to see that sharks are actually quite timid and shy when it comes to feeding,” says Paul, Kristi’s husband and Waidroka Bay’s co-manager. “Once they come back with all of their limbs intact, they have a different opinion.”

What is clear is that the creation of shark dives involves a lot of forethought and consideration. And as viewers and consumers of images, we should always be wary of the information behind the shot. But the takeaway lesson that I learned from the Fiji shark dive is that, at times, the larger goals can outweigh the surface judgment. Just ask the local surfers.

“When [surfers] are bobbing around on the surface without being able to see what is going on, the mind starts playing tricks on them, and that is where all of the sensationalism comes from,” concludes Paul. “I think the biggest problem for surfers—that is difficult to overcome—is that of the unknown.”
 

Surfer Rob Williams catches a wave at Frigates

 

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Brian Pool
Mar 4, 2015 10:56 PM
Brian Pool wrote:
I have done this shark dive, and appreciate the writers sentiments. We had the added glory of a 4m tiger shark appearance - she was "The Boss".
Interfering with the natural order of things seems intuitively wrong - however, I believe there would be no sharks here if this feed didn't create a marine sanctuary and consequent protection. More importantly, is it possible to have an informed opinion without getting amongst it? How can we understand something if we are not allowed to see it?
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