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FOR most people, Fiji is a destination of pure relaxation, an island paradise where the most exerting thing you need to do is climb into a hammock.
But for a few moments the country was anything but paradise for me, as I swum while bleeding, surrounded by sharks.
Arriving from Melbourne, my two-week trip was meant to be spent sipping from a coconut and relaxing on the beach.
I was staying on the Coral Coast at the popular backpackers’ place, Fiji Beachouse. One day, when the weather was a little monsoon-like, I overheard a Canadian backpacker talk about how he’d been trying to go scuba diving with sharks, but the weather was too temperamental.
“It’s one of those scuba diving experiences you just have to do, and apparently one of the best in the world,” I heard him say. “You’re down there with bull and tiger sharks.”
I was intrigued but torn over what I wanted from my trip. I’d recently come back from a gruelling 11-month outing throughout South America. I was in Fiji to relax; the last thing I wanted was to partake in an exhilarating experience. Or was it?
At the prospect of the dive itself, my heart was pounding. I was compelled by the chance to experience a face-to-face encounter with sharks once again. I’d gone shark diving in the Galápagos Islands, but I felt this experience was going to be different.
Beqa Lagoon was the dive spot where we’d see the sharks and other marine life, attracted by professional dive instructors feeding them blocks of tuna dangling from a rope from the surface.
Our instructions were clear: get into the water and descend 18 metres to the coral wall. All divers had to be Open Water certified, and we all had a dive partner.
As we jumped into the lukewarm water, I felt more relaxed. We all deflated our BCD’s (buoyancy control devices) and went under.
Equalising isn’t my strongest quality when scuba diving — that is, pinching the nose while blowing out air to relieve the pressure to your ears.
This was one of the painful times. I was struggling to descend past a few metres, to where my diving partner was waiting. I gave her the signal to go while I waited for the pressure to ease up.
As I worked my way down, slowly — by now the only diver still near the surface — I saw a grey figure in the distance, about 10 metres away, directly in line with me.
After about 10 to 15 seconds, I realised I was in line with a shark.
I looked up in panic, wondering if I could go up to the surface without ear or lung damage. I probably couldn’t. I felt helpless and alone. There was no diver in sight and I was caught in a no-mans-land. Panicking, I decided to equalise harder to quicken my way down.
Blowing out my nose furiously seemed to work at the time. It isn’t something recommended, but I descended and the shark swam swiftly above me.
It looked like a big catfish but I soon realised it was probably an innocent nurse shark. From a distance though, and all alone, it was impossible for me to know that. Nurse sharks aren’t the type you see being dramatised in movies or in the media.
By this point I was playing catch up. I made my way past a shipwreck towards the coral wall, where the other divers had lined up. I was happy I’d overcome my little close encounter and was able to enjoy the experience.
For a while things were surreal. I was having one of the best experiences of my life. There were schools of fish in front of the coral wall, like a whirlwind of marine life coming together, dominated by half a dozen bull sharks, all of whom looked breathtakingly beautiful. It was one of those moments that felt like a dream or an animated movie. The colours and the reality of it all were mesmerising. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bull sharks, they were so majestic and free in their movement and presence in the water.
Then I was forced back to reality.
As I cleared my mask, which was getting steamy and impairing my vision, I noticed splashes of dark fluid leaking onto the mask lenses. I thought I might have some murky sea plant water or perhaps some mud stuck, so I cleared it again.
Confused at first, it soon dawned on me that my nose was bleeding and slowly leaking out of my mask, probably due to my intense equalising earlier.
I’d never been more frightened in my life.
I was metres away from sharks and I was bleeding. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I signalled my dive instructor and explained what was happening with all the made-up hand instructions I could possibly muster.
I began thinking about stories of sharks smelling blood from miles away. How they’d hunt their prey based on these instincts and sense abilities, and yet here I was, giving them an easy catch: me!
My instructor shrugged off my worries at first but then realised what was happening. There were a few “armed” instructors and feeders close by in case something happened. I felt some sense of security, being close to other divers and behind a coral wall, like we were tucked into a small pocket of the ocean floor.
To make it back to safety, though, we had to move out in the open again, vulnerable to the ocean and what roams in it. Not only that, with my nose dropping blood, I was effectively leaving a blood trail for anything to come up behind me. I was a sitting duck.
Each moment went by slower than the last. At any moment I felt a shark would come up behind me and take its chunk. There were at least six or seven of them lurking there, and with one huge tiger shark in the background, the odds were against me.
It was like something out of a David Attenborough documentary. Man versus shark. After frantically sweeping my legs as much as I could, I made it to the surface — but that was the most worrying part. Most shark attacks are taken from the surface, often mistaking people for
My face was covered in blood, and as I climbed onto the waiting boat, I was relieved.
It soon became apparent that the sharks weren’t interested in me. After we finished the dive, the instructor assured me sharks were only interested in fish blood and my case was evidence of that. The whole time, no shark had changed their behaviour or made a dash towards me.
Sharks do have a bad reputation and are universally misunderstood, but perceptions are slowly changing. In reality, sharks aren’t interested in attacking humans purposely. Whatever you might read, or whatever you might watch, know that sharks are vital to our marine ecosystem, and just like many of us, want to be left alone to get on with their lives.
Tommy Walker is a freelance travel writer and social media micro-influencer from the UK. He has been travelling for more than five years. He also works with Fin Free Melbourne and Fin Fighters UK to help eradicate shark finning.
Follow his travels via his blog, on Facebook and on Instagram.