As I lay on the bottom of the ocean, clinging onto a rock to keep myself level and anchored, I saw a shadow to the side of me gliding through the clear waters.
I turned, slowly and collected – I already knew what I was going to see but still my heart pounded in my chest and I was trying to maximise my bottom time, putting my freediving training into practice.
And then I locked eyes with it, I was face to face with a group of white tip reef sharks and it was swimming right towards me…
Paradise On Kuata
But lets rewind a bit!
A few days before I’d arrive on the paradise of Kuata Island in Fiji as part of my trip with the team from Awesome Adventures Fiji – sat near the beginning of the Yasawa Island chain it’s crystal clear waters, palm fringed beaches and hammocks are exactly what you envision Fiji to be!
Kuata was my firs stop on my island hopping tour and the ocean was the key focus of my stay as the tea on Kuata Island are heavily focused on marine conservation projects they’re currently running – which include crown of thorns management (I’ll write more about that soon as it’s a pretty awesome way to use your scuba diving skills!) and reef clean ups.
What I was super stoked for though was their latest offering – the shark encounter where you get to snorkel their pristine coral reefs alongside the resident population of white tip reef sharks!
Kuata is rather unique in the fact they have their very own shark expert living on the island working closely with their dive team and running their shark tours.
Frenchman Thomas has spent the last few years of his life immersed in shark research, completing a PHD – so when it comes to learning and being in safe hands you’d be hard pushed to find someone as knowledgable and comfortable with the men in grey suits than him!
His research has found him based in Fiji working closely with Fiji Shark Count which is constantly gathering data from throughout the islands documenting the shark population, their movements and generally helping build up a database to better understand this magnificent creatures.
The shark snorkel is as much an extension of his work as it is a bucket list tick for anyone travelling to Fiji.
It’s much more than another day trip – it’s a chance for Thomas to teach people more about the oceans apex predator, to help cure the fear many have about sharks and to promote the respect and conservation of all shark species.
A short chat with him and his passion for these animals is clear and you can’t help but get caught up in the energy and excitement he has about them!
Into The Blue
After a safety briefing and chat with Thomas and his team on shark etiquette we jumped in the boat and headed to one of Kuatas butter reefs, seemingly in the middle of nowhere with blue water sprawling as far as the eye can see, a horizon peppered with tropical islands.
The energy on the boat was a mixture of excitement and apprehension – but everyone was keen to jump in and get a glimpse of the white tips!
For me it was a feeling of pure stoke – it’s no secret that I freaking love sharks and I always embrace to opportunity to shark some ocean time with them and experience like diving with grey nurse sharks in Byron Bay or scuba diving with the illusive seven gill cow sharks in South Africa are some of my favourite travel memories.
White tip reef sharks are much smaller in size than many of their cousins, making them the perfect species to stir up a love for sharks and introduce people to!
As we cruised along the coral reef shelf a shadow glid through the cracks – the sharks were certainly here and they had no qualm in checking us out…in fact I’m not sure who was being more inquisitive – us or them!
An Incredible Encounter
After a quick swim we regroupped with Thomas and the team at an opening in the reef – almost and underwater amphitheatre – where we found him sitting on the bottom, some 10 metres down being circled by a group of white tips.
It’s incredible to watch him interact with them., he’s clearly in tune with them, a mutual respect between him and the sharks he studies everyday.
In fact it’s almost as incredible as his freediving skills – at one point he sat a rock on his lap and just chilled out!
The group watch on as a group of 3-5 sharks cruised below them, over the reefs and around them I decided to go join Thomas on the ocean floor and put my freedive skills to good use!
As I descended down, GoPro in hand of course, I had no clue what to really expect. Within seconds of finding an anchor the sharks came over to check me out and I’ll admit I was nervous!
Although I’ve dived with sharks heaps I’ve never had one come directly at me to check me out and soon found myself inches away as they circled me.
Sharks aren’t the scary evil creatures the media portrays them to be and being on their level, in their home is an incredible experience.
They’re graceful, beautiful and fascinating – I was memorised!
As I breached the surface my first gulps of air where interrupted by a beaming smile and stoked chatter with Thomas and it wasn’t long before I was breathing up to head to the bottom again!
Face To Face
Over the next half hour I enjoyed some amazing encounters with the group of sharks who were cruising around, including a big female who had no issues getting all up in my face and allowing me to photograph her.
One of my favourite dives though was with two of the smaller sharks who were checking us out – he came right towards me, trailing off at the last minute before circling around again.
On his second lap I moved the camera forward slightly to make the most of the opportunity to photograph them this close and after trying to figure out what I was doing he gave the camera a cheeky bite!
Yup – the shark bit my freaking GoPro!
I wish I’d been filming, but I did get some pretty interesting shots of it all! It was only a cheeky exploratory nibble so the camera survived but it was something I’ll never forget!
A cheeky nibble on the GoPro!
Back on the boat everyone was frothing over it – camera asked with awesome pictures and some serious shark love brooding! As we dried off under the Fijian sun on the ride back everyone was already planning when they could fit it in again!
[Click To Enlarge]
Is It Safe?!
I know what you’re thinking though – is it safe!?
We were well briefed and looked after by Thomas and his team and they all clearly know heaps about shark behaviour, at no point at all did I feel uncomfortable or threatened. Even those on board who weren’t too good with snorkelling or had a slight fear of sharks all felt at ease with the team in the water.
Although the sharks are wild animals and the oceans top predator they seem unfazed by us joining them for a swim!
Safety is obviously their top priority so at no point are you left unattended and there’s always a boat to hand if you ever wanted to hop out of the water.
If you need a bit more reassurance about jumping into the water with sharks check out a post I did on shark safety a while about for some facts to put your mind at ease!
Freediving with sharks is yet another awesome item off my bucket list and something you should definitely fit into your Fiji travel plans so get int their and discover these epic creatures.
If you’re heading out to Fiji soon check out these Island Hopping Passes with Awesome Adventures Fiji – just head to Kuata Island and go meet the sharks!
Have you swum with sharks – how was your experience?