Diving in the deep end

Diving in the deep end

Sharks and laughs in the Yasawas.

I'm in a small dinghy off Kuata, a small island in the Yasawa Island group, north of the Fijian mainland. I’m about to dive into the Yakawe Reef where a shiver of roughly 10 hungry bull sharks are waiting. It’s my first dive... ehrm, ever. This is diving in the deep end.

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There are only a handful of places around the world that offer this experience, and Barefoot Kuata, on the tiny island of the same name in Northern Fiji’s Yasawa group, is the only place in the world you can dive with these sharks without being a PADI-certified diver.

Barefoot’s classroom is a blackboard on the beach, and the Pacific Ocean. After a brief, but thorough, education in the art of breathing underwater, we’re on our way in a dinghy.

Having your first dive with a species of shark that are “aggressive and unpredictable” according to a Google search beforehand actually removes at least one element of trepidation of this experience. I spend the time before the dive anxious about things like equalizing and maintaining pace of breath. When I sight my first bull shark, long and grey with darting eyes and an ominous snout, I forget the anxieties about breathing very quickly.

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Sharks. Jaws, Open Water. Hollywood and the mainstream media will have you believe these are ruthless killing machines. We sit on the ocean’s floor roughly 10 metres below the surface of the water, behind a natural coral wall which would be more symbolic than practical if push came to shove. There is no cage, nothing at all separating us from these beasts who glide around in the space that they own.

I’m not sure when, but an interesting thing happens; fear turns to awe. These creatures are beautiful. A giant, pregnant bull shark munches tuna heads like they’re going out of fashion. A tawny nurse shark drifts past ethereally, unlike any creature I have ever laid eyes on.

Like that grumpy neighbour that lives down the road in Home Alone, these sharks aren’t to be feared once you understand them.

They are extraordinary beasts, and critically important to the local marine ecosystem of the Yasawa Islands, according to Luisa Lewaqai, a marine biologist based on-site at Barefoot Kuata.

“When you have an apex predator in the food chain, it pushes the marine life, the smaller marine life to reproduce,” she explains.

“Having the bull sharks in there also controls and balances the fish population, because when there is more of the prey that the bull sharks feed on, they will feed on the reef fish, and when there’s less reef fish, there’s an imbalance between the coral and the algae, and you have the coral slowly decline.

“You can see it when you are there, the corals are thriving, and there’s so many fish.”

Luisa also explains how the economic benefits of tourism also benefit the reef.

“This area is a marine protected area. From the shark diving and tourism we have economic benefits which generate employment opportunities for the locals and also, the tourism has helped us establish educational programs for the kids in the area.

“We visit schools and educate them on the importance of protecting the reef.

“For islanders, the treasure is the ocean. They own that. Having this education around having a marine protected area makes sure that future generations will have this treasure too.”

Bull sharks are up to 3.5 metres long. The largest are the two pregnant sharks in our group, and easily the most determined at snapping up the snacks Barefoot’s dive crew are dishing out.

Luisa tells us how sharks have an extra sense that we don’t have, sensing organs called ampullae of Lorenzini. It means they can sense the electric current of nearby heartbeats in the water.

Here, I imagine the sharks being overloaded when divers like me initially descend to the coral wall, heart pumping, before the electrical impulses become quieter and quieter as we become more acclimatised to our friends.

It is not the season for Manta Rays, but we see a few anyway. Luisa takes us out to see reef sharks, who are much smaller, friendly and curious, mirroring the locals. At night we are treated to a fire show, and then dancing.

North of Kuata is Nacula Island, where impossibly cute villas sit metres from the ocean at Oarsman’s Bay Lodge. I count 14 steps to the water from my front door – give or take a few steps here dependent on your proximity to 178cm.

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We rise at 5am and climb to a peak…and then another peak. Both of these are fake peaks, according to our new friend Ben. The ‘real’ peak offers majestic vistas of this island and the ones next door. We walk along the crest of the hilly island, which Ben says school kids take most days to get to class. Life in the Yasawas is spent outdoors – playing rugby, walking through jungles and of course, underwater.

It is easy to sit by the pool and drink cocktails when you go to Fiji, wake up with a hangover and do even less the next day. Instead, when you charge peaks at 5am and get out on the water on a paddleboard, or go diving, you end up in bed at night with that wonderful feeling of pleasant exhaustion so familiar with the best travelling. I prefer this.

Joka is a big, burly man, with an impossibly high-pitched giggle for his size. He sports a relaxed, jovial demeanour as he takes us around Nacula Village, where about 150 people live in traditional thatched-roof bures. People eat fruit and shout to each other from their doorways; Joka slaps handshakes and throws banter, giggling all the time, until he suddenly becomes serious.

“Brother, you need to take off your hat,” he says firmly, although still relaxed. It is 28 degrees and sunny. I oblige and he breaks back into a big smile.

“Thank you brother. In Nacula, we have a rule that only the chief wears a hat,” he explains.

“You’re not the chief.”

The village is all coconut trees and pandanus plants, the latter used to weave baskets, bracelets, and kava mats, among other things, and historically important to the economy of the village. Casawa, bananas, jackfruit, papaya grows along the path we take, which leads us around from the village, to the mountain-flanked school, and back out to the gorgeous beach we arrived at.

Mantaray Island Resort on Nanuya Balavu Island is in the southern part of the archipelago, not far from Kuata. It is famed as one of the premier places to dive with manta rays in Fiji. A gentle current offers an easy way to float gently from part of the island to the next, where solid diving exists right off the shore.

We catch dinghies from island to island, the captains always the same; mixing ridiculously laidback with assured competency. It is glassy most of the time, but on the day we charge to Nanuya, it is a windy day, and the water is choppy. In between skilfully navigating the boat over the waves, our man is pretending to be a jockey, riding the waves like they are a horse, and cackling.

The Yasawa Flyer is also a sound choice (and the most popular) for island-to-island transportation, a high-speed catamaran going to and from Port Denaru and most islands in the archipelago.

Hearty laughter follows us everywhere, from the boat to the bure, in the bar and on the water. Even underwater I’m pretty sure I can see the divers cracking jokes to each other.

We take off from Nanuya back to the mainland on a chopper, affording a birds eye view of this archipelago kissed by the Gods. The rotor blades roar into life and we lift off from the beach, and I can see the locals waving goodbye, and laughing. Obviously.

Get there

Fiji Airways are an excellent choice to make into the country, with comfy seats and incredible service once in the air. They fly direct to Nadi from Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, and direct to and from the U.S. as well.

Once in Nadi, the Yasawa Flyer is your best bet for getting around the Yasawa’s 20 islands, a comfortable but affordable catamaran offering a daily get on-and-off service, so you can visit as many islands as you want.

Stay there

Oarsman Bay Lodge on Nacula Island is barefoot luxury in a nutshell, with villas on the beach metres from the ocean, and an incredible vibe coursing through this idyllic place. Mantaray Island Resort is another stunning choice, and one of the most popular places to dive with the iconic manta rays when in-season (April to October).

Get Informed

The 1980 film The Blue Lagoon, starring Chris Atkins and Brooke Shields, was shot in the Yasawa Islands.

Tour There

Barefoot Kuata Island offer a wide variety of underwater experiences for beginners through to experienced. You can complete your PADI scuba diving certification here, and it is an excellent place to do so, given the warm waters and experienced guides.

Barefoot Kuata is also the place for the ‘Awakening Shark Dive’ described in this article. As the depth is ten metres or less, no certificate is required for this experience – the only place in the world where this is possible. Guides take you through thorough training beforehand.

Words Tim McGlone

Photos Ben McNamara and Ollysee Photography

Tags: diving, fiji, shark

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