Those adrenaline rushes flowing from shark feeding in outings such as those appearing in the sensational photos below may be a thing of the past………………………
People come to Bora Bora from all over the world to see the sharks, to feed the sharks………… to swim with, well, swim on the sharks. Whilst some say that hand-feeding sharks & swimming amongst the large numbers of them that appear at ‘meal time’ is akin to swimming in an aquarium, the leading dive companies here will tell you that any reduction in the ability to feed sharks is met with a corresponding decline in dive numbers.
In a recent study Australia’s James Cook University estimated that in the Maldives a Grey Nurse attracted $AUD3,300 per year in tourist dollars whereas the value of the same shark ‘on the plate’ was only $32.
There are plenty of sharks in French Polynesia – the fishing & trading in all sharks has been banned since 2012. Less well-known is the fact that the law currently bans the feeding of sharks in the lagoon, in the passes & within a radius of 1kl of any pass. Not only are the penalties high, but as many will tell you so too are the risks of continuing such practices – the danger is there, it’s an accident waiting to happen & if & when it does happen it will mark the end of the livelihood of many.
There are many who argue that shark feeding changes the comportment of the sharks & as such presents a danger despite the fact that such activity has been regularly conducted throughout French Polynesia for at least 25 years without attacks. Others advance studies showing that despite 5,000 tiger sharks having been killed off the coast of the USA between 1970 & 1990 there was no change in the attack statistics. The argument is that the wrong sharks are being killed – it is not a species at large that is dangerous but certain individuals within it.
The debate is being fuelled by recent events in the Reunion Islands where the number of fatal shark attacks has seen beaches permanently closed, the country’s leading surfers leave the islands to continue their sport & the number of registered surfers dropping by 75%. A series of fatal attacks & the closure of beaches in Australia where 1 in 4 attacks is fatal, has not helped matters. By contrast, my research indicated that the last fatal attack in French Polynesia was in 1834.
The statistics indicate that only 3 species – the Great White, the Tiger Shark & the Bull Shark – are themselves responsible for 86% of all fatal attacks. The Great White which can grow to 6 metres & weigh 2 tons & is responsible for 51% of all fatal attacks is exceptionally rare in the waters of French Polynesia, as is the Bull Shark (3.5m & 110kgs & responsible for 17% of all fatal attacks). The Tiger Shark (4m & 500kg & 18% of fatal attacks) by contrast is sometimes seen in these waters, particularly during the whaling season, but is regarded by experts as being more docile than the other 2 sharks.
Shark Week’s Great White:
Having watched Polynesians in these waters for many years I had come to admire their deep spiritual connection with the natural world, to respect their belief that sharks are ‘family’, family ancestors there to protect their earthly relatives. To witness that which you are about to read is both culturally enriching & an insight into where our beliefs can take us.
- An excellent way to see the most beautiful lagoon in the world;
- Knock-out view back into the mountains from outside the pass;
- Adrenalin packed, heart pumping dive with massive lemon sharks outside the pass;
- An insight into the cultural significance of sharks for Polynesians.
Another beautiful day in paradise dawned & we headed to Teavanui Pass, Bora Bora’s only pass, to where lemon sharks swim free. It is to this corner of paradise that those who have come to swim with the sharks, those who come to feed the sharks, steer their boats.
Shark feeding has been legally banned in French Polynesia since 1997 following ‘mishaps’ in Moorea. In the back of our minds the thought that it was a lemon shark that had attacked a Canadian tourist here earlier in 2013. Debate rages between well-intentioned scientists & politicians & Polynesians who have lived a certain way for centuries; between those who allege the comportment of the sharks has been dangerously changed & those who argue that a safe working relationship has existed for centuries.
I was there to understand. I suspect that should there be another attack it may well have the final say. I am certain it will not be a Tahitian that is attacked.
Our guides undaunted by the debate & wishing to ensure those of us snorkeling lived the maximum experience slid berley into the water. The boat was immediately encircled by scores of black-tipped reef sharks:
After deep reflection one takes the plunge – it’s another world; you immediately feel out of your depth! Tremendous fear grips you before you are re-steadied by the sheer beauty of the setting. We bob up & down outside the coral reef that protects & surrounds Bora Bora ever conscious of our distance from the boat & the safety it represents as we look back over the sacred island of Motu Tapu & on to the mystical Mt Otemanu where god is held to have descended on Bora Bora. We are in good hands; there could be no better place to be.
Looked who’s joined the crowd:
We peer through our masks – never have I seen so many reef sharks at the one time, never so many colourful fish swimming so close at hand…….then you look down & there they are 10-15m below – huge lemon sharks around 3m in length cruising the coral ledge smoothed by millions of years of waves:
A ‘shark’s eye’ view – black-tip reef sharks, fish aplenty & even seagulls in for a feed :
The effortless style of the large lemon sharks leaves an eerie feeling of insecurity:
It’s an addictive environment – warm waters, crystal clear, the sharks bulky frames off-set against a greyish coral background as they swim apparently unperturbed by our presence. One is drawn to approach the sharks more closely. Then suddenly & without warning one of these monsters has swept to the surface near the boat in search of berley. Your gut twists & your heart stops; you know these beasts, potentially dangerous & to be treated with respect, only come to the surface to hunt.
You seek the means to escape back to the boat but in an instant a Tahitian on board dives into the water & onto the back of the shark taking it by the dorsal fin. The shark dives with great speed; the Tahitian stays put releasing his grip only once reaching the seafloor. This can not be for real; I must be imagining things!
What followed was unimaginable, powerful, Polynesian:
In perhaps a moment of madness the Tahitians are accompanied by someone clearly keen ‘to meet the family’:
Just writing this post makes me yearn to return. For those who live in waters where the possibility of a shark attack is present daily this dive is momentous experience. Somehow we find ourselves back on board, torn away from an environment we’ve come to love. You pinch yourself, stunned by what you’ve just done!