Shark Feeding – Bora Bora

UPDATE – April 2015

Those adrenaline rushes flowing from 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.

close-encounter-shark-bora

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:

great-white

At a meeting of service providers earlier this month, it was decided that those conducting what has hitherto been known as ‘shark feeding’ tours – feeding the lemon sharks in Bora Bora’s Teavanui Pass – would no longer throw burley into the water to attract sharks, nor actively feed them, nor swim down to ride on the sharks let alone encouraging or assisting tourists to do so.

I don’t see the decision detracting from the tour – the sharks will as ever be there in numbers; an exceptional experience for anyone venturing into the water to see them & frankly those endeavouring to swim with the sharks let alone having the ability to reach them are few. It will give those on the tour the chance to reflect more deeply on the relationship between Polynesians & the sharks who they regard as their ancestors, there to protect them.

 

ORIGINAL REPORT – 8th January, 2014

I’d heard much about the feeding of sharks in Bora Bora – an activity fraught with danger, it’s the opium of those coming to Bora Bora looking for adventure. The picture below is enticing:

Lemon-shark-man-and-fish

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.

 

TRIP OVERVIEW

  • 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.

lemon-shark-bora

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:

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.

black-tip-reef-sharks-bora

reef-sharks-bora

Looked who’s joined the crowd:

sail-fish-bora

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:

bora-shark-dive

A ‘shark’s eye’ view – black-tip reef sharks, fish aplenty & even seagulls in for a feed :

shark's-eye-view

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!

swimming-with-lemon-sharks-bora

What followed was unimaginable, powerful, Polynesian:

close-encounter-shark-bora

bora-shark-swim-feed

riding-a-lemon-shark-bora

In perhaps a moment of madness the Tahitians are accompanied by someone clearly keen ‘to meet the family’:

no-shark-attack-here-bora

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!

 

TIP

  • Do not wear shiny rimmed metal watches when diving.
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Comments

  1. Bobby Hyla says:

    This is awful. The lemon sharks do not ask to be ridden. Although they do not attack, them swimming to the bottom is them trying to get you off of them and so riding them is very stressful. Riding animals of other species is illegal and is considered harassment of wildlife, the same should apply in this situation. Even if this sort of ecotourism is legal, I strongly urge your company to not promote this sort of behavior around sharks.

    • Hi Bobby, The Polynesians have for centuries dived down & have swum with the sharks whom they consider to be reincarnations of their ancestors who are there to protect them. The sharks are actually swimming ‘at the bottom’ (they come to the surface to feed & it is then when swimmers are I greater danger). Not many westerners have the skills to reach the sharks; when the Tahitians do so, & I have seen many do so, the sharks seem unperturbed – there is no important effort to ‘shake off’ the divers, no sudden change in comportment.
      Given this is a tourist based economy the authorities are clearly concerned that any attack would have a detrimental effect on tourism. This seems the over-riding factor in any legislation as opposed to it being suggested that the sharks are being harassed or whatever – but most mounting an argument one way or the other tend to endeavour to cover all bases.
      It makes for an interesting debate when certain seek to legislate to change the centuries old culture of another people, in this case based on, amongst other things, a perceived level of danger to the divers when in effect there has yet to have been even a single attack on such divers who for centuries have so dived with the sharks.

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