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Last Updated on 20/03/2021
Snorkelling with sharks was never on my original Fiji itinerary but when the opportunity presented itself, I was surprised at how peaceful and powerful it was. The memory of being so close to such impressive creatures in their natural world will stay with me forever.
Sharks tend to get a lot of bad press. You don’t even need to see the hit Stephen Spielberg film Jaws to know that sharks are commonly associated with danger. Perhaps, down to their lithe predatory bodies, gaping jaws and the horrific real-life tales of close encounters with the great white, the shark doesn’t win many popularity contests. However, snorkelling with sharks gave me a newfound respect for them. These creatures were powerful, graceful and even gentle in the water. Sharks deserve our respect, not bear the brunt of our fears.
Fiji is renowned for being one of the best destinations in the world for shark dives and snorkelling. Here’s how to encounter sharks as safely and as ethically as possible:
Swimming with Sharks: What to Expect
On my island-hopping adventures in Fiji, I stayed at Wayalailai Ecohaven Resort for 1 night (usually it’s 2 to 3 when you’re island-hopping but the resort was busy with a class of over 30 schoolkids from New Zealand). I had time in the morning before my ferry to take part in one of the activities on offer at the resort, and their most popular one was snorkelling with reef sharks.
Save for the schoolchildren who had gone out on their reef shark encounter the previous day, the only visitors on the island were a couple from Belgium and myself. I had my reservations about partaking in such an activity – was it safe? Was it ethical? But after being told that reef sharks were ‘the poodles of the shark world’ and that sharks, in general, get an unfair amount of bad press, I felt like I owed it to them to change my misconception. The activity was also only going to go ahead if there were a minimum of 3 people on board and I didn’t want to let the Belgian couple down.
I woke up bright and early the next morning feeling jittery with nerves and wondering if I was half-mad for voluntarily offering myself up as shark bait. After a light breakfast, I went to the beach and met up with the group to get kitted out in snorkels and flippers.
I’ll admit that I’m not the strongest swimmer in the world and the thought of encroaching on shark territory with only a snorkel and flippers was unnerving, to say the least. I made sure that we stocked up on lifejackets, which, if thrown into the water, can be used as a floatation device, a bit like those foam boards you get in swimming pools as a kid. I was slightly conscious of looking a bit daft but with the prospect of facing real live sharks in their natural habitat, I found that I was more concerned about looking the least like food as possible.
At last, the five of us bundled into a small speed boat (the Belgian couple, our two guides and myself) and sped off full pelt towards the horizon with Wayalailai Ecohaven shrinking further away from us until it was nothing but a distant speck. The water was a little rough (a storm was to hit the following day) and we bumped over the waves with mounting flutters of anticipation until we could see the telltale stripes of dark and light blue under the water which indicated that we were approaching the reef.
Snorkelling with Reef Sharks: The Experience
After gearing up for our first reef shark encounter, the 3 of us jumped (or flopped) into the water. I had decided that I was not going to let the bad press about the sharks intimidate me. However, I couldn’t help but feel a flutter of jitters in the water. It’s not something you can easily avoid when you know you’re in shark territory.
One of our guides followed suit, bringing some bits of fish with him to coax the sharks. The other stayed in the boat to keep a lookout. The reef was quiet at first except for a shoal of black and white striped fish that descended on our party, eager to catch a few scraps of food.
We settled in a patch of sea in the middle of the reef with nothing but sand a few metres below us. This was more for the reef’s benefit than ours. One of the most crucial rules about diving or snorkelling by a reef is that you must avoid touching or stepping on it at all costs as it’s very easily damaged.
A short while later, we spotted a dark silhouette emerge out of the shadow of the coral and swim lithely towards us. Our guide free-dived down to meet it, coaxing it with morsels of fish. It was dinner time, but thankfully we were not on the menu.
Reef sharks are not the biggest sharks in Fiji waters. You can dive with bull sharks and meet tiger sharks too, but make no mistake, reef sharks are by no means tiny. The whitetip reef shark, a common reef shark species in the Indo-Pacific, grows to an average size of 1.6m (5.2ft). Incidentally, I am also 1.6m… But, despite their predatory appearance and slightly unnerving size, swimming with reef sharks was a surprisingly peaceful experience.
By now a couple of them had emerged out of the gloom and had plucked up the courage to swim closer to us, encouraged by the smell of fish and the familiarity of the guides (they visit the sharks nearly every day so the sharks are very used to them). In fact, the sharks didn’t mind us at all. They started to swim so close to us that we could reach out and touch them if we wanted to.
Swimming with Sharks Experience: Is it Safe?
So, the burning question: is snorkelling with whitetip reef sharks safe? The short answer is yes but they are still owed respect. Whitetip reef sharks are naturally curious creatures. They spend most of the daylight hours hiding in caves and then hunting at night but they will make an appearance when divers, snorkellers and swimmers are about as they like to see what’s going on. They will generally keep a wide berth, unless, like most animals, they’ve learnt that they might get food.
Whitetip reef sharks are not generally aggressive and most recorded bites have been caused by a case of mistaken identity but no one was seriously injured. Activities like spearfishing increase the likelihood of an attack simply because the shark wants to steal the catch. Just like a domestic cat or dog, the whitetip reef shark won’t get aggressive unless it feels particularly threatened. In fact, eating it is more dangerous than the encounter as you’re at risk of ciguatera poisoning.
Shark Encounter Etiquette
Snorkelling with reef sharks in Fiji does come with some rules so that you and the animal can have the best experience possible. The only time I felt unsure of the situation during the activity was when another, much bigger boatload of people came to join in. The spot on the reef was small which meant that there wasn’t a whole lot of room for the sharks and humans to interact. By now, the feeding was in full swing and a good 4 or 5 sharks were weaving in-between us, hoping to get some fish.
A few people started screeching and thrashing in the water every time a shark came near and this heightened amount of energy and disturbance caused the sharks to get more excited. They began to speed up, unafraid of knocking into us if we happened to be in their path. I felt a little uncomfortable with this. What started out as a peaceful encounter had become a bit of a frenzy. Needless to say, our guides thought the same and we left pretty sharpish to give the sharks some space.
It’s absolutely fine and understandable to feel nervous about meeting one of the ocean’s top predators, but just like with any wild animal encounter, it’s important to act calmly so as not to disturb them. If you scream and thrash about in the water, you’re only going to wind the sharks up. If you’re calm while you observe them and follow the instruction of the guides then the experience will be a peaceful one. It’s important to remember that you’re in the shark’s territory, not the other way round.
Is Snorkelling with Reef Sharks in Fiji Ethical?
Snorkelling and diving with sharks is a bit of an ethical conundrum. Wildlife tourism is popular all over the world and it’s not always done with the animal’s best interests at heart. Shark diving is a huge one and you can do such experiences including cage diving in South Africa and Australia where you can come face to face with the great white.
At Wayalailai Ecohaven Resort (and many other resorts in Fiji), the sharks are fed by guides. This is known as ‘baiting’ or ‘chumming’, and whether the practice is ethical or not is up for debate. Some marine biologists and conservationists argue that chumming unnaturally alters the shark’s behaviour and encourages them to get closer to land in search of food which increases the likelihood of attacks.
Other marine experts argue that there’s no proof that chumming increases shark attacks, particularly in popular dive sites. They say that shark diving activities play an important part in educating the public, changing misconceptions and protecting the animal.
Many resorts in Fiji, Wayalailai included, are active participants in marine conservation and work closely with scientists to monitor marine health. Activities like snorkelling with reef sharks can help fund this conservation effort and provide invaluable scientific research. That being said, if you’re unsure, your best bet is to do the activity with a resort that shows respect for the animal and has safety and conservation as its core principals.
If you would like to find out more information, Responsible Travel has an excellent resource on shark diving here.
You can read more about ethical animal experiences around the world here!
The Best Resorts to Encounter Sharks in Fiji
I went swimming with sharks with Wayalailai Ecohaven Resort on Wayasewa Island. The resort is located in the Yasawa Islands and it reachable from Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu by the ferry, Yasawa Flyer, from Port Denarau. The ferry is bookable through Awesome Adventures. Wayalailai primarily does snorkelling with reef sharks but it can also help you arrange PADI diving excursions to see bull sharks.
Barefoot Kuata Resort is located on Kuata Island next door to Wayasewa Island. This eco-resort is owned by the Barefoot Collection who are members of the Ecotourism Society. As part of your stay at the resort (I highly recommend you stay a few days), you can volunteer with their numerous marine conservation projects. Barefoot Kuata is also reachable from Port Denarau via the Yasawa Flyer and the resort offers two shark experiences; shark snorkelling and shark SCUBA diving.
If you’re a beginner you can do an Introductory dive with reef sharks and if you’re a certified diver you can do the popular Awakening Shark Dive. The resort also offers divers the opportunity to get Open Water Certified with SSI qualified divers. It takes 4 days and once you’ve completed it you get to dive with bull sharks.
Attracting professional divers and clients alike, Beqa Adventure Divers have been named the best shark dive in the world. The dive centre is located in Pacific Harbour by Beqa Lagoon. Here you can see 8 different types of sharks as well as rays and 400 species of tropical reef fish. Beqa Adventure Divers work closely with the Government of Fiji to keep their dive spot in Beqa Lagoon a protected Marine Park. Known as Shark Reef Marine Reserve, this conservation project has been hailed as a pinnacle of sustainable eco-tourism.
Probably Fiji’s most renowned shark dive, Aqua-Trek have been doing top-quality dives for over 25 years. Also located in Pacific Harbour in the beautiful Beqa Lagoon, Aqua-Trek have dives and dive courses for any level. Their popular Ultimate Shark Encounter runs 4 days a week and divers have the opportunity to see 8 different types of shark. Perfect for shark lovers, this shark dive features bull sharks, blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, nurse sharks, lemon sharks, grey reef sharks, silvertip sharks and tiger sharks.
Beqa Lagoon Resort is located on Beqa Island reachable by ferry from Pacific Harbour. Making use of the abundance of marine life in Beqa Lagoon, the resort offers a tiger shark dive at an area of the lagoon called Cathedral. During the dive, you will have the opportunity to see 8 types of shark and the average dive time is 30 minutes. Cathedral is a protected marine reserve and fishing is prohibited. The resort works closely with three local villages to keep the dive site a protected area. For each diver participating in the shark experience, the resort pays a set amount of money in compensation to the villages affected by the fishing ban.
Top Tips for Snorkelling with Sharks in Fiji
- Take a GoPro or underwater camera with you and make sure you can fasten it securely to yourself so that you don’t lose it to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. I used a lanyard which hung around my neck.
- You can hire diving and snorkelling gear at the resorts and dive centres so there’s no need to bring your own.
- Wear whatever makes you feel the most comfortable if you’re snorkelling but bring a sarong or towel for when you’re out of the water and on the boat because you might feel a bit of a chill and it will protect you from the sun.
- Pack reef-safe sunscreen. A lot of sunscreens contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate which kill coral reefs. Take mineral-based sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide. The reef will thank you.
- You can see sharks all year round but be aware that peak season in Fiji is from July to August so it will be very busy. The cyclone season runs from November to April so you might want to avoid that soo. I visited Fiji at the end of September and it was perfect, not too busy at all.
- Don’t hesitate. If you’re island hopping in Fiji and you come across an activity like snorkelling with sharks don’t put it off until the next day or the next island. Most of these activities require a minimum of 3 people for them to run and the weather can be unpredictable so don’t miss your chance.
- Snorkelling with sharks with Wayalailai Ecohaven Resorts costs approximately 50 Fijian dollars. Make sure you take plenty of cash with you as there aren’t any ATMs or many card machines on the islands.