swimming with a shark

m. werneburg, 2000.02.18

Once upon a time in Fiji, I found myself swimming with a lone reef shark. It was when my then girlfriend and I were in the gorgeous tropical country while on our way to Australia.

We were staying at a 'resort' on an island called Wayalailai. The resort had been retrofit into an old school house and some Bures (the beautiful thatch huts you see in the photos), and was alternately called 'Dive Trek' or 'Wayasewa'. The island itself was alternately known as 'Wayalailai' and 'Weyasewa', both of which meant 'little Weya'. Big Weya was the island next door. The resort was situated on a fine beach, and off of the beach were some really remarkable reefs.

The reefs were spectacular. I've been snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, and I'd say this was more interesting. There were more fish, the water was definitely clearer, and there seemed to be less damage to the coral. Nevertheless, it was just amazing.

That day, Sara and I were out in the water, wandering back and forth across the edge of the reef, where the water's depth increases dramatically, of course. We knew little of the safety issues of snorkeling, but we knew enough to ask a Dutch girl (named Sabina, oddly, which is a German name I knew from my days of German school, where the girls were named Gabbi and Sabina and whatnot—it was the equivalent of the 'see Jane run' stuff they had in grade 1) to join us, for her safety. Sabina and Sara were swimming a few metres away, holding hands and pointing at stuff, when I spotted the unmistakable sine-wave motion of a shark below me. I let out a yelp, and pointed at the thing.

This attracted the shark's attention, and it decided to come up and have a look. It was a curious shark. Of course it was curious—when curiosity killed the cat, it was because the cat aroused the curiosity of a reef shark. For those of you who don't believe that cats snorkel, I have proof—snorkeling cats feature regularly on Sydney television, in the inexplicable ads for a local ISP called ihug. Many Sydney television commercials are completely mystifying to us foreigners. They tend to include jingles sung by employees of the companies who commissioned the ad: a trend that makes N. American advertising look sharp by contrast (and I never thought I'd say that, believe me!).

Hmm, back to the shark incident.

Frantically, I needed to make sure that the others saw what was down there, cos I figured even this little slip of a thing (probably about the length of my arm) was probably chock full of teeth, and solved its curiosity through the liberal application of those teeth. But they were pointing and looking at something else, in the non-urgent manner of someone not expecting the imminent loss of part of a foot.

It was up to me. I did my best to make myself appear large and dangerous to the shark—I spread my arms and legs out in a curve around my torso. The thing kept coming closer.

A black-tipped reef shark is a greyish colored fish with black tips on the fins, and a racing stripe down the last half of its torso. It looks like some other sharks, including the white tipped variety. At that point I knew nothing of the things, whether I was looking at an adult (I wasn't—this was a baby at maybe 50-60 cm; I've seen big ones in the Sydney Aquarium that reached 2 metres), a harmless variety (nope, they are known to be fairly aggressive, given to nipping unfamiliar things like swimmers, and being unafraid of humans), or the type of animal that hunts in packs (again, no). I also knew nothing of dealing with sharks, but I understand I played it reasonably right.

I say this because my slow but determined moves put the thing off. By this time, I'd managed to spot Sara and Sabrina, and I went over to them to let them know of my siting. They were, of course, both pretty interested, and came over to where I'd seen it (after I told them it was just a little guy).

Needless to say, a) I couldn't find the thing while they were there, and b) it returned, as soon as I'd left.

I never got closer than maybe five meters to the thing, though I know I've been in waters with much larger sharks (other swimmers reported seeing full-grown reef sharks), but I'm happy to have seen the amazing beauty and grace of the shark in its own environment. It's f*cking cool.