My First Scuba Diving Experience: Swimming with Sharks in Fiji

Fiji

I stopped over in Fiji on my way home from Australia (in 2011) and it was an incredible experience. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to scuba dive for the first time. It wasn’t a traditional first scuba experience, though; in fact, it was quite wild, terrifying, and (looking back) hilarious. Here’s the story.

How it Happened

My friend Amanda and I were touring the Yasawa Islands.  Our first stop was at the Waya Lailai Island Resort. While there, we decided to do a snorkeling tour marketed as a “shark petting” tour. It was also exciting because it was where Castaway was filmed. While we had a great time seeing brightly colored fish and vibrant coral, we didn’t get to pet any sharks. In fact, we barely saw any sharks at all. At one point, our guides pointed out a small reef shark in the distance, but that was the extent of our shark viewing.

When we got back to our hotel, the friendly owner asked how we liked our tour. We answered, “Great, but we’re a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to pet any sharks.” Eager to please, he promised us a shark petting experience after lunch. We had no idea what we were in for, but we were very intrigued.

After lunch, the man led us to the tiny, rickety dive shop. Instead of grabbing snorkels, he picked up an instructional book that looked more like a children’s book than a diving manual. It was, however, the latter.

Dive Shop Fiji
The dive shop in all its glory

I started to get butterflies. I’d never dived before…there’s no way we were about to scuba dive, right?

Wrong! We were totally about to dive.

The (Non-Existent) Prep

The man gave us a quick scuba diving “lesson” as he helped us put on wet-suits. The lesson entailed things like, “When you go down, breeeeeeathe.” He mimed plugging his nose to let out the pressure. “When you come up, slooowwwly, slowwwly.” Amanda and I just kept looking at each other like, “Are we really about to do this?”

When all our totally janky scuba gear was ready to go, he led us to a small fishing boat. Another man joined us with some spearfishing equipment. No explanations were given. The four of us jetted off to sea. They drove the boat for a while, until suddenly they stopped in what seemed like the middle of the ocean. I saw a bobbing, empty liter of Coke and I realized that was the marker for the scuba spot.

I peered down the side of the boat into the clear, blue water. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but I’ll tell you what I did see: a bunch of sharks circling below me. Needless to say, I started to freak out.

Making the wrong hand signal... #prodiver
Making the wrong hand signal… #prodiver #greatstart

The friendly man (starting to seem less friendly by the minute) told me to jump off the boat, into the shark-infested waters. (Okay, I know that’s dramatic, but that’s how I thought of it in that moment.) He kept promising us that the sharks were “vegetarian.”

My thoughts racing, I silently gave myself a pep-talk. “This can’t be that hard, right? I’ve seen this in the movies plenty of times.” Without further contemplation, I leaned back and entered the cool ocean.

shark fiji

The Dive

I’ll never forget how it felt to breathe underwater for the first time. I wish I could say it was peaceful, tranquil, glorious, but under these circumstances, I was in full freak out mode.

WHAT WAS I THINKING??? I suddenly realized how dumb this was. Not only were there sharks circling below my fins, but I had so many questions I needed answered*:

  • What do I do if water gets in my goggles? I can’t keep them open in salt water for very long – I’ll be blind! I’ll be blind surrounded by sharks!!
  • Isn’t there some sort of illness you can get if you do this wrong?
  • How long will we be down here, trapped underwater?
  • How do I know how much air is left in my tank?

At this point, my weight belt was keeping me a foot or two under water; I didn’t have any choice but to wait in the water for our guide & Amanda to join me. I listened to my frantic, Darth Vader-esque breaths and focused on slowing my breathing.

After what felt like centuries, they finally joined me, and I grabbed hold of the man’s hand and did. not. let. go. the. entire. dive.

That’s right. My 21-year-old self held this amazing Fijian man’s hand for the entire 40 minute scuba dive. And it was awesome.

*Luckily, I did get all of these questions answered (and more) during my scuba certification at Koh Tao. Post coming soon!

Highlights

Most of the dive is a blur, but here are some moments I distinctly remember.

When we descended to about 10 meters (total guess), we were enveloped in the most gorgeous coral I’ve ever seen. It was absolutely teeming with life. Since I was still holding his hand in a vice grip, the man slowly placed my hand over some coral. My heart stopped when the huge organism slurped inside its shell and disappeared from sight in a nanosecond. The man burst out laughing, so I did too (getting tons of water into my goggles).

He placed my hands on some dead coral and did the same for Amanda, so we were laying horizontally, bellies down, holding on for dear life in the middle of a gorgeous coral reef, not sure what was about to happen.

The man took some bait and started waving it around. Yep, you guessed it – it was time for the shark petting that he promised us.

When the sharks got close, they actually looked much smaller than I expected, but their googly eyes and creepy teeth were still terrifying. They circled us while our guide got them riled up. After he let them eat some of the bait, he pried our hands from the rock and made us pet these stupid sharks.

While we were down there, the other man on the boat was spear fishing, which was really cool to watch. On our way back, I tried to make conversation with the man. I pointed to a huge fish that he caught and asked, “Is that dinner tonight?” He nodded, so I thought that was the end of that. When it was time for dinner that night, though, I got quite the surprise when they brought out that same fish – just for me!

Fish in Fiji
Fish are friends…and food

It was a great ending to an unforgettable day.

What was your first scuba diving experience like? I’d love to know!

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