Sharks: Hypnotizing and misunderstood

By: Katie Howe, high school alumna High School Study Abroad, Marine Biology

As I slowly descended into the surprisingly chilly shark-infested Fijian water for the first time, I realized that everyone who said I was crazy was right. Parents, teachers, friends, and family all told me I was absolutely insane to fly halfway around the world and jump into the water with creatures known only to cause destruction and fear.

As I was deciding what to do for the summer of 2007, I remembered my trip to the Caribbean the previous summer where I learned to scuba dive. I knew I wanted to scuba dive again, but this time I wanted to add a bit of excitement; that’s where the sharks came into the scene. It took a lot for me to convince my parents to let me go on this specific trip. Since I had done a fun trip the previous year, my parents expected me to do a fun, yet educational, trip in 2007. There were many other options for me, such as sea turtle rescue in Costa Rica, shipwreck archeology in Bermuda, or dolphin studies in Belize. All of these programs seemed exciting and they were all educational; however, I knew this would be my last summer trip, so it had to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I received the paperwork in the mail, filled it out, mailed it back, and impatiently waited for the other sets of paperwork to arrive. In the meantime I made trips to doctors’ offices for prescriptions and vaccinations, and multiple outdoor stores to find proper luggage and clothing. In no time at all, I was waving goodbye to my parents as I walked through airport security by myself.

I hit the maximum depth, which was one hundred feet, grabbed some coral to stabilize myself on the right side of the feeder, and immediately saw the chum blood diffusing out of the barrel and through the water. Within seconds, I saw my first shark; a ten-foot long pregnant bull shark named Grandma. I felt like I was watching a movie; I could not believe there was this massive, supposedly terrifying creature, less than ten feet away from my face, but I felt no fear. The grace this “man-eater” had was hypnotizing. Grandma circled the arena, a depressed open area where the sharks would be fed, while the observers sat on a coral shelf about ten feet away from the feeder. After several passes through the arena, Grandma finally became comfortable around us and she approached the feeder, which was holding a large tuna’s head. Her mouth opened as she approached the feeder, and for a split second I thought she was going to eat the feeder himself. Grandma quickly cut to the side as the feeder threw the fish head up a bit, and she swallowed it whole. Within minutes, there were more sharks; nurse sharks and bull sharks, all coming for a free lunch. After about half an hour, the group ascended to thirty feet where we could observe smaller sharks: gray reef sharks, black-tip reef sharks, and white-tip reef sharks. We kneeled behind a coral wall which was about five feet away from the feeder. The reef sharks were friskier than the bull sharks; they darted here and there, they nibbled at the feeder, and they swam inches away from our faces.

On the last dive of the trip, a fourteen-foot tiger shark, the garbage can of the sea and one of the most dangerous sharks in the world, circled us for just about the whole dive. Everything became quiet; the noises were drowned out by everyone’s concentration on this beautiful, majestic, graceful misunderstood “man eater.” We were told never to let it out of our sight. Everywhere it went we saw it; over our heads, up the reef, to the far left, and to the far right, until it gradually vanished into the blue sea.

My whole trip, especially my last dive with the tiger shark, made me realize how poorly sharks have been portrayed over the years. Movies like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea have given sharks a bad and unrealistic image. My respect for other cultures, my tolerance for other people, my scuba experience, and my knowledge of myself, sharks, and other marine life have all been expanded by this Fijian experience and I hope to continue to advance this knowledge even more in the future.