On the main island of Viti Levu, far away from the sanitised idyll of the tourist resorts, Fiji is heaving. Dirt, sweat and human flesh – the streets are clogged with it. Sardine-tin bus rides press stranger against stranger, our cardboard box hotel (windows are a luxury here) sweated in the midday sun.
It was this need for space that drew me to the water. Not the browning slough of the harbour where cola cans ricochet off pleasure boats, but beyond; out, out, out into the deep blue of the Pacific. Out where the bull sharks play. Bull sharks don’t get as much press as their great white cousins. That is unfair. They are three metre long, three hundred kilogram heavy killing machines of the highest efficiency. They were the murderous inspiration for Jaws and are considered the most dangerous shark in the world. In Fiji you can swim with them – without a cage, without a barrier. Just you and the bull sharks. Free.
When I learnt to dive, in the mystical waters of Indonesia, I was warned about going deep. You see, things change underwater. It is a world not built for us, with our oxygen-hungry blood and our weak, air-filled bodies. Eighteen metres is the sensible limit for most dives. Thirty metres is the very bottom… beyond which even the best should never dare to venture. But thirty metres is where the bull sharks play, so to this darkness we duly descended.
They were waiting.
Sharks are truly beautiful creatures. They appear to dance in the water, so elegant are their movements. Thirty huge predators crowded into one small space and yet they never collided as they swooped and dived in front of us, shooting upwards to expose their alabaster underbellies, swooping down again so low they brushed against our heads. Watching them pirouette so gracefully made us acutely aware of our own clumsiness; crashing through the water, our faces puffed with the ridiculous exercise of breathing in a space we were never meant to breathe. We did not belong here, and the sharks knew it. They treated us with complete indifference, these sitting ducks gawping underneath them. Yet occasionally one would turn in his head in almost condescending acknowledgement, and I would be struck by how cruel their eyes appear. Inky black. Lifeless. Then the shark would smile, opening wide his jaws to decimate some floating chunk of tuna, and in that moment I would truly know what fear was.
Eventually the sharks grew tired of us. They retreated into the blackness and we returned to the world above. As we swum upwards, I could feel their presence linger, and was sure they were watching us still. They had permitted us entry to their world for one dazzling, magical moment, but it would not do to overstay our welcome. They live apart, gliding silently below us in their vast ocean playground. Those who respect them may come and play too, but you play by their rules alone.