Our Encounter with the Ocean Tigers – Fiji

by   Profile Andi   When 21st March 2024
Circling tiger shark in Fiji.. Photo Credit Marla Tomorug
Circling tiger shark in Fiji. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug
Diving the reefs of Beqa Lagoon in Fiji. Photo Credit Adam Moore
Diving the reefs of Beqa Lagoon in Fiji. Photo Credit: Adam Moore
Encountering a tiger shark in Fiji. Photo Credit Marla Tomorug
Encountering a tiger shark in Fiji. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug
View of Beqa Lagoon from above. Photo Credit Marla Tomorug_1
View of Beqa Lagoon from above. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug
View of Beqa Lagoon from above. Photo Credit Marla Tomorug_2
View of Beqa Lagoon from above. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug

As we descended into the dark and murky waters off the Fijian coast, the weight of anticipation settled in. Immediately surrounded by what must have been 30 bull sharks, their formidable presence instilled an element of respect and intrigue. Little did we know that we were going to have a new encounter— one with a creature that wore the stripes of its namesake, and carried a reputation as daunting as its mammalian counterpart.

It was winter in Fiji and the rain was relentless. The non-stop torrential downpours were not making it easy to dive the typically crystal-clear ocean that cements Fiji as a favorite for many divers, but we were on expedition and in a country known for its shark populations. Rain or shine, there was no way we were missing a single day of diving. 

The moment we realized we weren’t alone with the bull sharks was one of the most exciting diving experiences for myself and Marla, our Creative Director & Lead Photographer on the Edges of Earth Expedition. We felt a different kind of energy in the water. Coming out of nowhere, a 4 meter (12 foot) juvenile female tiger shark approached us from the depths. If the bull sharks are the watchful guards of the sea, then the tiger sharks are the undisputed emperors. 

The bull sharks exuded an air of indifference, while this single tiger shark was curious and fearless. Her vibrant eyes revealed an intelligence that was as captivating as it was intimidating. We both noticeably felt tension. Yet it was not fear that gripped us, but a sense of profound fascination. We were suspended in the open ocean with one of nature's most incredible creations—a being that had perfected the art of survival over millions of years. This shark’s design was flawless. 

Tiger sharks are a force to be reckoned with. The Fijian waters offer a unique opportunity to observe these predators up close, providing us with unparalleled insights into their behavior and ecology. Here, amidst tropical currents and active reefs, tiger sharks reign supreme, and diving with tigers is no light venture. It is a testament to the spirit of adventure and a pursuit of knowledge that lies at the heart of many explorers.

Beqa Lagoon, off the coast of Fiji’s mainland, is known for its tiger shark sightings. Encircling Beqa Island, hosting over 300 species of fish and an array of rich coral, the lagoon and its barrier reef serve as a sanctuary. What makes this place stand out among other destinations is the unique opportunity to be in the water with multiple shark species on a single dive. 

Tiger sharks are classified as opportunistic hunters, and food in these waters is abundant. Eating virtually anything they come across, their primary diet includes fish, seals, birds, smaller sharks, squid and turtles. They are capable of eating such a wide variety of prey thanks to their powerful jaws and sharp, highly serrated teeth that can crack even the toughest of shells.

Most notably, the Lagoon is situated within a marine protected area, meaning that human activities that threaten shark populations are regulated and controlled. Collaboration between sanctioned conservation teams, the local community and international entities plays a significant role in protecting and preserving the tiger sharks' habitat. These efforts include scientific research, advocacy and promoting sustainable ecotourism practices that contribute to the overall health of marine ecosystems.

What stood out most to Marla and I when diving with this particular tiger shark was her undeniable personality. We were amazed by the bull sharks, having dove with them multiple times throughout our expedition leg in Fiji, but the minute this tiger showed up, she quickly stole the show. There were moments where we saw her bump bull sharks, tiny in comparison, out of the way so she could be the one to take a closer look at us.  

Tiger sharks, known scientifically as Galeocerdo cuvier, are one of the largest shark species—second only to the great white. Named for the dark, vertical stripes found mainly on juveniles, they are unique among sharks due to their diverse diet, their capability to regulate their body temperature and their highly curious ways. 

Tiger sharks are often characterized as more assertive and confident than other shark species. Their inquisitive behavior, combined with a lack of selective eating habits, means that they are more likely to approach divers. This boldness is further highlighted by their preference for hunting both at night and in murky waters, where their excellent sensory capabilities give them an advantage. 

Individual tiger sharks can also exhibit variability in their behavior. Some may be more cautious, while others more daring, demonstrating a degree of individual personality. The one we encountered was surely on the bolder end of the spectrum. Varied behavior can affect survival rates, reproductive success and even their propensity to interact with humans. This helps to highlight that they are not simply mindless predators, but complex creatures with their own unique behavior patterns. 

Physiologically, tiger sharks possess some standout attributes that make them extremely effective predators. They have a flattened, wedge-shaped head which allows for quick turning when hunting. Additionally, they have a sensory organ known as the “Ampullae of Lorenzini,” which enables them to detect electric fields produced by potential prey. 

Here in Fiji, tiger sharks provide valuable insights into the species' migratory patterns as well. While globally these sharks are known to be highly migratory, those in the Fijian waters have shown relatively limited movement, preferring to remain within the archipelago. This discrepancy in behavioral patterns among the species shows that there is still much to learn about these enigmatic marine animals.

Any time we intentionally dive with sharks, we ensure that we are doing so under the watch of professionals. Aiding us in this particular dive was Brandon Paige, head of Dive Operations at the Beqa Lagoon Resort. Born in South Africa, Brandon has helped to establish eco-diving practices to enable explorers like us to dive with tigers in their natural habitat. He spent time showing us the magic of the underwater realm he calls home, giving us a front row seat to the shark arena.

But despite our best efforts to be abundantly cautious, there are certainly times that we encounter sharks without pro supervision. This is where heavy scuba training and the knowledge gained from time spent with experts kicks in. One of the reasons we value diving alongside scientists and researchers is that it allows us to further understand how different species operate and what to do when in the water with them. Not only to stay safe ourselves, but to ensure the preservation of animals we encounter. 

Guided by the expert’s wisdom, we've developed a deep-seated sense of responsibility as Scuba Schools International and Mares divers. It's our duty not only to respect these ancient creatures, but to contribute to their conservation—whether that means spreading awareness, supporting protective legislation, or simply ensuring our diving practices are as non-disruptive as possible. 

If you are considering diving with sharks, look for reputable operators that have established best practices and put conservation first, as our survival on this planet is intrinsically linked to the protection of tigers, like the one we were lucky enough to encounter in Fiji.  

Written by
Profile Andi
When 21st March 2024
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