When you think of Fiji you think of invitingly pristine white-sand beaches, hammocks strung between palm trees, and bars serving ice cold adult beverages. Kuata, a tiny island only two hours by boat from Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, lives up to those expectations. Yet I’d made the trip with intentions far from a lazy day in a paradise. The sole purpose of my visit was to experience an ‘up close and personal’ interaction with sharks. World renowned as one of the best places on earth to dive with the predators of the deep, the Barefoot Kuata Resort arranges for visitors to face their fears (quite literally, as I was soon to find out) by offering guided dives and snorkeling with everything from the notorious Bull Shark to Tiger Sharks, Great Hammerheads, Lemons, and Reef Tips.
Is it safe? Is it ethical? Did you defecate in your swimming trunks? These are probably all questions running through your mind. Read on to find out.
My day had begun in relative tranquility (as most holidays to lush tropical paradise islands should). After two hours of cruising between palm-fringed islands and skimming across the azure waters of the South Pacific we arrived at Kuata’s beachfront; greeted by ukulele wielding resort staff eager to extend a traditionally Fijian “Bula” (the Fijian “Bula” greeting is an infectiously genuine one wishing you good health and happiness). Following further rounds of trading “Bula’s” with pretty much every resident of the tiny island, and having slathered enough sunscreen on to my pasty white British Skin to sink a battleship, we boarded yet another boat to head out twenty minutes towards the local reef system, Moyia.
At this point you could sense a growing anticipation and excitement amongst my fellow shipmates for what was to come. But it wasn’t until the final moments of the safety and interaction briefing (and having signed a medical declaration and waiver essentially signing my life away) that the tranquility was truly pierced.
“I’ll pray for you”.
Although uttered in absolute jest, those were the chilling final words spoken by our captain as I launched myself into the shark infested waters. Regardless of the consistent messages of our absolute safety there’s an undoubted sense of foreboding as you gracefully step off of a boat and plunge down into the ocean (or belly flop into the murky depths after slipping on a floatation device) when you can visibly see a school of sharks circling below amongst the coral; especially when your experienced captain summons divine entities in an attempt to secure your protection.
But any concerns soon evaporated as the bubbles settled and gloriously colored coral and tropical fish came into view. And then I saw it. The whole reason I’d come on this trip was gracefully meandering towards me with what I can only describe as an inquisitive, yet cautious, approach. My visit was focused on Black and White Reef Tip Sharks. Thankfully lower on the danger and size scale than the Bull Shark (that’s an understatement) but it was nonetheless intimidating that my first encounter involved a 3m long white tip reef shark deciding to take a closer inspection of my GoPro with its mouth (thankfully I caught the interaction on film – please see below for evidentiary and posterity purposes).
Minutes after that initial interaction I found myself surrounded by both black and white tip reef sharks darting in and around the coral. Despite being quite unnerving when a shark appears from over your shoulder to take you by surprise, the thrilling encounter at Kuata is definitely one I’d highly recommend.
Both black and white reef tip sharks are regarded as fairly docile (on a relative scale of shark aggressiveness). Although inquisitive by nature (hence they’ll approach you) they’re also generally skittish (so if you approach them the most likely response will be that they swim away). So from a safety perspective I think I’d be more concerned about jellyfish stings then I would being attacked by a reef shark. At this point I do however feel that it’s important to note that wild animals are just that, wild. So whilst reef tips might well be 99.99% safe to swim with, and as with any adrenaline activity, there is always an element of possible risk (perhaps from a shark having a particularly bad day or taking a misguided nibble after mistaking your leg for a delicious chicken drumstick). In seriousness though, you 99.99% have nothing to worry about…..
As I mentioned above, my day at Kuata was focused on reef sharks. In large part this was due to time restrictions during my visit. If you have more time available, and having spoken to other island guests who had experienced it, I would highly recommend that you consider the Island’s unique ‘Awakening Shark Dive’. Developed by shark experts and designed to ensure dive safety and sustainability the Awakening Shark Dive sees divers up close and personal with Bull Sharks (and Tigers, Lemons and Hammerheads if you’re lucky) in their own habitat and on their own terms. Bull Sharks have a pretty strong reputation for being aggressive but this is a controlled experience led by highly knowledgeable guides and has been specifically designed by shark behaviorists. So, similarly to the reef shark snorkeling and diving, you are in safe hands (“no deaths yet” is what I was jokingly told, so that’s a bonus!)
Both snorkeling and diving with reef sharks, in addition to the ‘Shark Awakening Dive’ can be booked directly through the Barefoot Kuata Resort website. The day trip options available on the website include boat transfers from Denerau port on the main island of Viti Levu to the Yasawa Islands (Kuata is the first island reached in the Yasawa Island Chain). The boat transfers are operated by South Sea Cruises and Awesome Adventures Fiji. Bookings can also be made through those two websites. I booked through Awesome Adventures which meant that I also received an upgrade to the air-conditioned ‘Captain’s Lounge’ – which on a humid day was a bit of a blessing. If you’re staying on Denerau then you’ll also be pleased to hear that hotel and resort transfers are provided free of charge.
Snorkeling and dive gear is provided by the resort. In addition, non-motorized watersports such as kayaks and paddleboards are available for use free of charge for the 3-4 hours of free time you’ll have on the island after your dive. Basically the only things you’ll need to take with you are a beach towel, sunscreen, an underwater camera (although I was told you can also rent them from the resort) and your nerve!