About 1140 words
First New Zealand Serial Rights
1998 Pete Atkinson
APISAI BATI – THE SHARK MAN OF MANA ISLAND
by Pete Atkinson
Life insurance salespeople rarely call on Apisai Bati. This is the giant of a Fijian who does things with grey reef sharks you would be reluctant to do with Spot the dog. Assuming dogs had a dorsal fin you could hang on to while they towed you around underwater in front of 40 Japanese spectators.
The shark feed at Mana Island’s “Supermarket” (you can get anything there) has been going on for about nine years. From feeding the sharks with fish on a short spear, Api progressed to hand feeding, and now the sharks are so comfortable with him they will allow him to hold onto them. Both greys and the white tip reef sharks are so unfazed by this treatment that they will feed while being held. The greys, after they have towed Api around will return almost immediately for more food. The feeding lasts about 20 minutes, with greys, white-tips and black tip reef sharks in attendance. On one recent dive, Api was leading a large group of divers along the wall after the shark feed, when he fed and held onto a grey that towed him along the drop-off like a diver propulsion vehicle.
This is circus whichever way you look at it, and there are plenty of eco-critics who are sniffy about it. Personally I think absolutely no damage is done to the 20 or so sharks who attend the shark feed, except their lives are a bit easier. The benefits are huge. Almost 5000 people a year, a large proportion of them Japanese, see reef sharks for what they really are;magnificent misunderstood creatures. These sharks are no more dangerous than Fijian taxi drivers and any pre-dive anxiety is usually swept away in the first minute of the shark feed.
Instant ambassadors for sharks are needed in a world where 100 million are slaughtered each year. I only wish these people could see blue-fin tuna feeding too, so they may be reluctant to drive these fish into extinction with absurd market prices in Japan.
For perspective on ecological damage from feeding sharks at Mana, think of what damage is done by sportsfishing boats out of Tutukaka each week, or the effect on the environment of goats, or LA or ocean long-liners.
Apisai Bati has been diving at Mana for the last 26 years, a dignified, deeply religious man from the nearby Mamanuca island of Tavua. In some ways he is the backbone of Aqua- trek and has become something of a hero in Japan, attending the annual international diving festival in Tokyo each February. People don’t want to see just anyone from Aqua-trek, they want to see Api. The train stations have huge posters of a slightly younger Api emerging from the lagoon holding aloft a fish. Occassionally he is recognised and chattering admirers cluster around and point from the poster to the real thing. The man is larger than life. For endless amusement, Japanese guests at Mana will photograph a print of their hand in the sand, next to Api’s, or their tiny feet next to Api’s size 15 feet!
This humble man prays every morning, but not because he feels in any danger from the sharks which he regards as his friends. Other commentators have suggested almost a mystical connection between Api and his sharks. Anyone who exposes themselves as frequently to feeding reef sharks would, in the absence of being eaten, learn enough about their behaviour to know what can be done safely, given self-assurance and Api’s 1.93mframe.
Other critics suggest that if you stop feeding the sharks they will go on a rampage and eat everyone in sight. Years ago in the Mamanucas, Castaway resort used to throw all their rubbish in the sea beyond the inner reef. Bull sharks, (Carcharhinus leucas) – which do eat people – were attracted and you could bring them up from deep water just by revving an outboard engine. These were impressive animals almost 2.5m long and about 160kg inweight. But when Castaway found more acceptable ways to deal with their rubbish, no one disappeared off the beach just when they thought it was safe to go in the water…
There used to be a shark feed at Namotu (Magic Island) attended by Mamanuca Divers (based at Musket Cove Resort) and Plantation Island Resort. When the surf resort was built on Namotu, the shark feed was discontinued because it was felt that even utterly fearless surfers would be in some kind of danger.
About eight dive operators attend the shark feeds on Thursdays and Sundays, but they have become so popular that Aqua-Trek, the organiser, has had to restrict the other operators to one day a week and are encouraging them to start their own feeds. Location will be important as many of the resorts will take the NIMBY approach. (Not in my backyard.)
The largest of these grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) are about 2m long, about as large as greys get. Australians frequently call any Carcharhinid at Mana a
“bronze whaler” but there are no bronze whalers (Carcharhinus brachyurus) in Fiji at all.
Right from the beginning, Api wanted the shark feed to be an educational experience and not commercially motivated. He insisted that the other dive operators are guests, and should pay nothing for the privilege of attending the feed. And a privilege it is.
Aqua-trek provide diving for the Japanese owned Mana Island Resort and nearby Matamanoa island. Although there are two big backpacker places on Mana which are very popular (and a great place for beer and techno music among other things) Aqua-trek are prevented by the resort from providing dive facilities to them. They have their own operator, a character called Valu, but by all accounts it’s a disaster. No doubt a new operator will be installed at the backpacker resort in due course.
I went out to Mana with First Divers based at the new, and very nice Vuda Point Marina located not far north of Nadi airport on the way to Lautoka. They offer substantial discounts to people on yachts and to backpackers. They have a glassfibre long-boat with a 60hp Yamaha on the back, and although the Supermarket is an hour away the ride is comfortable. They also have Japanese and English-speaking instructors. In a two-tank dive package you can dive the Supermarket and The Pinnacle at Malololailai, one of the best macro-photography dives in the Mamanucas.
The Supermarket is not just another shark feed, nor is Apisai Bati just another guy. You can experience both with several mainland and island-based operators, all readily accessible from Nadi airport.
And if you’re selling life insurance, make sure “feeding reef sharks” is somewhere down among the fine print with “acts of God”.