I never thought the simple act of walking down a street could be a psychological challenge. Yet in Ukraine back in March, just as those villages that had been occupied by the Russians were steadily being liberated, most days I felt scared to put one foot in front of the other. We were constantly warned that roads had been booby-trapped and there were unexploded grenades and landmines everywhere. The consensus was: “Be careful where you tread and don’t step in any puddles.”
It would be a lie to say I wasn’t terrified. When we walked down a particularly arduous section of road, it made me shake.
Not only was getting from A to B physically demanding, but I was also reporting daily on the misery of civilians who were suffering horribly from this war. It was emotionally draining and I would have benefitted from a good night’s sleep – except missile sirens went off most nights, so I was never able to fall asleep properly because I was constantly worried that we would be struck. We weren’t, but that didn’t take away the fear.
I am not an especially risk-averse person. As a scuba diver, I like to go as deep as I can – the darker the water, the better – and I adore almost any kind of marine life. Diving alongside turtles and octopuses makes me happy in a way I never really feel on dry land. However, I have always drawn the line at sharks.
I have sat through countless briefings with dive masters who told me we might see one at the site we were about to dive, but I knew sightings were rare, which helped me deal with my fear. I could rationalise in my head that the chance of encountering one by chance was low, much as I rationalised the dangers I faced in Ukraine. I was based in Kyiv, and while there were missile threats, this was nothing compared to what was going on in the east of the country, which was suffering a constant bombardment of shelling. By reporting from the Kyiv region, I mitigated my fear by comparing it with the worst areas.
Deliberately diving with lots of sharks was something I could not rationalise. They are unpredictable, wild animals. Having grown up watching films about them – particularly Jaws – I regarded them as aggressive man-eaters. I was terrified that I could be bitten, lose a limb or be killed.
Reporting from a war zone for the first time had made me assess risk differently, however. You put your trust in people: the Ukrainian soldier who offers to show you around a ruined village; your translator; your cameraman; yourself. There were occasions when I was uncomfortable with situations and walked away. It might have added something to my story but I just wasn’t willing to take the chance.
On returning to the UK, I wanted to test myself, push my boundaries further and see if I could do something that had previously intimidated me. Diving with sharks sprang to mind. If I was going to do it, I wanted to go somewhere beautiful.
I have dived all over the world, from cenotes in Mexico to epic coral reefs in Jordan, but nowhere compared with the images I had seen of Fiji. Friends who had been also told me how beautiful it was, from its pristine beaches to its extraordinary dive sites. I spoke to the experts at Original Diving, who told me I would “reliably see bulls and tigers” in Fiji – meaning, of course, those two types of shark.
Therein began my education. As I prepared for my trip, I was told how in Fijian culture sharks are considered sacred. Far from being feared, they are respected for their strength and beauty. One person told me that diving with sharks was akin to meditating, and hearing all this appeased my anxiety.
So, too, did the way I was eased into dives. On my arrival at the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort, I was swept away for a massage – a must for my aching body after nearly 30 hours of travelling. My accommodation, with an ocean view, was a jungle-style “bure”, or thatched cottage, surrounded by the lush flora of Savusavu Bay. I ate traditional Fijian food, did yoga in the mornings and on my second day dived with the resort’s Padi-certified Cousteau Dive Centre.
Unfortunately, the weather window was not right to go to the world-famous (and shark-rich) Namena dive site as the sea was too unsettled, so my first encounter with sharks would have to wait until I got to the Six Senses Fiji resort on Malolo Island, in the heart of the idyllic Mamanuca archipelago.
True to Fijian culture, on my arrival there I was told to head to the spa, where I received the best massage of my life. It helped me relax completely. The hotel’s open-air movie nights with homemade pizzas were the perfect complement to long days lounging on pristine beaches, while my bule was stylish and comfortable with an outdoor marble bath perfect for warming up after hours spent in or under the water.
Again, I was eased gently into the diving, with Owen, my dive buddy for the two days, taking me to the “Cabbage Patch”, an awe-inspiring area of unspoilt coral so beautiful that I almost didn’t spot the whitetip reef sharks passing us by. They were gone in a flash and much smaller than I had imagined, just a little bit bigger than the barracudas I had dived with in the past. Yet it was the dive organised by Clem, the marine biologist responsible for the Kuata bull shark dive, who first brought me face to face with these animals.
The big day
After one of Six Senses’ hearty breakfasts, we set off on an hour’s speedboat ride to the 40ft-deep dive site early one morning. As we approached it, I asked Owen if he was nervous. “Just another day in the office,” he said, zipping up his wetsuit and flashing me a grin. Unlike him, I was worried. However, Clem put me at ease, explaining how we would descend to the spot and kneel on the sand behind a small wall to observe the animals.
There were six safety divers, three of them focused on the brave diver who would feed the sharks tuna on the end of a long pole. All the divers held redirection batons, which they would use gently if the sharks came too close. And they did. They were literally within touching distance, but it was – at points – mesmerising.
The fear I had felt as we first descended and saw the bull sharks circling subsided as we took up our positions behind the man-made, waist-high wall. There was a shiver of 14 sharks, one of them pregnant. Another cheekily dodged behind the wall and swam right above our heads, curious about what we were doing. At one point, the jaws of two sharks collided as they went for the same piece of tuna, and the sound of their teeth clashing travelled through the water. It was a reminder of just how strong their bite could be.
After the feed, Clem clasped her hand around mine and encouraged me to swim over the wall and get even closer to the sharks. I was incredibly nervous and stayed close to the seabed, worried that the animals might still be looking for food. They weren’t. Oblivious to our presence, they just went about their business, knowing we had nothing more to give. It was remarkable.
“Sharks have different personalities, just like humans,” Clem told me back on dry land. “It is wrong to say that an entire species all behave the same way. There is a misconception about sharks that they are all violent, but our work suggests they are anything but.”
Fully initiated, I took shark diving to the next level with the Aqua Trek Beqa dive centre, beside the Pearl Resort where I stayed for a few nights. We went to a dive site called “the Bistro” and I was briefed that we could expect to see up to 50 sharks, ranging from bulls to lemon and nurse sharks.
It was a big step up from what I had previously witnessed and my dive buddy, Simione, could tell I was nervous. “All you have to do is trust me,” he said as we bobbed in the water, preparing to descend. I had never met this man until five minutes ago, but I was willing to put all my faith in him. OK, I nodded, and we went down.
Sharks were swarming beneath us and I could feel my grip on Simione’s hand tighten. Just like the last time, we knelt behind a man-made wall and watched as the sharks circled, waiting for their feed. Again, they came up to us head-on and within touching distance.
Instinctively, I ducked. At times it felt like they were everywhere: overhead, coming from behind, and right in front of me. While I didn’t get to a point where I felt completely calm, I enjoyed it and felt totally in awe of such magnificent creatures.
The days after the dives were spent sunbathing on unimaginably perfect sandy beaches and drinking Fiji Gold beer as the sun set. Coconuts were in abundance, and I would pick them up from a shack at the side of the road for a few Fijian dollars and drink them under the shade of a nearby palm tree.
Fiji leaves you feeling very content. From its tropical landscape and white sand beaches to its people – with even strangers, wishing you a warm “Bula bula” as you pass – everything seems just right. It is a long way to go to conquer a fear, but I think Fiji’s unique serenity and setting really helped.
How to do it
Original Diving (020 7978 0505; originaldiving.com) offers an 11-night Fiji diving holiday from £9,150 per person B&B, staying in luxury accommodation including the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Six Senses Malolo and Royal Davui. The price covers six dives, including a bull shark dive at Kuata and a shark dive experience at Beqa Lagoon.
The company also offers 12-night diving trips to Fiji from £6,500 per person, based on two sharing, including all flights and transfers, seven nights’ B&B accommodation in Taveuni with three dives a day, plus five nights’ full-board hotel stay in Namale.
Arrivals aged 16 and over must show proof of full vaccination. Travellers aged 12 and over must take an approved rapid antigen test at their hotel or testing facility within 72 hours of arrival. Travel insurance including international Covid-19 cover is mandatory.