Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fiji Times: Jaws meets Sharkman

Bull Shark.  Photo: Angelo O'Connor Villagomez
WHEN Manoa Rasigatale became the face of shark conservation this year, he had never met a shark.

And as much as he spread the word that this ancient predator was just a fish - with a toothy grin and not razor-shark teeth that instil fear when those jaws open - he harboured a guilt that he had to overcome.

The Sharkman, as he has been dubbed by marine conservationists, had to meet the sharks he has fought so hard to protect from extinction face to face.

"For a long time, we Fijians have always been frightened of sharks," he said.

"And since taking up this cause of shark conservation, and getting help from all stakeholders involved, the Government, marine scientists and tourism operators, and The Fiji Times, which is helping spread the gospel of this campaign to the nation, something has always been amiss.

"The thing is I don't truly know what they are like. I needed to experience them so I know who I'm fighting to save."

With that weighing heavy on his mind, a week's training in the pool, tank on his back and dive suit on, Manoa dived into the Beqa passage where the sharks roam.

This is where the sharks come to feed and where tourists flock from around the world to witness an amazing spectacle.

Fed by hand by divers from different districts in Fiji, who Manoa says are protected by an ancient understanding between our ancestors and the sharks, the king of the reef reveals some of its secrets that only certain people know.

These are the people who mostly live their lives under the sea - the divers who go under daily for food near the reefs, marine biologists and tourist operators who have become self-taught scientists like the shark-feeding divers of the Beqa passage.

Manoa needed to know what these shark lovers like him knew. He needed to understand sharks better than he did.

"That's why I took that dive. I had to touch the shark, to feel his power, his emotions, know what he does down there and what exactly these shark feeders do."

He was offered diving classes by Aquatrack and with his cameraman in tow, the Sharkman joined tourists from the Philippines, the United States, England "and other parts of the world" for a dive.

"When we reached the passage and before I jumped into the water, I could see the sharks, the bakewa and all sorts of fish circling underneath the boat. I thought to myself, 'if something happens to me, so be it'. This is what I'm fighting for anyway. I told my other cameraman to keep rolling the camera, just in case he'd get such a footage."

Manoa wanted to prove a point - that ancient Fijians had an understanding with the sharks, that Fijians were meant to protect the sharks and the sharks would in turn protect them by ensuring the reefs were kept alive for their survival.

After travelling to the various maritime provinces, documenting the stories of elders about this relationship with the shark ù worshipped as a god in ancient times ù and getting their support for State legislation to protect them, it was time to face the truth.

Over time, Manoa believes the sharks have been demonised by the fact that they were ancient gods of dark days before the arrival of Christianity in the islands.

That, the fear sharks instil with the way they hunt and eat their prey and the movie Jaws, "which really did a lot of damage", has made him more determined to portray the sharks in a positive light in these islands and save them from extinction.

According to the Pew Environment Group which Manoa works for, the population of sharks worldwide has declined with overfishing for shark fins, meat and other shark products. Scientists believe that there are over 100 million sharks killed annually, 73 million simply to supply the fin trade.

Manoa wants Fijians to stop contributing to this trade and give sharks the respect they deserve for their role ù maintaining the cycle of marine life and ensuring our reefs remain bountiful for our future generations. Without the sharks, the middle predators take control and kill marine life that feed off the reefs and keep them alive.

"Without the reefs, the sea dies, and so too we. In these islands, we depend on the sharks to ensure we don't run out of food."

That dive gave Manoa assurance that folklore from ancient times passed down by word of mouth was true. While Cakaudrove, Beqa, Yanuca and other parts of the country have different versions of the shark god, there was a common ground ù protection for each other.

"When I descended into the water, there were sharks coming in from different directions with all the other fish of all sizes. The sea was alive. Au sa matasarasara (I was in awe).

"Fear disappeared. I found out that the shark is intelligent, shy and also fearful. One came right up to my face and I looked into its eyes. It flinched three feet away, it seemed shy and fearful.

"They came and the shark feeders just fed them. When they started to crowd around, one the of the divers just pushed a big shark out of the way and it got back into line.

"I was fortunate enough to be with the feeders, up, close and personal with these sharks. I touched them as they passed and when I did, I felt their power, their precision in the water and the peace with which they went about in this world.

"It was beautiful. Their existence there ensured that the world down there stays beautiful. The reef was alive, the colours so vibrant, it was awesome that I did not want to come up.

"I looked around and thought 'if I had a bicycle, I would just take a scenic tour up and down the mountains and valleys'."

Manoa's thoughts went back to ancient times and that relationship between Fijians and sharks.

"I wondered what brought about the end of that relationship. What did we do wrong? When did fear come in? After that experience, I believe we still have that understanding with them."

Thanks to the shark-feeding operators - Aquatrack and Beqa Divers, which operates just close by in the passage ù the stories of old will remain.

And while shark-feeding may contradict with the aims of conservation to leave sharks be to feed in their natural environment, Manoa believes the feeders in the Beqa passage have done what he has been trying to the past few years ù prove that Fijians have a special relationship with the sharks.

"These tourists bring in a lot of money to see these sharks but better still, here we have a chance to learn of this old relationship and understand just what these fish mean to us.

"They is still much to learn."

Published in the Fiji Times on Monday, August 28, 2011
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