Christian Slater: Swimming with sharks in Fiji
Film star Christian Slater saw these fearsome marine predators close up when he went diving without a cage off a remote island in Fiji. Ian McCurrach hears the intrepid tale
Sunday 09 December 2007
It is spooky that I'm playing a predatory movie mogul in a show called Swiimming with Sharks in the West End when only six months ago I went diving with sharks for the first time in Fiji. And diving freely, without a cage. I've always been interested in sharks because they are under threat; their fins are used for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. With Asian shark stocks significantly reduced, and in some areas wiped out, fishing outfits are operating further away from home and now depleting stocks in the Pacific. One such region is the shark-rich waters around Fiji, where local fishermen are being bribed to catch these beautiful creatures.
I didn't wake up one morning and think: "OK, I'm going to go diving with sharks." It was something that came about through my children. Earlier in the year I'd been on vacation in Hawaii with Jaden, my eight-year-old son, and Eliana, my six-year-daughter, who had made friends with some other kids and their nanny. Through the nanny I met the kids' parents, a really sweet couple from Georgia, who were planning a trip for experienced divers to the Beqa pronounced Benka Lagoon Resort with an initiative called the Fiji Shark Project operated by Beqa Adventure Divers. They asked if I'd like to join them.
It is very rare that I'm open to suggestion, especially from people I've only just met I seldom take time off or give myself a vacation because I'm always thinking about work. But diving is a love of mine and I hadn't done any for 12 years. (I got into diving when I was doing a movie called Hard Rain because we filmed quite a bit underwater. It was the first time I'd breathed off a regulator.) So, I decided to go for it, especially because it was for a good cause. The project helps protect the sharks by paying local villagers not to fish the Shark Reef Marine Reserve and to stop other fishermen from doing so.
The Beqa Lagoon Resort is in the middle of nowhere: I had to take two planes, a bus and a boat to get there. After landing on Veti Levu, the main Fijian island, I took a three-hour bus ride to reach the dive boat to cross the ocean to Beqa, off the south coast. It was a fun journey on an old ramshackle Greyhound-style bus, passing through lush green scenery straight out of South Pacific. I'm a sucker for tacky tourist souvenirs and we stopped off at a great shop selling local artefacts. Fiji was once home to cannibals and I loved the fact this store sold replica clubs and hacksaws to chop people up. I found a beautiful chair there in the shape of a hand carved out of Fijian wood, which is now in my home in Los Angeles.
On the crossing the atmosphere was tense with anticipation and excitement it was great to get to know my fellow enthusiasts. It was a very stormy day so the crossing was hairy; our small dive vessel piled high with equipment flew through the air a couple of times and waves splashed over us on the deck. We really had to hold on tight. I couldn't see much as it was so misty and I became more anxious about what I'd in be in for. In fact, several days earlier I'd got worried about all sorts of things. I might brush up against some coral and cut my finger, blood would spill out and the sharks would come and devour me. I go through air very quickly and I was concerned that on the longer dives I might run out of pressure.
Suddenly, the sea became calm, the mist parted and, just like in the film King Kong, I saw this beautiful tropical island. After parking our dive gear we all had dinner together in a big open shack. It was very rustic with bamboo and leaves for roofing. After eating we played games together, goofed around and had sing-off challenges to build our team spirit. There were 10 of us in the group and we spent just under two weeks living and breathing closely together. What was great was that nobody treated me any differently just because I work in the movies.
We did four dives a day, going down to between 60ft and 120ft, working up to the two big shark dives. We started early at 6.30am so the days were pretty long. Renowned for their spectacular soft corals, gorgonian forests and abundant fish and marine life, the balmy clear waters of the Beqa Lagoon are frequently called the soft coral capital of the world, so each night I went to sleep excited about the colourful sights I'd discover the next day.
Everything was very structured on the dive boat. All the tanks were lined up in a row and we each had our own equipment station. We helped each other with our tanks and made sure the air was turned on and pressure checked. At all times we were supervised by dive masters who made sure everyone in the team was OK. The currents were pretty strong, so we occasionally used marker buoys and mooring lines to hook on to. One of my favourite dives was to a site named ET: a high-rise tower of rainbow-coloured coral teeming with lion fish, octopus and blue ribbon eels. The water was so clear that the light danced beautifully around me as I swam past shoals of clown fish. The fragile sea fans and feather stars were breathtaking.
One of the sites, Carpet Cove, features the wreck of an old fishing boat. I swam inside the main cabin where you can still see the wheel at the helm. The wreck provides a good habitat for coral and abundant schools of trevally and chevron barracuda. As I made my way to the surface, I was surrounded by parrot fish and what seemed like an underwater snowstorm of psychedelic pink, orange, purple and yellow anthias. The area is an underwater photographer's dream I took some great pictures.
I did one night dive to help me to build up my courage to do the shark dives. I had to be talked into doing it, but the team members were really good at encouraging me. Before the first shark dive, the dive masters gave us a talk to build up our confidence and I was encouraged at the thought of being up close and personal with a potential eight species of sharks from tawny nurses to tiger sharks, which are second only to great whites in terms of the number of recorded human fatalities.
The first shark dive began with the dive masters lowering garbage cans down to about 100ft filled with fish heads to attract the sharks. The biggest hurdle for me was jumping in, but once I'd done that and was swimming with the others I steadied my nerves. You need to stay as calm as you possibly can and make no sudden movements. Once I reached the shark feeding area I was surrounded by nursery sharks, which look pretty scary because they are approximately 10ft long and have massive jaws but thankfully no teeth. One of the dive masters encouraged me to touch one of them which was videotaped for prosperity.
After an hour's break back on the boat we were ready for the second dive. This time we went down only to 40ft where the tiger sharks hang out. They are the garbage men of the sea and are really deadly. They will eat anything: cut them open and you'll find kitchen sinks and licence plates. At this depth the first sharks to appear and feed were silvertips, lemons and grey reefs, which swam around us. We waited an extra long time before a lone tiger shark made an appearance but suddenly it swam towards us with purpose. It circled around me my adrenalin was racing. I was overwhelmed by its beautiful stripes and size; they are usually at least 15ft long.
The dive master indicated it was time to move up to the surface but because we had stayed down so long to wait for the tiger shark, the decompression period was longer. We had to wait 30 minutes at 15ft to avoid getting the bends by going up too quickly. And that's quite a long time to sit on a line with sharks swimming beneath your feet. I was low on pressure so I had to take my regulator out and borrow someone else's.
When I surfaced I felt I'd really achieved something. And now whenever I have a moment of fear or anxiety, I reflect on the time when I went diving with sharks. I came out of the water a different person. For my next underwater trip I'd like to go to the Great Barrier Reef. My ambition is to dive with great white sharks but I'll do that in a cage.
How to get there
Scuba Safaris (01342 823222; scuba-safaris. com) offers a seven-night all-inclusive break at the Beqa Lagoon Resort, Fiji, from 1,685 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights on Air New Zealand from London to Nadi, all transfers, 10 dives, tanks, weights and airfills. Two shark dives cost 66 extra and must be booked in advance.
Further viewing Christian Slater is appearing in 'Swimming with Sharks' at The Vaudeville Theatre, London (0870 890 0511), until 19 January
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