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

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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam