Beqa Lagoon in Fiji Times
A couple of weeks ago we were lucky enough to be joined by Fiji Times reported Ernest Heatley. Mr. Heatley was spending some time on Beqa Island to learn more about the rich culture that is found on this special island. Each week he is writing a piece about different aspects of Beqa Island and life for Fijians living in this beautiful location.
Beqa, Divers and Dakuwaqa the Shark God
by Ernest Heatley
Published Sunday 3rd August 2014
Amazing and fearsome predators, sharks represent one of the most threatened marine species on the planet. Yet despite their importance to marine eco-systems, sharks continue to be slaughtered in their millions annually for food. Admired in equal measures as they are feared, these creatures continue to fascinate visitors to our shores with our tourism industry, coastal rural communities and the marine environment all the better for it. In fact an analysis by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Western Australia concluded four years ago that shark-related diving contributed US$42.2 million to the economy of Fiji. Additionally it also found the shark-diving industry builds up at least an additional US$4 million annually for Fijian communities through salaries and local levies.
On a recent trip to Beqa, I witnessed first-hand the positive impact the shark diving industry has on the local economy, people and marine system.
The weather was frigid as our launch made its way from Beqa Lagoon Resort with a half a dozen excited shark enthusiasts who travelled specifically to the island from all corners of the globe to get a closer look at these amazing animals. We were heading out to Beqa Passage, a point on the Cakaulevu (Big Reef) and specifically to a spot named Bistro, in the waters off Wainiyabia. It took about 45 minutes travelling through choppy seas before we got to the Bistro and already remora fish known locally as bakewa had gathered in great numbers at the sight.
Beside me sat one of two guides from Rukua Village on Beqa who are used regularly during this shark feeding exercises. Netava Labalaba, 35, has been a diver now for more than 13 years and is one of 18 people from various villages on the island currently employed by the resort. “I love this job and cannot see myself doing any other thing. Many people are afraid of sharks but they really are beautiful creatures to behold when you’re in the water,” he said. “It sounds scary but it is fun and safe to do.”
This man’s respectful attitude toward sharks takes on an even greater meaning when you consider the mythological connection between the people of Rukua Village and sharks.
………..According to an i-Taukei legend, the shark god Dakuwaqa is originally from Rukua Village and now lives in an underwater cave on the island’s coastline. Because of the connection between the Beqa people and their vu or ancestral god, many on the island believe they are protected by these deadly ocean predators. It all seemed quite logical that these young men are used for shark diving considering their typically respectful ancestral reverence for the shark.
……….“If there is a problem the person has with the vanua, then he may get bitten, but I can’t recall when was the last time someone was actually bitten over here,” said Sunia Duwai, 28, of Raviravi Village, just a stone’s throw away from the resort.
During the journey the divers told me of an elder Rukua villager named Rusiate Balenigasau whose feats under water with sharks have become the stuff of legend. It is said that Balenigasau, who works for another dive company, once removed a long-line fishing hook from the jaws of an 18-foot tiger shark nicknamed Scarface who the other divers were also familiar with.
………..“Isa o Scarface,” reminisced Labalaba, in a way that was akin to someone pining over his favourite puppy dog.
I must admit that it would take some time before I could share similar warm and gentle feelings about such a ferocious monster such as Scarface. “Tiger sharks are seen normally only a few times each month, unlike other species like silvertip and white tips who usually stay within the same area, tigers more or less roam around more,” Labalaba explained.
A few of the visitors were visibly excited and nervous about their impending dive and the cold weather complicated things for them.
Finally we arrived at the Bistro which has a depth of about 26 metres and thriving with marine life. The visitors were quickly fitted with their SCUBA gear and carefully let into the water by the very efficient handlers.
……….It is estimated that one in every 10 visitors to Fiji engages in shark diving. A boatload of visitors travelling from Pacific Harbour had made the trip to the site simultaneously as it was a coordinated dive between the resort and Aqua Trek, whose divers would be doing the actual shark feeding. One visitor had to be encouraged by the diving team before mustering enough courage to get into the chilly waters.
………..The first dive took around half an hour and there was an hour long break in between the second one. When the divers surfaced, excitement of what they had just witnessed was written all over their faces. They had just seen white and silver tipped sharks as well as bull sharks greedily gobble up mahimahi heads from specialist shark feeders from Aqua Trek.
…………“There is simply nothing like this,” exclaimed Daniel Winitzky, a conservationist and filmmaker. “I have worked with electric eels, piranhas and pumas in the Amazon region but nothing like this. What you have here is just fantastic!”
The operation is one of a number of similar businesses in areas like the Yasawas, Taveuni and Pacific Harbour.
Diving with sharks is a booming business globally, with established operations found in at least 83 locations in 29 countries. About 75 shark and ray species inhabit Fiji waters and according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species, 66 per cent of these species are globally threatened or near threatened. It is estimated that up to 73 million sharks are killed annually mainly for their fins, which are used to make shark fin soup, a popular dish in Asia. Winitsky said the professionalism and confidence of the Beqa divers “made all of us feel very safe down there.”
It made them feel even more relaxed when they were informed about the special link between the sharks and Beqa divers.
………..According to Rukua Village historian Mika Tubanavou, oral history related through generations point to Dakuwaqa said to still live on Beqa’s coastline at a point called Derebu and continues to protect the people. Tubanavou said Dakuwaqa was initially Rukua Village’s chief fisherman until he died and was transformed into the shark deity. Tubanavau, 68, said it began when the gonedau (traditional fishermen) leader of the Tui Rukua, named Cakaubalavu, went out fishing at sea.
Traditionally, a special dish of qalu (dessert of root crops or fruits and coconut milk) is made and wrapped in banana leaves for them. On returning, Cakaubalavu and his fellow fishermen met empty banana leaves floating at sea with the qalu having been eaten by a group of young men who went ashore first. Furious, Cakaubalavu swam and overturned three times before transforming into a shark. Feeling embittered with the reception he received, Cakaubalavu vowed to leave Beqa together with his fellow traditional fishermen in search of another land. During the journey a child aboard the canoe cried out aloud for his mother left behind at Rukua saying, “Isa Beqa, isa Nau.”
……….Tubanavou said that after departing from Rukua, Cakaubalavu turned himself into shark. They left Rukua and headed towards Vatulele then to the Yasawas and went on to Buca in Vanua Levu. The Tui Cakau was to subsequently use these fishermen or gonedau and their shark god leader to defeat warriors from Natewa in a battle on a reef. With the victory, the fishermen of Rukua brought respect to the Tui Cakau and the vanua of Lalagavesi. It was after that battle that Cakaubalavu was known as Dakuwaqa.
……….These days the gonedau comprise the mataqali Benau (Isa Beqa, Isa Nau) at Dreketi in Somosomo. Meanwhile the island of Benau, off the coast of Vanua Levu, is where, legend has it, Dakuwaqa made home.
The following is part of an ancient vucu or traditional i-Taukei chant which was allegedly composed by Dakuwaqa himself.
Rukua noqu koro lagilagi
Au cata ga ni veiwali taki
Tubanavou said that the people of Rukua have since enjoyed the protection of their ancestral god.
Conservation effort reaping rewards
The collaboration between the resort, villagers and fisheries department has resulted in healthier coastal marine eco-systems for the Beqa people.
……….Ken Manning of Nevada in the United States definitely noticed the difference since he last dived at Beqa three years ago. “There seems to be a lot more smaller species and the bigger species are coming back in larger numbers. The fish population is certainly looking healthier from what I’ve seen on my previous visit here,” he said.
……….Winitzky said the shark feeding in Beqa passage represented an economic model where a commercial operation that goes abreast with conservation of the marine ecosystem. “This is an excellent economic model that is good for the economy, the people and nature,” he added. “The visitors come, spend money on watching the sharks and other marine life and all that they take back with them is their photographs and videos. It’s a perfect formula.”
“This is money forever, for your kids and for your grandchildren.”
BLR general manager Graham Back said they were now in the early stages of establishing their own shark feeding operation nearer to the island. “The Tui Raviravi has consented to this and it will directly benefit the people of the area,” said Back. “We want to deliver what is equivalent to the authentic experience and we’ve got quite a vision of what we want to improve upon.”
“We also have a coral planting program which we’ll be implementing later this year.”
White and silver tip sharks, bull-sharks, turtles and some residential schools of barracuda are some of the species that are quite populous in these waters. A five year ban or tabu imposed by the village of Rukua on commercial fishing within its coastal waters or Marine Protected Area (MPI) has helped improve the population of marine life.
……….There are many other fish species, coral life and outdoor activities that continue to attract visitors to Beqa but sharks will without a doubt continue to be its main attraction.
……….With the conservation efforts in place married with a balanced commercial approach, this unique marine ecosystem looks set to benefit the people of Beqa and its future generations for years to come.