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Pam Grout

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Swimming With Sharks In Fiji's Beqa Lagoon (VIDEO)

Posted: 07/26/2012 7:00 am

About the only thing more controversial right now than Mitt Romney and Bain Capital are sharks, the fright-inducing predators perched at the top of the ocean food chain. Not only did a Great White nicknamed Brutus make quick work of a 24-year-old Western Australian surfer recently, but the government of China this month, kowtowing to sign-carrying protestors in shark costumes, officially banned from state dinners shark fin soup, long considered a symbol of wealth and prestige.

As much as I support that decision (activists claim the appetite for the gelatinous soup fuels the killing of some 73 million sharks a year), I wasn't sure I wanted to come nose to nose with a fish that has seven rows of flesh-tearing teeth. In fact, when our Fijian dive caption first announced that my daughter and I would be snorkeling Beqa Lagoon's Shark Reef Marine Reserve, my initial reaction was to become as neurotic and overly-protective as Marlin in "Finding Nemo."

Sure, I took appreciative glances at the sprawling sea fans, the orangutan crabs and the neon bright schools of fish that live in this 40-mile ring of reef formed from an extinct volcano crater, but I couldn't help but nervously look back over my shoulder every time a shark whizzed by like a slingshot-launched Angry Bird.

Most of the sharks were three or four feet long, small enough to fend off with a punch to the old kisser if the need should arise, but every now and then, an 8- or 10-foot monster blacktip or silver tip swam by, rendering me into a blubbering idiot, barely more useful than Ellen DeGeneres' Dory with her nosebleed and short-term memory loss.

I had to keep reminding myself of the dive captain's assurance that Great Whites are not among the eight species of sharks that frequent the famed soft coral of Beqa Lagoon and that Scarface, the 18-foot tiger shark that fancies the fish attracted by the dive boat's chum, is practically as tame as Lassie.

Shark Reef is one of nearly 100 dive sites in the 100 square miles that make up Beqa Lagoon, a diver's paradise off the windward side of Viti Levu, the largest of Fiji's 300 islands. The barrier reef off the western edge is one of the world's largest and the shark sanctuary with its famed bull sharks, tawny nurse sharks, whitetip, blacktip and grey reef sharks, sicklefin lemon sharks, silvertips and tigers is as open as Kathy Lee Gifford during her Regis days. No cages. No special gear. Just you and Scarface doing water ballet.

As exhilarating as it is to swim with sharks, I have to admit I was even more jazzed when Taz and I climbed up the boat's ladder, missing nary a limb, for our return to Royal Davui, the secluded island resort where we were staying.

The Fijian name for the lush, beach-rimmed island that makes up Royal Davui is Ugaga (don't even try to pronounce it. The Fijian language is anything but phonetic) and, after being tossed around from tribe to tribe (one chief would give the island to another chief who would reward yet another chief for protecting his village), it was finally in 2004 turned into the Clint Eastwood of romantic resorts. That is to say Royal Davui has nabbed pretty much every award you can get (from Trip Advisor to Conde Nast) for being one of the world's most romantic destinations.

Not only do you get the whole 10-acre island to yourself (well, you and a handful of other guests), but each of the resort's 16 vales, perched on the edge of the island with knee-weakening views of the coral reef, is secluded and intimate. Although we, as a mother/daughter team, didn't imbibe, honeymooners and others so romantically inclined can enjoy private meals on their balconies, midnight skinny dips in their own personal plunge pools and teams of massage therapists who happily set up tables in their spacious outdoor living room overlooking the crystal clear Pacific.

Every morning at breakfast, a joyous affair under the restaurant's monstrous banyan tree, we were presented with the entire day's menu and asked to plan our gastronomic day. The menu is customized daily depending on which fish and fresh produce, 90 percent of which is locally sourced (which means it comes from either Pacific Harbour or one of the 11 villages on Beqa Island), happens to be available.

Despite the ooh-la-la food and views and stunning accommodations, the best part of Royal Davui is the staff, each of whom knew us by name, willingly dropped whatever they were doing to teach us how to play Sequence, one of the resort's many board games, and invited us to join a nightly volleyball game, known familiarly as Fiji vs. The Rest of the World. On other nights, we enjoyed crab races, coconut shows and kava ceremonies.

Turns out being stranded on an island in the middle of shark-infested waters is not a bad way to spend a vacation. Unlike Gilligan and his crew who spent three seasons hatching plans to return home, we considered hiding when the boat came to return us to Viti Levu, and will likely spend the rest of our life figuring out how to get back there.

 

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