How to swim with sharks in French Polynesia

We recently had a debrief with our crew about swimming with sharks, and thought we’d share with you. Here’s what we have learned so far during our trip…

These sharks are easy to identify and are pretty much harmless; most of the time they are scared of people. They are typically 4-5ft with some individuals getting bigger (although some photos trick you into thinking they are larger!)

Their mouths are small and they are unable to bite things much larger than a fish. They are extremely cautious; they’ll circle a fish head several times and poke it before attempting to bite it. If you get them into a frenzy (lots of bloody fish attracting lots of fish and sharks) then they get more jumpy, but they are still pretty wary. This is generally true of all sharks because as predators they can’t afford to get injured — catching food is tough when wounded, and they might starve.

Incidents of black tips and white tips injuring humans seem to be extremely rare. One young diver in Fakarava got too close to frenzied sharks while diving at night (which happens to be their feeding time) and a shark knocked his regulator, yanked it out of his mouth, requiring several stitches to the young diver’s lip.

A more serious incident occurred with our local friend when he was nine years old; he was splashing around in poor visibility water and a black tip bit his butt! His gluteous maximus required several stitches. From what I can tell, this is characteristic of the vast majority of shark attacks on humans: in poor visibility, the shark bites a person by mistake thinking they are a fish (or seal, in the case of great whites). They realize their mistake and most often don’t bite again.

They are much more hefty and bold than the black & white tip sharks, typically around 6-7 ft. Everyone claims they are safe to swim with. However, they can sometimes be uncomfortably “curious”, investigating who you are. In that scenario the best way to persuade sharks to move away from you is to face them directly; you become much larger, and are not exhibiting prey behavior, so they distance themselves. Making eye contact is also an effective way to shoo them away; like dogs, sharks are intimidated by your gaze.

The main instance in which gray reef sharks are in fact dangerous is during spearfishing. If you shoot a fish the shark will happily try to grab it regardless if the fish is on the spear or in your hands. So the protocol for spearfishing with sharks is to have a buddy who can pull up your float line with spear gun and wounded fish as fast as possible; and the spearfisher stays away. If solo, people take care to ensure there are no sharks in the vicinity and they try to get the fish out of the water as soon as possible. The Tahitian name for this shark is “Raira”, and we often heard the refrain from our friend Bruno in Faaite, who took our crew spearfishing: be careful with the Raira when you catch a fish!