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Bora Bora

When people picture visiting Bora Bora, they imagine themselves lounging on a long white sand beach flanked by green palm trees, looking onto a turquoise lagoon. They don’t see themselves being charged by a predatory shark.  But that’s exactly what happened to the unfortunate traveler in this tale.

This idyllic South Pacific island is surrounded by a ring of reefs, which creates a tranquil lagoon filled with coral and millions of fish. Local tour operators offer a variety of excursions that bring visitors face-to-face with its marine life. One of the most popular is the shark-viewing tour. The best place on the island to see these majestic creatures is the narrow channel connecting the lagoon with the Pacific. Tides rush in and recede through the pass, creating an expressway for marine life. The tidal migrations of fish also attract large sharks, which congregate to partake in a smorgasbord. We decided to take one of these tours, and on our way to the channel, asked our Shark Guide, “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen here?”

The Shark Guide’s Story

“The most common sharks at the channel are sickle fin lemon sharks,” explained our Shark Guide. “These are not the little reef sharks that snorkelers often take pictures of on the lagoon’s coral reefs. Lemon sharks commonly reach twelve feet in length.

“I once had a group of Japanese tourists, one of which looked very nervous. In broken English, he kept asking questions about safety. First, he wanted to know where the diving cage was.

“‘Because the sharks have thousands of fish to eat,’ I explained ‘there’s no need for them to feed on humans.’

“Next, he asked whether anyone had been bitten by a shark there.

“‘Once, a lemon shark bit a diver’s arm,’ I said.

“When I told him this, he started shaking his head and looking distraught. Then he wanted to know what had happened—why had the shark attacked that day.

“‘The diver had been wearing a watch,’ I explained, adding that ‘underwater reflections from metal can remind sharks of their prey.’

“He looked down at his shiny watch and took it off.

 “When we reached the pass, the questioning tourist was visibly scared. He was the last one in the water, and by that time, everyone else in the group had already swum twenty yards from the boat. They were following a shark that was hunting prey in the channel. When I turned to check on the straggler, I saw a big lemon shark rising from the depths below him.

“Before I could get back and calm him down, the scared tourist saw the shark. He flailed wildly with his arms and legs, doing exactly what we had cautioned everyone not to do. It was like watching a car accident happen. His convulsions attracted the shark, and caused it to move right at him, with some speed.

“Just when it looked like he would become the second Bora Bora victim, the tourist turned his back to the shark, pulled off his swimming trunks, and evacuated his bowels—right in the approaching shark’s face. When the cloud of waste hit the shark, it shook its head wildly and then swam off as fast as it could.

“A nearby school of colorful trigger fish then descended to eat the tourist’s waste. My guest furiously tried to slap away the feeding frenzy as their hungry little mouths harmlessly pecked at his most tender regions.

“I’ve been told that the best thing to do if a shark comes in for an attack is to strike it on the nose or gills. Dive shops also sell cans of shark repellent, which can be sprayed in the direction of an approaching shark. But I learned something new that day. If all else fails, just pull down your pants and make your own repellent!”

A few minutes later, we were anchored above the same spot where the Japanese tourist had chased off his shark. The water was crystal clear and deep, perhaps fifty feet. Within minutes of our jumping in, six large lemon sharks rose slowly from the depths, circling us. They were ten or twelve feet long, but they looked even bigger in the water. Our hearts pounded as they swam by us within arm’s reach—and we understood why that Japanese tourist had used the most primitive of defenses.

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