When people think of plunging into the waters off Bali, the things that come into their minds will most likely be great waves, fresh air, wonderful undersea creatures and complete relaxation.
However, for a different Bali getaway, why not pump your adrenaline a little by attempting to swim with the sharks – in a perfectly safe environment – on Bali's “shark island”?
“Shark island” is a marine conservation project called “Bali Sharks” that saves sharks and takes care of them inside a pontoon that acts as a “shark nursery” in Serangan, a small island just off Bali's southeastern shore.
“This project began when I was working on a shark cage off Nusa Dua in 2010,” Bali Sharks founder Paul Friese said.
“One day, I learned about a fisherman killing a tiger shark recently caught at our location. Later, I found out that they were killing sharks every night and there's no regulation here [to prevent it from happening],” he explained.
“That was when I and some of my friends decided to build a shark nursery here in Serangan,” he added.
Sharks are killed in Bali by fishermen looking to sell their fins for profit.
Kill too many sharks and you increase the number of smaller predatory fishes consumed by sharks, which in turn depletes the number of tiny herbivore fish.
Without the presence of these herbivores, the ecosystem will collapse and shift into one dominated by algae that can threaten the existence of the coral reefs.
In the long run, if things do not change for the better and conditions deteriorate, the tourism along Bali's shorelines – which is a significant contributor to the island's economy – may be significantly affected.
Bali Sharks rescues the local sharks by buying them from local fishermen.
Friese said that they usually kept baby sharks until they grew a little larger (about 1.2 meters in length) and were smarter, so that they could survive in deep waters.
The conservation project teams up with the Gili Sharks Foundation to release the sharks back into the wild in the protected marine area (MPA) of the Gili Islands in neighboring West Nusa Tenggara (NTB) province.
So far, the project has successfully rescued more than 60 sharks including one pregnant shark, affectionately called mama hiu (momma shark), which gave birth to three baby sharks.
According to Friese, Bali Sharks' main goal is to become an alternative way to save sharks and form an ecotourism model to provide livelihoods to local fishermen and educate local residents and tourists on the importance of sharks in the marine ecosystem.
Here, visitors can get a chance to swim and snorkel with these magnificent creatures; getting to know them better and so remove the scary image associated with them.
Friese said he was convinced the sharks would not hurt tourists, as they were not interested in eating human flesh.
“They’re more afraid of us than we are of them. When you go swimming with them, they’ll swim away to the other side of the pen,” Friese said reassuringly.
Bali Sharks also has a pontoon in open waters, a mere five minute's boat-ride away from Serangan, where it attempts to test the sharks' adaptability before releasing them into the wild.
Recently, Friese brought seven juvenile reef sharks into this pontoon, where they joined another 20 sharks.
After a brief check-up on all seven sharks, several Bali Sharks staffers finally released them into the pontoon.
Once they were there, the sharks swam around the pontoon as if they were checking out their new environment.
Some visitors tried to feed the sharks with fresh fish, but the creatures seemed uninterested and just kept swimming around.
Then Pak Nyoman, one of Friese's colleagues at Bali Sharks, threw in a bucket of fish and water containing fish blood.
At this, the sharks showed a bit of interest, checking the fish meat several times before finally snatching them with their teeth at lighting speed.
The scene was a reminder to all those watching that sharks are tremendous hunters.
Other visitors stood up on the wooden steps trying to touch the black-tip sharks, which did swim by a few times but ended up swimming away.
The newly arrived white-tip sharks, meanwhile, just swam up and down as if they were really enjoying their new environment.