Some people idolize rock stars, others brilliant scientists or talented athletes. Me, I’d give anything to meet the descendant of the shark. Yesterday, my dream came true… in a humbling way that exceeded my wildest imagination.
Fiji is a very special place for sharks – not just because of the beautiful marine ecosystems that sharks sit atop or the local economies reliant upon healthy fish stocks and shark diving, but because the shark holds a special place in Fiji’s lore, history, and social structure.
In the last few weeks, I’ve heard many stories of sharks. How sharks became the god of war. How they’ve saved people’s lives. How sharks aren’t traditionally fished or eaten – but rather respected. How many, fear the water because they have wronged the sharks or the oceans and knew there would be a price to pay. How the first “shark man” was born.
I know many self-proclaimed “shark men” – those who declare they’ve conquered sharks because they can swim with them, catch them or simply because they adore them. But there is only one true shark man… a man who has earned the title - the Tui Cakau. Things happen with sharks around him – and his father before him – and his grandfather before him – that simply cannot be explained but have been witnessed en masse and documented as well. Sharks choosing them for their important role, sharks surrounding and protecting them when they swim, sharks leading their boats and helping their villagers fish, sharks doling out justice on their behalf, sharks participating in their death rites, even making the long journey from Suva to Taveuni. Those are real “shark men” – brothers to the shark - and their genuine connection to sharks cannot be denied.
So of course I was desperate to meet my royalty! But more than just a personal celebrity infatuation, I somehow felt drawn to him, like we needed to meet. I suppose I believed that if we met – if we got to know one another – I could learn from him and determine the real key to how I could possibly help his brother. That he had some wisdom for me that I had yet to uncover… some clue to conserving sharks I was desperate for. I envisioned him to be my guru of sorts, sharing deep secrets and insights that somehow would point us in the right direction. If I could only get to him… But I’ve learned quickly you cannot MAKE anything happen in Fiji. You earn it through your presence -over time, investing in honest relationships and by displaying genuine authenticity and respect.
While we’ve been receiving the most amazing welcomes throughout the South Pacific and in Fiji by earning them, meeting the Tui Cakau (sounds like Two-eee-tha-caw) wasn’t easy. And certainly wasn’t a sure thing – nor did we immediately get the proverbial red carpet we’ve gotten everywhere else. You see, the Tui Cakau is one of the most powerful men in Fiji – a chief responsible for the largest area in Fiji and dozens of villages and district chiefs. We spent the last month in the South Pacific trying to set it up – and it was more than a challenge. You’ve got to know someone – even a few someone’s very high up who trust and will vouch for you - and you’ve definitely got to have something amazing to offer. And then you have got to hope that somehow things will go your way. And constantly keep the faith. Even an hour prior to our meeting (which was set up several times then cancelled) it wasn’t looking good. I was starting to think it would have been easier to meet with Brad Pitt or Michael Jordan.
By not giving up and being pure in motive, we earned the support of a series of individuals including the local chief, the government representatives, and the Tui Cakau’s personal spokesperson, the Mate ni Vanua. We earned five minutes with him. Feeling the universe on our side for the last month- revealing people and situations along the way that when added up, meant we had a chance. Five felt brief, but I hoped if we met, we’d earn more.
We met in his home, atop a mountain in Taveuni – one of the most beautiful places I have ever been – in an incredible meeting room full of sweet smelling thatch and wood, intricate hand-woven mats on the floor underneath us, a gorgeous mountain breeze enveloping us and what looked like a throne in front of us. And when he entered the room, taking the only chair, his presence filled it first. He had a kind but serious face that felt wise beyond its years and his words, which we hung on, were well chosen as he intentionally maintained a skeptical distance. Later he’d reveal he’d only agreed to the meeting because of those we’d managed to earn the support and respect of – including his son, the teachers and children who spent the afternoon with us the day before, and his entourage which joined us for a Kava ceremony the previous evening. Apparently NGOs were not yet trusted, as he felt they took more from him than they gave. He imagined us to be no different.
Ten minutes of a very formal exchange, in which I was asked to explain why we deserved to be there and what we could do, he looked at us, smiled and said, “Do you drink Kava?” That’s when I knew we had connected. The room shifted and he came and sat in our circle on the floor – smiling and relaxed. The next four hours we sat together, shared ideas, exchanged information, listened, learned, and even laughed. Both of us giving as much as we received
When we left four hours later, forced to pull ourselves away due to our departing ship, the Tui Cakau called us his angels. Not only will that continue to be something I will humbly never forget and always cherish, but also it is a title I will work hard to continually earn; for him and for his brothers, the sharks.