Colleen McKinnel describes the intensity and magic of a dive with tiger sharks in Fiji and what being a scuba diver means to her
Jason Elias: 0:07
Hi and welcome to the Biep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean people for whom that connection is so strong it define some aspect of their life over the course of the series, will talk to all sorts of people in each episode, will explore the deeper meaning of that connection in this episode way.
Paul Kelway: 0:36
In this episode we Speak to someone with an incredible passion for the ocean. She tells the story of one of the most intense dives she's ever done. Hello, this Paul Kelway and I'm Jason Elias. Welcome to the big deep podcast.
Jason Elias: 0:52
I first met Colleen when she certified my wife to dive. My wife and I had written her own vows for our wedding, and we didn't tell each other what those vows we're going to be. So I was really surprised when one of her vows was to get certified to go scuba diving, particularly because I'm such a big diver but I knew she was hesitant to do it because of her fear of sharks. So a year after we got married, she went in to get certified at a local dive shop, and that's where she met Colleen McKinnell, the dive master at the shop. Over the course of her certification, her and Colleen became very close friends. So I sat down with Colleen to talk with her about one the most amazing dive she's done in Fiji with Tiger sharks.
Jason Elias: 1:33
As you know, I'm a photographer and I shot for Shark Week, and one of my experiences was in Tahiti, swimming with a 17 foot tiger shark, which was wonderful but for me was far outside the bounds of anything I'd ever done in my entire life. Can you tell me a little story about your tiger shark experience?
Colleen McKinnell: 1:50
Sure, so its absolutely is a mind boggling experience. It's hard to even put it under words. It is a dive in Fiji, out in Bengal lagoons. So we went down to a coral wall spot. Essentially picture an arena in front of you. Open water. You're about 70 feet down. You're kneeling behind a coral wall that they've built up. There's fish in the water and in the water and immediately there's already large jacks, trivalis, all kinds of little trigger fish, fish of every size and every shape, and essentially a wall of fish - more fish than I've ever seen. So there's so many fish eating all little tiny bits of debris in the water that the dive masters that brought down.
Colleen McKinnell: 2:38
So the diver to my left, she's a little bit nervous, so she's grabbing onto my arm and squeezing it because the sharks at this point start to show up there. Black tips there. Nurse sharks. There were bulls, lemons, and then finally, the tiger showed up. There were actually three tiger sharks. All of them were over 12 feet long. So between 12 and 14 feet to me, they seemed like 17 feet. So as as the dive goes on, we're only down there about five minutes at this point. But bigger and bigger fish are showing up, and it starts to get more and more frenzied. So first is just the smaller fish eating, swimming around in the bigger fish, darting in and out trevalis bigger than I've ever seen, like four and 1/2 feet. I mean, they're insane. Sharks start to show up and they are darting in and out. It's complete and utter chaos at this point. Like I remember looking up and thinking This is insane. This is absolutely insane. There's so many fish starting around. Fish bumping into the small fish, sharks far out in the distance, not too close, but as the feed gets on, more and more fishes in the water so the sharks start to get closer and closer.
Colleen McKinnell: 3:56
As the energy increased as more and more fish showed up, all of a sudden you're in the middle of a fish battle, and you're trying not to get bumped in the head by one of the fish trying to get a piece. At one point, the pieces of fish are flying over your head and the sharks are over your head, eating. So you're ducking down and they literally came close enough every single time as they pass by the wall, that they could have bitten me or the diver next to me, and I just remember thinking this'd is absolute chaos.
Colleen McKinnell: 4:31
But it was absolutely incredible that as their swimming by, you could look into their eyes and just see the power and the beauty and the majesty of such an amazing creature. And and it was just sobering. It was absolutely heart stopping because you see how strong they are and how powerful and yet how calm. And I just remember thinking, It's just absolutely magical to be down there with these animals.
Jason Elias: 5:01
Yeah, I think one of the things I find interesting, particularly about those kind of experiences, I've had a number of sharks but never, never as crazy as the video footage of what you're doing, but is that those particular kind of dives are not probably for everyone. That's one of the extremes of human experience and maybe even one of more extremes of diving. What feeling does that evoke in you that made it so amazing. Was it fear, was it adrenaline? Was it power? Magic? What was it?
Colleen McKinnell: 5:28
That's a really good question. When I did the Tiger Shark dive, it's hard to express what really it was that drove me to do that. I think the biggest thing for me, the reason why I wanted to do the dive was because I love sharks. I love the idea of being with these incredible sharks and doing an experience that's world renowned. I'm not an adrenaline junkie, but there is something to be said for anything having to do with an animal, I'm pretty much all in. Any kind of dive where I have the opportunity to come face to face with an animal that many people go their whole lives without getting to see, getting to experience looking an animal like that in the eye, that's that's why I did it. So, yes, there was a lot of fear involved. There was a lot of this is not safe. And yet this is one of the most amazing experiences that show us what life is. You think, I'm living in this moment! Because you're not thinking about what bills you're paying. You're not doing the day to day grind. It's, ah, completely mind open. I am living in this moment. The world is right in my face and I am living life to the fullest.
Colleen McKinnell: 6:58
What is it to you? What does it mean to be a diver?
Colleen McKinnell: 7:02
For me being a diver, it's a part of who Colleen is. It's a piece of my heart. The sense of awareness and respect that I have for the ocean is because of who I am. When I'm down underwater, being a part of a world that's so magical and then coming out of it and thinking I want to protect that so that we always have that. So even if I'm not the best ocean advocate and I'm not out there with posters every weekend, I am an advocate and I have to live my life knowing that choices I make do affect the ocean. It's an incredible world that I feel lucky to be a part of.
Paul Kelway: 7:58
Finally, we often end our interviews by asking our guests a single, open ended question. What does the ocean mean to you?
Paul Kelway: 8:15
So for me, the ocean is a place of excitement, place of mystery. There's always something new you just never know and diving what you're gonna see. The inability to know exactly makes the ocean a powerful place that makes the ocean like unknown wild land, to feel like I'm in this place that I shouldn't be. And I'm next to these beautiful, majestic animals. And I like to show them the respect that I feel they deserve, and appreciate the beauty that you can't do unless you're right next to the animal living in that environment. To be able to get into that unknown wild land and never know what you're gonna find is intoxicating.