By Rich Holland
A shape looms far away in the deep blue water and grows larger and as you realize the approaching fish is a tiger shark it continues to grown in size until the broad head and wide grin of the shark are right in your face, so close that a remora on the tiger’s forehead scrambles back towards the gill rakers to avoid the inevitable collision just as the massive shark sharply pivots at the point of a speargun, displaying the full tiger striping of its flanks as it swims away.
The video footage captured by John ‘Masta P’ Pestana, of which only a portion is shown here, is amazing and none the less so when you learn he has grown up swimming with tiger sharks. The opening sequence is just the beginning of a remarkable interplay between diver and shark, as Masta P scans the surface and subsurface until he regains visual contact with the tiger. The shark comes back and swims right under John’s Ocean Kayak, anchor chain and extra spearguns dangling over the side, until eventually Pestana feeds the shark a large piece of chum and the tiger glides to the ocean bottom.
That’s right, while most viewers get a feeling of panic and would long ago have tried to scramble up into the kayak if they were in Masta P’s fins, he instead feeds the shark. How can he be so calm?
“I’m just comfortable with tiger sharks, I have been around them since I was five,” says Pestana, who grew up on the Westside of Oahu. “I rode three of them already, I am very, very comfortable in the water. I went night diving alone when I was six years old.”
There is no hint of brag or boast when you talk to Masta P, just a confident, calm tone of someone who knows where he belongs — in the water, preferably hunting for his own next meal. Comfortable is definitely the word.
So comfortable that he says he wanted the shark to come to him, purposefully holding on to a large piece of chum (an ahi head) just to get the tiger closer to the camera. It’s the same chunk of fish he feeds the tiger a bit later.
Yet John is not in the water to chum up sharks. No, he’s chasing open water fish and chumming is part of his speardiving approach.
“I look for areas that hold the smaller fish the pelagic fish feed on and I take the chum with me when I dive,” says Masta P. “Eventually the bigger fish in the area come and then I use the bigger pieces.”
Pestana spearfishes for “ahi, ono, mahi mahi — anything big, anything that is hard to shoot, that’s my goal” and his biggest fish on the speargun is a monster 119-pound ulua.
“I was expecting to see a tiger shark, I see them every time, I’m never afraid,” says the Masta. “I have mad respect for tiger sharks, but I have no fear.”