Caribbean

 

Sharks!
In the world of extreme sport diving, thrill seekers pay to put the bite into the ultimate experience. The biggest thrills of all? Going for the three F's: feed 'em, feel 'em and film 'em,
says Steve Weir. Lucky the dive writer lived to tell about it.

Close Encounters of the Toothy Kind
Steve Weir tells where to find the best shark diving.

Creature Features
Creatures that you might see close up and personal on a shark-dive.

 

 

Sharks!

Lying neglected on the dock of the Islamarada marina, the only attention the dead gray reef shark attracted was from flies. Four-foot long, with a mouth full of teeth, the shark was too small to be entered into the local shark fishing derby and too chewy to be sold for dog food.

examine the carcass of this fish that he had often encountered underwater. On dry land the shark looked small, harmless and so defenseless. The diver, wondering how he could ever defend himself underwater against a shark attack, took out the foot long knife he had strapped to his ankle and stabbed at the fish.

Like an encounter with flubber, the knife bounced off the shark's skin. "Huh," said the diver. He knelt down beside the carcass and began chopping at the shark in a style that would make Norman Bates proud.

Slash. Stab. Hack. No matter how hard the diver tried, the shark's skin repelled the blade. Sweaty and tired, the would-be knife artist gave up and turned his attention to the end of the dock where a gaggle of fishermen were hanging up the big sister to his victim - a 9-foot long, still twitching Carch Arthinus Perezi .

Now this was a shark of significance. Six hundred pounds. A leathery skin even tougher than the little guy on the dock. And, a face so overflowing with razor sharp teeth it would bring tears of joy to an orthodontist.

The diver looked at his knife, stared at the trophy shark and shuddered. In a close encounter underwater, those teeth would always win out over his knife!

Time to reevaluate the sport of diving? Nah. This man, like hundreds of other tourists each year, promised himself right there and then that he would get in the water with a shark that size, even if he had to pay for the encounter.

Killing machine. Perfect predator. Deep-water garbage collector. Some species of sharks fit those bills. But lately, in dive centers around the world, big sharks have also become celebrated stars for the latest home vacation videos. In the world of extreme sport diving, the biggest kick is the 3-Fs of shark diving - feed 'em, feel 'em and film 'em.

Now dive shop operators in places like California, Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, South Africa, Ecuador and Australia are promising to put divers and sharks together for the feeding encounter of a lifetime.

No guns. No knives. No kidding. Most operations allow the divers to watch, unprotected, as man-sized reef sharks are hand-fed chunks of fish. Shark cages are rarely provided except when divers venture out to the deep ocean to watch Tiger Sharks, Mako Sharks or Great Whites dine.

(Fish) Tails From Florida

If only the beautiful people frolicking on the private beaches of Boca Raton knew what the divers were doing as their boat ran slowly parallel to the shore. There was a stiff current that day - we couldn't anchor. Instead, as our small charter boat chugged above the dive site, our party of seven divers quickly jumped in and headed for the bottom, 40 feet below.

Towing a box full of tuna bits and octopi parts, we veered toward a small coral ledge that rises 4 feet from the sand. This is a spot in the Atlantic Ocean where sharks have learned they can get a daily free meal, and the coral ledge offers divers some protective cover against the sharks who are sure to arrive.

After settling on the bottom, our dive guide opened the bait box, took out a bloody fish head, stuck it on a long barbecue fork and waved it in the murky water. Sharks are very sensitive to the smell of blood. Barely minutes later, the sharks began arriving.

The first ones in for dinner were a pair of small, skittish, 3-foot-long reef sharks. At first they wouldn't nibble at the chunk of raw fish but we knew: with sharks, hunger always wins out over discretion. Before long, they had snapped off hors d'oeuvres and gobbled them down, but not before an amazing flow of fish blood and body parts splurted into the water. Letting tuna bits float free is like ringing a dinner bell for the big boys. Man-sized sharks, "smelling" the blood in the water soon showed up, making a targeted bee-line for the bait box.

My camera-man took a close-up picture of the eye of the female shark as she bit into a hunk of fish head. The flash's bright light didn't slow down the feeding. But when the unit began to recharge, the shark snapped her head in our direction, took a bead on the camera gear and went into attack mode.

There was no time for the shark wrangler (a diver with a metal pole used to ward off aggressive sharks) to step in. It was just the shark versus the dive writer and photographer. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but, it was a 35-mm camera that saved my bacon. Our large, bulky camera kit came in handy. As the shark snapped at us, the cameraman put his Nikonis directly in front of the shark's mouth. The shark nipped at the metal casing, then quickly turned back for more tuna. After blocking the shark three times with the camera, we wisely decided to turn off the flash unit and use our video camera instead.

"Our biggest problem here is not with the sharks, but with fishermen," explained Captain Mike Rohrbaugh. "We no sooner get a group of sharks used to the divers, then the fishermen move in for the kill. Some hunt for the sport and for their meat. Other hunt out of fear of sharks. We are down to about five or six sharks today. Last August we had two dozen."

Captain Mike Rohrbaugh, like many other "shark tourism" operators, blames author Peter Benchley for the fear and loathing that many people have towards sharks. His book Jaws sold 20 million copies. The movie version of that novel has kept fearful swimmers out of the ocean for decades.

"Completely inadvertently, it tapped into a very, very deep fear," Peter Benchley recently told an Associated Press reporter. "If I had done it on purpose, it would be one thing. But I didn't know for years what was responsible for the enormous phenomenon of Jaws."

Benchley deeply regrets the "momentary spasm of macho nonsense" that has provoked people to slaughter sharks in the wake of his book and the movie. But the American writer says that he is now comforted by the letters he gets from people who say his book fostered an interest in sharks and a desire to preserve them.

Shark appreciation is slowly growing into a tourist attraction up and down the coast of Florida and in the deep waters off the California coast. The sport has become a real hot-ticket industry in the Caribbean where shallow, warm waters offer good visibility for divers, the protected dive sites and an abundance of big, but rather benign reef sharks eager to pose for pictures.

In the Bahamas, most islands have dive operations. Most of those outfits offer daily shark dives. Restricted to certified divers, the typical experience has tourists sitting on the bottom, 40 feet down, while shark wranglers (many of them wearing chain mail suits) hand out frozen chunks of grouper and parrot fish to the huge sharks who have learned where and when the dinner bell will sound.

The large sharks pass within touching distance of the divers. Intent on the easy meal, they have no interest in the neoprene-clad voyeurs. Cameras flash. Videos whirl. Heart beats increase.

Why aren't tourists eaten? Sharks consider humans too bony and lean to make a good meal. Bloody fish bits are much better and, with the shark feed dives, the food is plentiful and already precut.

Reef sharks by and large won't dine on humans. Even in the case of the Great White shark, 8 times out 10 it will spit out a diver after taking a bite. Small solace though to the victim: with the sheer power in the jaws of a Great White, that one bite is usually fatal.

With that in mind, operators of dive encounters with Great White Shark provide underwater protection for paying customers and staff alike. Four-person steel cages are lowered into the water and the divers climb inside to await the arrival of the Great White. Bait - bloody hunks of meat - is dangled right beside the cage so that the feeding will occur within inches of the spectators.

Naturalists don't like shark feedings. They say it promotes bad feeding patterns for the sharks and sets up the possibility of sharks attacking scuba tourists.

Divers concerned about this issue can choose a destination where they are likely to encounter sharks without the use of conditioning techniques and boxes of fish parts.

Where to go? Well, the sites are few and far between, but, the dive community often travels to the Sea of Cortez to see 40-foot long whale sharks. Divers in Palau are almost guaranteed to spot Tiger Sharks hunting along the outer reefs and in the cold waters off the Galapagos Islands Hammerhead Sharks school by the thousands. However, as I found out late last year, just because you look for Hammerheads doesn't mean you always get what you came for.

The Big Stuff

Academy Bay on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos is home to half a dozen dive shops and live-aboard boats. All of the operators promise Hammerhead encounters.

Hammerheads are long, ugly killing machines. Growing to a length of 14 feet, the Sphyma Lewini is easily identified by the scalloped head - the left and right eye sockets of the Hammerhead are feet apart!

When encountered singly, the Hammerhead is considered a dangerous shark. When Hammerheads school, they become oblivious to spectators. In the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador, these sharks have been known to school in the hundreds.

I had a chance to look for Hammerheads while on a one-day stopover in Santa Cruz. Because there were no deep-water charters going out that day, I settled for a dive in Academy Bay. "However," promised shop owner Marhias Espinosa, "We can explore the shoreline - the bay is filled with white tip sharks."

Storm clouds rolled in and the seas mounted as our group of four divers headed out in a small wooden punt to dive alongside a stone point that jutted out into Academy Bay. The black rocks of the quay were home to a healthy population of Sea Lions. The cows had just given birth and the pups were taking their first swims in the water.

Hitting the water, my Ecuadorian dive guide headed straight for the bottom. At a depth of 40 feet the water was extremely turbid. I could barely make out the guide's yellow flippers, just a few strokes ahead.

The water was punishing cold, but it didn't stop the well-insulated sea lions from taking a look. One young pup swam under my arm. Another tugged at my flipper. An adult swam up and glared in my mask as if warning me not to touch her child.

Suddenly, there were no sea lions in the water, and my dive partner was nowhere to be seen. I looked up and down. I scanned left and right. Where was my dive guide? I stopped worrying when the first big shark moved in. Coming out of the gloom, its snout passed within a foot of my shoulder, so close that I could examine its cold, passionless, unblinking eye as it glided slowly by.

The visibility was so poor that, looking backwards from its eye, I couldn't immediately see its tail. I held my breath, waiting to be bitten as the mature gray Galapagos shark went by. Larger. Wider. Toothier than me. Make no mistake: I was just five feet from shore, sharing the water with a shark that was capable of devouring me.

As the dorsal fin passed under me, I started breathing and swimming again. I expected the beast to turn and come back at me from behind. Still, when I felt a large thump on my tank I began shaking with both fear and surprise. Something had my aluminum tank in grips. It didn't thrash like a shark would - it felt more like an octopus had latched onto my kit.

No time to stop and disengage, I had another problem coming in off the port side. A second Galapagos Shark was on target, and this one dropped its nictating membrane, you know - the membrane that protects the shark's eyes during feeding.

Time stopped. Again. As the shark came near my head, it veered slightly towards the open seas and passed without making contact.

Technically the shark is the Carcharinus Galapagensis, and is often called the Gray Reef Whaler Shark. With two rows of 14 razor sharp teeth, the Galapagos Shark has recorded several human kills. This beast can reach a maximum length of 13 feet.

Luckily I was not on the menu that day. With seal pups in the water and reduced visibility, the Galapagos Sharks were going for take-out.

When the sharks had left my field of vision, I started to look for my dive guide. It didn't take long to figure out where he was - hanging on to my scuba tank!

We made a second dive that day at a location miles away from the feeding Galapagos Shark. We saw one small shark but I was quite happy that it didn't stay long around us.

At the end of the dive we returned to shore and I paid for my dive. The cost for the boat rental, the dive gear and the guide was $125.00 US. The cost of the adrenalin? Free!

Close Encounters Of the Toothy Kind:
The Best Shark Diving

Only certified divers are permitted to take part in shark dives. All of the dive operations offer certifying training course (about one week, at $400 US). All operations rent scuba gear and offer to video tape your shark encounters (approximate cost: $50 US per tape).

The Bahamas

Stuart Cove Shark Adventure
CB 13737, Nassau, Paradise Island, The Bahamas
Afternoon dives only: $110.00 - $115.00 US
Includes free swim with the sharks and shark feeding dive.
For details about diving at Stuart Cove's Dive South Ocean or the South Ocean Golf & Beach Resort call their US reservation office:
at Phone: 800-879-9832, 954-524-5755. Fax: 954-524-5925
In the Bahamas, Phone: 242-362-4171.

Stella Maris Resort Club
Long Island, Southern Bahamas
A 6-day dive package, 2-3 dives per day: $405.00 US includes shark dive.
A 2-3 tank dive, including shark dive: $75.00 US Contact the Fort Lauderdale office,
1100 Lee Wagner Blvd Suite 354, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33315
Club phone: 800-426-0466 / 954-359-8236. Fax: 954-359-8238
Stella Maris Resort: 242-338-2051. Fax: 242-338-2052
E-mail: smrc@stellamarisresort.com

Florida

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Ocean Promotion Scuba & Snorkel Adventures
Matt & Sarah-Jayne Brown
Phone: 954-561-4499. Fax: 305-772-3835 headquartered at:
Villas By the Sea Resort & Beach Club
4456 El Mar Drive, Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Florida
2- tank, morning shark dive with Captain Mike Rohrbaugh
Costs $45.00 US, with pick-up at all major Fort Lauderdale hotels

Great White Shark Encounters
Great White Shark Encounters typically last 5 to 10 days. Since the expeditions operate in deep water, most of the expeditions require the use of live-aboard boats. The use of steel cages, broadcast quality cameras, safety divers and boat crew, comes at a cost. Budget on spending $1,000 Cdn per person per day. (Airfare extra). Selected operators around the world include:

Rodney Fox & Mike Ball, Great White Shark Expeditions
c/o Rodney Fox Shark Museum,
Moseley Square, Glenelg, 5045
Adelaide, South Australia
Phone : +618 8376 3373
Fax : +618 8376 3362
Email : rodneyfox@chariot.net.au
http://www.mikeball.com/itin7.htm

San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions, Mr. Paul Anes,
6747 Friar's Road, Suite 112, San Diego,
California 92108-1110, USA

South Africa Shark & Whale Dives,
2000 Broadway, Suite 1204
San Francisco, CA. 94115 USA
Phone: 1-877-2CWHALE / 877-229-4253
e-mail: trips@biganimals.com
http://www.biganimals.com

Creature Features
Creatures that you might see close up and personal on a shark-dive include:

Lemon Sharks: The fast moving Negaprion brevirostris is considered dangerous to man. Yellowish brown in color, the lemon shark is identified by its short, blunt rounded snout. The lemon often travels in schools and can grow to 11 feet in length. Considered dangerous.

Reef Shark: A variety of reef sharks appear daily at the Shark Encounters including the Caribbean Reef Shark and the Black Tip Shark. Carcharthinus Perezi grows to a maximum of 10 feet and is silvery grey with a white underside. Considered dangerous.

Bull Shark: Often considered a man-eater, Carcharhinus leucas grows to a maximum size of 12 feet. Although not long in size, it has a heavy thick body. Easy to identify because of its small eyes and grey coloring. The appearance of this shark at shark encounters always gets the immediate attention of shark wranglers.

Nurse Shark: The friendly toothless giant. Ginglymostoma cirratum grows to 14 feet in length. Inhabits shallow water zone of the reef. It is often found lying on the sand under ledges and overhangs where it lies motionless unless bothered. It may bite if you pull its long grey tail fin.

Great White Shark: Mr. Jaws. The Big One. The world's most dangerous animal. An adult Carcharodon carcharias can grow up to 23 feet in length, weigh 7,000 pounds and live more than 20 years. The Great White is found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Oceanic Islands and the Indian Ocean. The Great White has been known to eat people but it prefers tuna, seals, sea lions, other sharks, small whales, otters, sea turtles and sea birds. This shark is considered very dangerous to man.

Hammerhead Shark: Hammerheads are distinctive sharks whose heads have evolved to look like hammers. The head is flattened and extended to either side with the eyes set on the outer edges. Sphyrnidae grows to 14 feet, is gray with a pale underside and is considered dangerous to man.

Galapagos Shark: Carcharinus galapagensis lives in the coastal and pelagic waters of the Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Galapagos shark likes to hang out near islands which have clear waters, rocky beds and uneven coral. This shark is considered very dangerous to man.

The best place in the world to swim with sharks?

Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine recently asked its readers where to go for the best big shark encounters in the world. The US-based publication received a huge response from its readers to formulate this list:

Caribbean / Atlantic
Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas
Walker's Cay, Bahamas
Grand Bahama, Bahamas
New Providence, Bahamas
Bimini, Bahamas

Indo-Pacific
Galapagos Islands
Palau
Yap, Micronesia
French Polynesia
Papua New Guinea

North America
Morehead City, N.C
San Diego, Ca.

 

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