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.
Encounters of the Toothy Kind
Steve Weir tells where to find the best shark diving.
Creatures that you might see close up and personal on a shark-dive.
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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!
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
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
A 2-3 tank dive, including shark dive: $75.00 US Contact the Fort
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
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 : firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Creatures that you might see close up and personal on a shark-dive
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
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.
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
Caribbean / Atlantic
Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas
Walker's Cay, Bahamas
Grand Bahama, Bahamas
New Providence, Bahamas
Papua New Guinea
Morehead City, N.C
San Diego, Ca.