Up Close and Personal

By October 5, 2013Photography, Travel, Wildlife

I step to the edge of the dive platform and make a last check of my gear. I look down. The water is impossibly blue and I am almost sure that I can see a thick grey silhouette slipping beneath the boat. I could be mistaken. Perhaps it is just last minute nerves and the nagging thought that there is a remote possibility that I could make it on one of the bloodier episodes of Shark Week. Oh well, I whisper to no one. Bismillah. I press my regulator and mask to my face and step off the platform into almost transparent waters of the Bahamas….

The first moments are always disorienting. Cold water floods your wetsuit and your breath becomes shallow and ragged. You can hear your heart thumping in your chest and the bubbles escaping from your regulator sounds shockingly loud. Your body takes a few seconds to get used to the weightlessness of the new medium and your brain instinctively searches for a reference point. A rock below, the ocean floor, the drop line from the boat. Something to help it decide which way is up and ward off a sensation of falling when it fails to find a point of reference. Take all of those things and then throw in the fact that you will soon come face to face with an apex predator of the deep with nothing between you and the “toothy terror” but water. No chain mail suit. No cage. Just water.

The dive briefing earlier drew quite a few nervous laughs and chuckles. Don’t go looking for them, they will find you. Don’t stay on the surface or they will come to check you out. You will not like it. If you’re taking photos and they swim close to you, keep your arms close to your body. I grimaced at this one. If you see their pectoral fins point downward, it’s a sign of aggression and its time to make a hasty retreat from the water. And most importantly people, enjoy the dive. It seemed simple enough. Besides, after seven days at sea with the crew of the Caribbean Explorer I, following our dive masters Rob and Johnny into underwater swim throughs, a sunken wreck and pitch black night dives, swimming with sharks seemed easy. Not.

Its not that we weren’t swimming with them before, we just didn’t see any up close.  This was, after all, their space on the planet.  The difference was that this particular dive site just off the coast of Long Island in the Bahamas, was a very popular spot for shark feeds.  A chain mail suited shark feeder attracts the sharks using frozen bait while the remaining divers kneel in a semi circle around him to watch the ensuing frenzy.  As one might expect, over time the sharks learned to associate boat engines with food.  Now, the sound of the mechanical hum in the area has become the cue for an easy snack for some of the resident Caribbean Reef Sharks.  In our case, however, the dive operator, Explorer Ventures, had a policy of not using bait during the dives, the primary reason being that the sharks could easily become too aggressive and difficult to control once they got into a frenzy.  This led me to wonder though, at the wisdom of getting into the water with sharks expecting a meal and having nothing to offer but an arm and a leg.  Literally. And it is this very question that lies at the center of the shark feeding controversy: are we creating too close an association between humans and these apex predators of the deep?  It is a multi-faceted argument with salient points on either side.

I see the first one long before I hit the sandy bottom just forty-five feet below the surface.  The clarity of the water and the bright sunlight streaming down from above renders the water almost imperceptible, making the sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies appear to glide through air rather than swim through water.  It is surreal.  A second shark swims into my vision, no more than twenty feet away.  I turn and there are another two behind me changing direction sharply as I face them.  And so it goes, like a macabre dance with six sharks moving in ever tightening circles around us. You turn your back and they creep closer. Turn to face them and they move out again.

Thirty minutes into the dive and they are passing within four or five feet of us, sometimes swimming directly through the group.  There is no doubt about who is in charge and there is a sense of being corralled.  My heart is still racing, but not from exertion as I crouch in the sand trying to look everywhere at the same time.  My camera is on, and there is an odd sense of comfort in looking at the scene through the LCD screen, almost like you’re still in your living room sofa. Until I notice that my subject, turns directly in my direction and closes the distance.  My eyes flick frantically from the screen to the shark and I am torn between keeping him in the frame and making a hasty retreat.  I opt to get the shot.  As my heart reaches my throat he turns and passes directly between another diver and I and slips behind a bank of coral. Immersion truly doesn’t get better than this.

A full hour passes and I climb back onto the dive vessel with all of my limbs intact.The dive deck is alive with chatter, excited laughter and tales of undersea predators that you know will grow in size and ferocity as the years go by. The heady rush of adrenaline slowly gives way to moments of quiet reflection.  To have caught a glimpse of these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is a true privilege and I treat it as such. It is our last day and as we set course for Georgetown, Exuma I feel the exhaustion of the week wash over me.

 

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