After months of waiting and planning I drove to W. Palm Beach where I boarded the 65’ Shear Water for the 5 hour crossing to the Bahamas. This was a night crossing and we didn’t leave until 2am due to the fact we had an early appointment to clear customs in the Bahamas.
Once we cleared customs we made it to our first dive site. It didn’t take long for the lemon sharks to show up once the crates full of dead smelly fish parts was dropped into the water. At least 6 – 10’ lemons showed up within about 10 minutes. It was like someone had rung the dinner bell.
Before getting in the water for the first time we had to hear the dive briefing from the crew. Matt, Mike, and Jay had done this trip many times and were entrusted with the owner, Jim Abernathy, to run the boat without him. Don’t worry about the 10’ lemon sharks milling around the back of the boat, they won’t bother you. Their mouths are small and they eat only fish. Once at the bottom we were free to roam and photograph all the lemons we wanted until a tiger shows up. We were then put into a line upstream from the current and behind the bait crates as the tigers would follow the scent into the bait. We were also told not to take our eyes off of the tigers and to point them out as they came in. DON’T TOUCH THE BAIT was a strict rule that I had no plan on even coming close to breaking. Don’t splash when getting into the water and when you’re ready to get out don’t screw around at the dive platform. After a short Q&A on the sharks we were ready to get in the water.
We suited up for the dive covering all of our body with black clothing. Tigers hunt by smell and sight and any exposed "pale skin" might look like a dead fish to a tiger since fish lose their color when they die. I even had to buy a hood to cover my head. Once we were suited we entered the water. I let someone else go first since there were several of those big lemons still hanging around very near the back of the boat and just under the dive platform. First diver in and no blood in the water I decided to put my trust in what the crew said and I grabbed my camera, slid over to the dive platform and sat down. I carefully rolled off the platform as a shark swam right under me. No splash, no problem and the shark continued to cruise by as I bobbed in the water for a second before letting the air out of my BC and sinking straight to the bottom in 15 feet of water. On the way down I spotted her, Emma had made an early appearance and it was time to put our dive plan into action. With all six divers in the water and one of the crew, we lined up as instructed as Emma came in for a closer look. She made a couple of close passes and it was obvious she was more interested in the fish crates then attacking any of us.
I couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful animal she really was, all 15’ of her. It made me think of what happens to sharks all over the world and I felt bad thinking some day she may be caught in a fisherman’s long line, have her fins cut off and then be thrown back into the ocean still alive to die a slow death. No animal deserves to be killed so inhumanely. We don’t do it to cows, pigs, chickens, even rats, etc… so why should a shark be treated any differently? A fish, yes, but looking into her eyes you could tell there is more. She has a personality, just like your dog or cat. The Bahamas has done a better job at protecting their oceans than the US; although, we are making some very slow progress. I was glad to hear Florida took steps to protect tigers and great hammerheads, but so much more needs to be done. My encounters with Emma and her friends over the next several days would only strengthen my resolve to protect the oceans and sharks.
The following day we cruised an area known for spotted dolphins that were known to interact with people. We cruised for hours looking for them but found no sign of them. Another dive was in order and more encounters with tiger sharks, more pictures, and GoPro video. By the second day of diving I was very comfortable in the water with the sharks. There were numerous times throughout the trip that I was bumped by the lemons as they passed closely between us divers on the bottom at arms length from each other. Again, once a tiger showed up we just ignored the lemons. I even tripped over one while moving back away from the bait crates that were tied to the dive platform and had drifted too close to where I was. That night we moved out over deeper waters, 600’, and turned on the exterior lights around the boat to attract spotted dolphins. We got in the water with snorkel gear to try and photograph them. Try was the key word as they toyed with us while enjoying an easy meal our lights brought up from the depths. Squid and flying fish were on the menu. It was hit and miss and no point in chasing them because they were so fast. The best you could do was just hang in the water and listen to their clicking that was easy to hear. Then you knew they were close by and if you got them anywhere near your camera you just fired away and hoped for the best.
The next day we started out with an Emma dive back at Tiger Beach. Once again, Emma didn’t disappoint us and showed up for some more photos and video. We then moved a couple of miles for a deeper reef dive. We dropped down to 60’ and again there were no shortage of sharks around only this time there were reef sharks. I know now why they call them reef sharks as we did not see one near Tiger Beach. I don’t think that means if you hang out near a hospital you might see a nurse shark, but you’re welcome to try. The lemons were there too and a couple of nurse sharks were also cruising around. Near the end of the dive a tiger showed up but we were running low on air and had to leave her. Matt had placed two bait crates in between some coral heads but had to return to the surface to help out Jimmy, a 70+ year old diver who had come up far from the boat. We all got back on the boat and had to go pick them up a couple hundred yards from where we were anchored. It didn’t seem like much but you could tell there was a sense of urgency as tigers often feed on sea turtles and look for their silhouette near the surface when they go up to breath.
Once everyone was back on board we traveled a short couple of miles back to Tiger Beach where a night dive was in order. Yes, diving at night with tiger sharks…..why not? See, I’ve already started to ignore the 15 or so 10’ lemon sharks that were always under and around the boat. The night dive went well and Emma didn’t disappoint us again. She showed up and stayed with us until the end of the dive.
The next morning I got up early and watched the sun rise off the back of the boat. I noticed a weed line drifting by and was saddened when I started seeing plastic among the sargasm. It wasn’t just one or two items but a lot. Bottle caps, plastic bags, a flip flop, and plastic containers where among the junk floating by and we were 20 miles out from the nearest land.
We did another morning dive and then the grand finale. Kind of like when they shoot off all the fireworks at the end of a show, this was kind of the same only with smelly dead fish. All the crates left on the boat where thrown in the water and the lemons went crazy. Interestingly, Emma never showed up. Tigers tend to stay away when the lemons are in a feeding frenzy. They are very careful not to get hurt. Even though we didn’t see Emma on the last dive, just before going back up to the boat, another big female tiger came in just outside of the melee and it was obvious she was pregnant. It was good enough to end the dive on.
Sharks around the world are in trouble. They are not the cold, man eating, mindless creatures that I and many of us were led to believe. They are animals that deserve our attention and respect. They are currently being fished beyond their means of sustainability. Many species are slow to mature and produce only a few young. The big sharks, like Emma, have obvious personalities, like your dog or cat. They have been wrongly portrayed and demonized for years as indiscriminant killers, yet only a few people worldwide are killed by sharks each year. Dogs, bees, pigs, and toasters kill more people than sharks, yet they are hunted for their fins, the second most lucrative black market next to cocaine, and often thrown back in the water still alive to die a slow death after having them cut off.
If you have a chance and care about the oceans teach your kids right. Check out, This is your ocean, Sharks, on You Tube.