Feature: Swapping Sidmouth shores for the deep blue sea
PUBLISHED: 18:30 24 September 2017
IMAGES BY MARK HUTCHINSON
Dive journalist Mark Taylor Hutchinson gives a first hand account of getting up close with the world’s largest sharks.
Being careful as I slipped sideways from the dive platform, I broke the electric blue surface water tension as gently as I could.
Just as I reached the safety line, a large tiger shark cruising in the midwater column noticed my presence and guided ever closer, her large golf ball eye gazing directly into my dive mask.
The faded vertical stripes on her body disclosed her identity, along with her broad, blunt snout, band saw serrated teeth at her business end, not to mention her large girth and length. Tiger sharks can reach 16ft in length.
I was diving aboard the MV Shear Water accompanied with Jim Abernethy, a well-respected shark whisperer in these parts. The seven-day shark trip leaves from West Palm Beach, Florida cruising overnight to Tiger Beach (not actually a beach, but an offshore bank located some 20 miles from West End, Grand Bahamas) before then travelling to the second site at Bimini.
This trip is not for the fainthearted and involves the full seven days spent at sea sharing the vessel with a small select number of shark photography divers and stinky shark bait, which progressively hums more and more under the rays of the tropical sun with each passing day. Accommodation is also in fairly cramped conditions.
But pong and tight squeeze aside, it is undoubtedly one of the best trips available to reliably view some of the top predatory sharks in close quarters, namely the tiger, greater hammerhead and bull shark. The greater hammerhead should not be confused with the smaller schooling scalloped hammerhead. These solitary greater hammerheads by contrast exceed 17ft in length and are adorned a huge sickle shaped dorsal fin akin to that of an orca.
Throughout my professional shark diving career I have dived with many species of sharks, most notably great white sharks at many South African sites and, last year, I had great encounters at Isla Guadalupe in the Pacific off the Baja peninsula in Mexico (previously featured in the Sidmouth Resident). But hitherto, tiger sharks and greater hammerheads have always eluded me.
What makes this trip extra-special is the fact that diving is undertaken with no safety cages, so this makes for some fantastic personal encounters and great photography opportunities.
As we chugged out of Palm Beach at night we finally left the fading lights of shore behind. At our first site we received an in-depth safety briefing on the shark diving process in these waters.
In fact, the planning takes place long before the trip itself and a prerequisite involves, not only previous familiarity with diving with sharks, but being comfortable diving in strong currents, good buoyancy control and all dive gear must be black in colour, including the wearing of gloves and full suits. Lighter colours are strictly forbidden due to their tendency to attract unwanted shark attention as the lighter colours can mimic fish parts. Yellow has a particularly strong affiliation with attracting sharks and in shark circles this is often referred to as ‘yum yum yellow’. Briefings also involve careful rehearsals of water entry, positioning on the seabed and how to interact with large sharks safely.
For those without underwater camera housings, a stick is issued to serve as a natural barrier if a shark starts to become too intimate.
Large strides into the water are not ideal and instead entry involves an ungainly shuffle onto the dive platform at the stern with the diver gently rolling into the water grabbing the descent line which is all designed to avoid splashing on the surface which has a tendency to also elicit shark interest.
After descending down the line, divers congregate on the powdery white sandy seabed in a spaced out funnel formation. The bait crates are sited at the narrower end of the formation to enable the current to drift the scent through the centre of the funnel between divers (aptly called the runway). Divers monitor 360 degrees. If any large shark is sighted the vigilant diver points so that everyone is aware of the shark’s presence. This can become more frenetic as multiple sharks appear all at the same time of differing species, but the primary shark awareness is reserved for the main stars ie greater hammerhead, tiger and bull sharks.
Along with the primary targets other regular species at the sites include the lemon shark, which are an ever-present force cruising the surface around the boat in large numbers constantly day and night, the pretty Caribbean reef shark and the somewhat sluggish nurse shark.
Not risk free
Diving with large predatory sharks is not risk free and disclaimers allude to this fact, especially given a bite from a large shark, whether exploratory or accidental, has the potential to severely ruin the experience.
Unfortunately this trip has resulted in a small number of previous injuries/fatalities, but this has to be balanced with the amount of encounters which take place. The dive photographers on board were all highly experienced and had a wealth of previous shark experiences.
So, with careful planning and teamwork, along with maintaining full in-water concentration, this greatly reduces the risk of incident occurrence. It also needs to be borne in mind that humans are not the sharks intended feeding target and any incidents are invariably as a result of mistaken identity. To mitigate risks further, although a scent trail is created, no direct feeding takes place to avoid having uncontrolled bits of fish floating past divers which is far from an ideal combination. Should the worst mistake happen, the boat and crew are highly trained in shark bite first aid.
On the first dive I spent a good time observing the sharks’ behaviour given I had not dived with either greater hammerheads or tiger sharks before.
I also used as many camera presets as possible in order to remain alert to my surroundings rather than spend time fiddling with controls and reading histograms so as not to notice a large shark around me.
Even with careful observation, when the shark numbers increase significantly, you can miss some close encounters and I recall being brushed from behind by a very large tiger shark I had not seen given I was too busy observing another at my front. This is where teamwork is vital.
Each shark has differing behaviour and one tiger shark known as Emma has a penchant for picking up divers by the tank valve and carrying them off temporarily and dropping them like a toy. Some divers have also seen their cameras snatched, but they are usually dropped once the watery offender realises there is nothing tasty about chomping polycarbonate.
My first encounter with a greater hammerhead was an intimate affair and as she became ever bolder, I had to use my housing as a natural barrier. I heard a crunch as her dorsal teeth scraped over the top of my housing. My camera housing now sports a permanent scar as a result. The poles are just held vertically outright so that a shark bumps into these rather than the diver. They are not issued with the view to start aimlessly whacking sharks. It is also important to remain relaxed as sharks tend to respond to our behaviours. Once the initial adrenaline rush subsides and you become accustomed to the diving practices and behaviours, then it is possible to obtain some extremely exciting images. The sharks by and large were relaxed and almost gentle, but it is extremely important not to become complacent or lose concentration, as these are still large powerful predatory animals and are capable of significant bursts of speed if required. Maintaining concentration is the most tiring part of the experience. Given the depths are not extensive it is possible to undertake 90-minute dives multiple times a day. Although we undertook some dusk dives we did not undertake night dives per-say as tiger sharks often hunt more voraciously at night.
Why do this type of diving one might ask? Well, primarily to gain unparalleled images of top apex predators. Contrary to what people may think, ordinarily close shark encounters are rare occurrences without some form of stimulus being present. Sharks are often shy animals and, albeit curious at times, they often get bored quickly and swim away once they realise on closer inspection humans do not resemble their normal food items.
Certain species are undoubtedly more curious than others, but sharks are not hell bent on attacking humans and are in fact highly evolved intelligent animals in spite of the negative publicity they often receive.
Each dive yielded multiple sharks with each site varying only in terms of the bottom topography. On some dives sharks swarmed everywhere which made for an interesting overall photography experience.
Watching these predators glide around is a beautiful, serene experience and you cannot help but be moved by their grace and presence. Given the global threat sharks face from unregulated fishing and the unparalleled demand of the shark fin industry (£73million per annum), I cannot help but be sad to think these encounters will become ever rarer. As is always the case, you leave such experiences feeling a close bond to the sharks you have interacted with. n