FREEPORT/GRAND BAHAMAS ISLAND, Bahamas, September 30, 2016 (originally published December 23, 2010) — Never say never, so goes that wise old saying.
Earning my scuba diving certificate and embarking on the process of learning how to dive, one thing I said I would never do was to dive with sharks.
I do not fear sharks, I just thought it was something I would never intentionally do. I have encountered them in the wild, which were incredible experiences that gave me no cause for alarm.
But I never thought I would jump into the water, intentionally seeking them out.
As said: never say never.
Visiting Grand Bahamas Island the chance to go diving with the elite Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO) overcame the slight gasp when I learned that the only dives scheduled were to “Shark Junction,” the underwater home of a school, or should I say college, of Caribbean Reef Shark.
UNEXSO has been taking divers down to Shark Junction for over twenty-years, without an incident.
Old sayings exist to be dispelled and it was two of the most exhilarating and exciting experiences of my life.
The first dive took us down approximately 60’ into the clear, blue Bahamian water.
Before jumping off the boat, there was a pause as the unmistakable streamlined shape of the sharks, many sharks, far below the oceans surface came into focus.
But drop in I did.
But first the UNEXSO guide and my “dive buddy” Keith Hogarth went through a thorough pre-dive briefing and I learned how to safely dive in this environment and the need to protect and conserve what are truly magnificent creatures.
As in all extreme sports safety is an important element of a success, and UNEXSO takes it very seriously, not only for the divers but also for the sharks and the habitat that is lush with grouper, dog fish, small arrow crabs and colorful, darting fish.
I cannot express enough for all divers, particularly those that are new, as I am, to have a dedicated, experienced “dive buddy” with you on all dives. They will not only help you learn to be a better diver, but they have the experience to get you safely to the top if the unexpected happens.
Descending into the deep, the sharks came into view and after a brief moment of realization, this first shark dive quickly became awe-inspiring.
Suspended vertically in the water, I suddenly realized that a group of sharks were swimming around me in a circle.
Which is an odd situation to find oneself in.
So I kicked off and joined them in their merry-go-round and it was incredible.
All in all, we spent about 40 minutes submerged with the sharks, playing with arrow crabs and peering into the nooks and crannies of the coral where we saw plenty of fish and other deep-sea denizens.
And never once did I feel that the sharks, or the grouper – some of which seemed to be easily as big as I – intended us any harm.
I can only equate it to swimming in one of those aquarium tubes, where the moving sidewalk moves you along while the sharks swim above. Only you are above, with the sharks. Very cool.
But my shark experience was far from over. The next day I joined a group of five other divers along with four UNEXSO divers for a shark-feeding experience. And what an experience that was.
Others divers had previously participated in this dive and their excitement over doing it again was palatable.
Again we had the pre-dive briefing, explaining that we would be escorted as a group by safety divers who would have us kneel on the ocean floor (not easy with fins) in front of an overturned wreck, close together and that we should, at all times, keep our hands close to our bodies.
Behind us would be UNEXSO safety divers with poles
The “feeder,” Tom and the aforementioned Keith, in his role as photographer, dove into the water quite a distance away from where the group dropped. Once we were all on the floor and nestled together, they swam into our view followed by a group of six to eight sharks, each from six to eight feet in length and over 200lbs.
Keith and Tom were outfitted in chainmail suits as the fed the sharks whole herring and mackerel from a long PVC tube. The sharks swam in front of us, over us (I could swear one liked to have his belly tickled by the bubbles) and, as the diver to my one side was having trouble with buoyancy and we could not maintain the recommended, shoulder-to-shoulder stance, between our heads.
The sharks quickly became individually identifiable – the one with the dented nose, the one with the scar along its side, the males and the females.
At one time, Tom “mesmerized” one of the sharks by rubbing sensitive nerve endings on its nose, standing the shark on its head and then bringing it in front of us, giving us a chance to stroke the animal and see it very close and personal.
This practice is known as tonic immobility and in the Bahamas is only practiced by UNEXSO, and it should only be practiced by an individual that has the understanding and training to do so. Pictured here is Christine, one of UNEXSO divers, demonstrating how, once immobile, the shark can be help by its nose vertically in the water.
It all most seemed as if the sharks know their role in this underwater theater.
When the feeding was done, Tom and Keith led the sharks away from the group. It was almost comical as the sharks followed the tube with the fish inside. Once the sharks were cleared from the area, we could no longer see them even with extreme visibility.
It was then that our safety guides swam us in the opposite direction, keeping our arms close to our side and staying rather low to the ocean floor. Sharks bite up and seek things flaying about in the water.
Once back under the boat, we ascended exhilarated knowing we had experienced something truly incredible.
While there is an understanding that this could be a potentially dangerous situation – we are going deep beneath the surface – I have to say that diving with the experienced staff at UNEXSO, knowing the respect that they have for the ocean, the fish, the sharks and the responsibility that they have to not only provide an interesting dive experience, but to educate about and protect the ocean and its inhabitants, kept me comfortable and entranced by the magnificent beauty of these shark.