The exhilaration of scuba diving with reef-tipped sharks in the Bahamas
FREEPORT/GRAND BAHAMAS ISLAND: 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. Then I met the reef-tipped sharks of Freeport, Bahamas.
For the record, I do not fear sharks, but I have a healthy respect for them. I just thought it was something I would never intentionally do. Not that I have not had them near me while scuba diving. One literally swimming beneath me, the shark’s fin barely running along my body as I lay above her floating in the water. So incredible experiences that gave me no cause for alarm.
But I never thought I would jump into the water, intentionally seeking them out.
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.” This crop of rocks and coral are 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. Swimming with the sharks, not once but twice, remain 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 ocean’s surface came into focus.
But drop in I did.
Meeting the Sharks, Safety First
But first, the UNEXSO guide and my “dive buddy” Keith Hogarth went through a thorough pre-dive briefing. 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 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.
Diving with a buddy
I cannot express enough that all divers, particularly those who are not regular divers, should 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, counter-intuitive, situation in which to find oneself.
So I kicked off and joined them on their merry-go-round the coral 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 in the group had previously participated in this dive, and their excitement over doing it again was palatable.
Again we had the pre-dive briefing, explaining that after reaching the ocean floor, we are to kneel on the ocean floor. At our back is an overturned wreck, and we snug close together. Mindful to keep our hands close to our bodies.
Behind us are UNEXSO safety divers with poles with sharp ends.
Feeding Reef-Tipped Sharks in Freeport, Bahamas
The “feeder” 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. The Unexco divers were followed by a group of six to eight sharks, each from six to eight feet in length and each easily over 200lbs.
Keith and Tom were outfitted in chain mail suits as they 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.
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.
The shark is in a state of tonic immobility. In the Bahamas, this is only legally done by UNEXSO certified divers. It is important that scuba-divers understand that interacting with sharks, or other wild animals should only be 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 held on its nose 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 left the area and we could no longer see them 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 seek out and bite things flaying about in the water above their heads that raises their curiosity. Most shark bites are the shark trying to determine what they see, or smell. Curiosity, not aggression.
Once back under the boat, we ascended exhilarated knowing we had experienced something truly incredible.
Respecting the danger of entering their world
There is an understanding that this could be a potentially dangerous situation – just the fact that we are going 60′ deep beneath the surface. Nonetheless, 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 sharks.