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Scuba Travel

Up close and personal with sharks

By Neil Stewart

Reproduced from in focus 71 (June 2001)

Having thrilled to Cousteau's video footage as a boy, sharks have always fascinated me - their sheer power, beauty and effortless grace - not to mention their fearsome if misunderstood reputation. I have occasionally observed a lone shark on dive trips, but always in the distance, circling at the edge of visibility. Consequently, when I learned that Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch was running a weeklong shark safari at Walkers Cay in the Bahamas during 2001, I was probably one of the first to sign-on.

Participants on the safari wiI I be up close and personal with Caribbean Reef Sharks, Black-Tip Sharks, Nurse Sharks, Bull Sharks, Lemon Sharks and hopefully, the occasional Hammerhead, Tiger or Whole shark.

A veritable Shark-Fest, which should provide some excellent photographic opportunities. One of the intended highlights of the trip will be snorkeling with Bull Sharks. In addition there will be lectures and slide-talk shows presented by some of the world's leading authorities on shark behavior and conservation.

Shark fest by Neil Stewart
Shark fest by Neil Stewart

In order to maximise the opportunities this safari will present, I decided to obtain a foretaste of shark diving by participating in a shark-feed. So I arranged a few dives in the Bahamas.

The adrenaline level starts to rise as you read the contents of the disclaimer form and realise that you are accepting full responsibility for your actions - for the risk of personal injury, loss of limb or wrongful death during the shark-dive. The dive operator takes no responsibility whatsoever - the buck stops with you! Your adrenaline level reaches a new high as you watch the shark-feeder don his full head and body protective chain mail over suit and you realise that you might just be a tad vulnerable in your 3mm tropical wetsuit. Then the adrenaline takes another upward leap as you prepare to enter the water from the stern platform and watch the classic film genre of triangular fins from a number of sharks cutting through the surface water in anticipation of the feed to come. buring the feed the sharks initially circle the feeder in an orderly fashion, obeying some acknowledged pecking order, with one breaking off on cue, to swoop in and wrench the bait off the feeder's spear. After ten minutes or so, the action becomes much more frenzied and occasionally the discipline breaks down when several sharks attempt to grab the same piece of bait. When this happens the feeder gets buffeted from all angles by large, aggressive, fast swimming sharks. One shark actually wrenched the bait and spear out of the feeder's hand and swam off with it.

At the height of the activity on this particular dive, I estimated that there were around thirty Caribbean Grey Reef Sharks in the area, anything between one and two metres in length. A very impressive sight (is they circled round the feeder and out and over or between the watching divers. Watching one of these elegant predators coming straight for your head, turning with a flick of its tail at the lost possible moment and to feel its fins brush your cheek can be quite heart-stopping. However, it does provide wonderful photographic opportunities - if you are quick enough.

If anything, this dive has whetted my appetite for what should prove to be a wonderful week's diving with sharks early next year.

It should be recorded that I did not escape unscathed from this experience - not from a shark bite, I hasten to add - I managed to give myself a deep cut while shaving.

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