It always amazes me how I got to almost 50 dives without ever seeing a single shark. Not even a hint of a fin in the blue distance. Nothing. Never. Even on the liveaboard the day everyone else saw the oceanic whitetip under the boat, my buddy and I were the only two who missed it. I was a bit miffed and frustrated to say the least. So pretty much the second thing that went on my bucket list after the Pyramids, was to see sharks.
So when I decided to take a return trip to revisit my ex-home town New York, I decided to add on a few days in the Bahamas and spend time with the globally-recognised shark diving experts Stuart Cove.
Stuart Cove are famous for their “Shark feeds” – a dive experience that promises you’ll be beating away the sharks with a shitty stick*.
Now some divers disagree with the ethics of manual feeding of sharks, but I’m not going to cover that here. All I’ll say is that some dive operations are negligent, and chum the water in order to whip the Sharks into a frenzy and Stuart Cove don’t do any of that. You can argue that the sharks aren’t in their natural environment and become dependent on the food, but that’s for another blog post.
The Dive Briefing
As with all dives, a briefing is conducted before you get wet. The dive masters told us that we’d start the dive severely overweighted. To non-divers, that means you get lots of lead weights to put in your pockets so that you sink to the bottom of the sea very quickly – that’s not as scary as it sounds, honest.
We were told we’d get in and go immediately to “the circle” – marked area in the sand that we were to kneel down, with our arms folded across our chest. We were told that it was possible that we might fall over – for example, we might get knocked over by a shark (yep, seriously). If we did fall over, we should just lie there until someone came over and picked us up. Under no circumstances should we flap our arms and try to get up. because the sharks are used to arm movements meaning food.
Yep. Scared yet?
In with the fishes
We jumped off the back of the boat, and immediately begin to sink. It’s not about 12m deep and it’s white sand all around. I’m at the bottom within 20 seconds and there are already sharks everywhere. They know something’s coming. I’ve gone from no sharks seen to more than I ever thought I’d see in the space of 30 seconds. My heart rate goes up – I’m going to chug through my air if I’m not careful.
I’m shown to a spot around a circle in the sand about 10m across, kneel down and wait patiently for the other divers (maybe 8 of them) to settle too. There are probably about 10 sharks all swimming around us, like a pack of domestic dogs waiting for their owner to put their feeding bowls on the floor.
Then suddenly, from above, a swarm descends. The Shark feeder – a diver head to toe in chain mail, with a metal box and a big sharp stick – appears and heads towards the centre of the arena – followed by what looks like about 30 sharks. I’m sure my eyes must be popping out of my mask.
The bloke in the metal suit arrives in the arena. And the sharks all circle him. He checks that everyone is settled and we’re all okay, before carefully opening his box very slightly, taking his big stick and skewering a fish head and then pulling it out of the box and holding it out.
A shark darts for it and immediately bites it off before swimming behind him and to the back of the queue. Slowly he does it again, and another shark gets in quickly.
At no point are the sharks aggressive. At no point am I scared. I’m mesmerised. The sharks are…. Boisterous. Like a pack of dogs, they seem to have a hierarchy. Submissive sharks stay at the back. There’s a nurse shark who seems to be the most successful and manages to steal some fish from the box when the dive guide’s not looking. There’s a massive grouper joining in too. They don’t all lunge for the fish in a thrashing frenzy, as I’m sure the popular media view would have you believe they are calm but assertive. Eager for food, but not maniacal eaters. I am in awe, but I’m not scared.
They’re swimming all around me, all circling the feeder-guy, which means they come right up to me, look me in the eye and at the last minute swim past me, before coming back round in front of me to try and get back in the queue for another fish head. Their pectoral fins brush my arm. I really am that close.
The box empties and the diver puts his stick away. That seems to signal the end to the sharks, and many of them begin to disperse. They know the drill obviously. Dive guide packs up and heads back to the boat, and to a shark, they pretty much all follow him. Within a few minutes the area is clear and there’s not a shark to be seen.
One of the things they mention in the briefing is that during the feed, sharks will often lose teeth, as they grab the food. It’s natural and it happens when they feed often. So we’re told to sift through the sand of the arena with our fingers to see if we can see any discarded teeth. They’re difficult to find, we’re told, so we probably won’t find one.
The sand is white, so its almost impossible to distinguish anything. The reef shark teeth are quite small, about the size of a 20p piece.
But against all the odds, there’s one there. A tiny little triangle of shark bone! I’m elated. It’s my own shark tooth, a memory of a wonderful dive, and an amazing bucket list experience.
My dive profile:
You can see I plummeted to the sea bed and pretty much stay there at 12m for 30m after which I start looking for teeth. After another 7 minutes it’s time to head to the surface. You can see the problems I have maintaining a level mandatory safety stop with all the extra lead in my pockets – I’m up and down like a yoyo!
*Note: this isn’t actually their marketing tagline, but it probably should be.