“ You don’t have to wait, go ahead and descend and we’ll be behind you as soon as the rest are in the water”, Maurice said with a smile.
I looked back at him treading water for a few seconds and wondered if he was crazy or just messing with me? No way was I going to go down first.
I was visiting a dive shop in Freeport, Grand Bahamas called Xanadu Undersea Adventures. The shop had a partner who was retiring and selling his 20%. I was more than a little interested and had inquired, then I was invited down to see the operation.
Few things were said before my arrival and I had only the shops website to let me in on what I was in store for. Hope for the best and expect the worst, I guess. Well one thing I overlooked was the fact that Hurricane Wilma put her foot down there and she put it down hard. I think I could see why this guy wanted out. The landscape was a mess and many hotels had been closed and boarded up. The casino had to shut down and tourism was pretty low.
Still, I was invited down and had all the free diving I wanted, plus a decent rate at the hotel (I was told that it was owned once by Howard Houghs and he lived on the top floor). I doubt if he was around today that he would live there now.
So, yeah, I was waiting at the surface above the dive site and watching the rest of the group get in the water. We were about to partake in a very exciting dive that Xanadu was known for, the shark feeding dive. Xanadu Undersea Adventures and another shop owned by Unexso, rotated days bringing clients to a site which was about a 45 minute boat ride out of either Port Lucaya or Freeport, called Shark Junction. Because I wasn’t really a customer and more of an observer, I wasn’t included in the dive briefing given to the rest of the divers, I was briefed however. I would never not plan a dive (safety first). I talked with the divemasters and the feeder for hours before, I guess they felt I knew it pretty well and said to just jump in when I was ready and they will brief the clients. So I did and now I’m the only one in the water at a site known for feeding sharks and now I was told to go on ahead down………but that would mean I would be the only one down there and …….well, maybe there ‘s a few sharks waiting and being a little impatient…you know?
When divers were finally all in the water, I slipped under the surface. The visibility was incredible, easily 100 feet and the temperature was about 80F. I anxiously looked around but could not see any sharks just yet. We had been told to assemble at the bottom and to kneel in a line along this sandy patch of ocean floor.
Maurice, one of the divemasters, was getting situated with his Nikon encased in a nice clear Ikelite enclosure and his strobe ready to fire. The feeder, Ben, came last. He had descended a few yards away and was walking over to us . Yes I said walking, he was head to toe covered in a chin mail suit that was specially made for diving with sharks. The weight of this alone kept him pretty much planted on the floor and it was easier to just shuffle over instead of swim. In his hands he had a pvc tube a few feet long and about 6 inches in diameter. It had a cap on each end and inside where bits and chunks of fish. I kept my eyes on him, knelt in line and waited.
Now when you are diving you know your vision isn’t the best, low profile masks work great but you are still pretty much tunnel visioned. You can only see basically what is in front of you. When the first shark appeared it slid directly over my head from behind me. Chills went up my back and down my arms. An 8 foot Caribbean Reef shark was swimming past me and sneaking a peek at what Ben might be holding. The shark came in and turned away. It was awesome. As it turned, another swam in, and then another. Sharks were everywhere. You couldn’t keep your eyes on all of them. They were slipping in and out and now snatching the bit of fish flesh that Ben was offering. It was pretty intense. My anticipation and fears where slipping away. These sharks had zero interest in anything that wasn’t fish.
Ben fed the sharks and the dive party watched. Our hands by our side except for when were taking pictures . Then Ben did something interesting. As the sharks would slip by to take some food from his hand, he would reach out and calmly pet them along the face. At first the sharks would just keep moving along and then it seemed they slowed. As Ben got closer to a shark he would start to stroke it around the snout and the shark would stop swimming. The more Ben touched the shark the more still it became until it seemed to fall in a trance. With the shark motionless and in his hands, Ben would literally glide it over and in front of us and each of the dive party was allowed to pet the shark. Its skin was sleek and smooth one way and rough like sand paper the other.
Theory is that the chainmail gloves he was wearing somehow interferes with the sharks messaging system and makes them “fall asleep”, at least that how it was explained to me. I have no idea if it is harmful or not (Xanadu says it doesn’t bother them). I have yet to ask a shark. I did witness and aided in removing a few hooks from the sharks as they were in this trance so I guess it can’t be all bad.
The dive lasted another 20 minutes or so after the last of the food was gone and other fish, that were interested in the free meal as well, began swarming the site looking for leftovers. Remoras, who normally would be directly on the sides of the sharks where swimming freely appearing to be upside down (normal) and grabbing what scraps they could. There were also schools of jacks and grunts making their way between the divers and the sharks. Lone groupers and snappers would swim by and angel fish swimming in pairs would slip in looking for lunch. The sharks slowly dispersed and other fish who would normally make the area their habitat came back. At that point we were allowed to explore the reef until our air got under 700 psi. Within the cracks of nearby corral mounds I would spot one of my favorite fish and one that is native to that area, the spotted drum fish. Fantastically beautiful with long fins and two-tone black and white with white spots peppering the dorsal and tail fins. Other fish and occasional rays would come back as our party started to leave the site.
The group ascended and we did our safety stop. As I was in my 3 minutes of decompression I would look around and catch glimpses of sharks below still cruising the reef constantly hunting for food. I felt different about them, different from I felt 40 minutes earlier on the surface, they were nowhere near as ominous as their reputation. I guess as divers we learn that.
I spoke with the owners of the shop when the boat arrived back to the harbor. I was curious about what the environmental impact was on the sharks. Was the dive operation interrupting the sharks natural ability to find food? Was the feeding of sharks by humans causing the sharks to have less fear of us and maybe because of this the sharks would start associating the divers with food? I didn’t want to become part of something that may become an issue later on. I certainly didn’t want to cause an upset in the eco system. I was assured that it did not have an impact. The feeding was a very small amount that would hardly add up to a snack to the shark and the feeding had been going on for years between them and another dive shop called Unexso. There had been no rise in shark attacks or any change in their behavior towards humans. Of course, with a portion of the shop up for sale, maybe they would tell me anything I wanted to hear.
**Story by Daniel Talbot
Daniel Talbot, Ray Lightbourne, Maurice Gjersvik and Xanadu Undersea Adventures