Swimming with Sharks

Swimming with Sharks: Shark Rodeo

blueShark01High up on the ’must see’ list for many divers is to see a shark close up. So how about being surrounded by over hundred feeding sharks!

I’ve been lucky enough to have some close encounters with various types of sharks, including Blacktips on Aldabra in the Seychelles, Basking Sharks outside Fingal’s cave in Scotland, and, off Rhode Island, New England, an encounter with a Mako Shark (like a mini Great White and the fatest shark) and two beautiful Blue Sharks that were so curious I rubbed my nose along the flanks of one as it swam past!

I have also been lucky enough to witness what has been described as the ’sharkiest dive in the world’, the shark rodeo at Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas. According to the shark photographer and Shark Trust founder Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch it is one of the best places to see sharks close up. Walkers Cay is at the very north of the Bahamas at the end of a long line of cays that stretches to the NW from the island of Great Abaco.

It is a small island with its own hotel and marina that is famous for its diving and fishing. Staying there is not cheap but it is easy to fly from Fort Lauderdale. So if you find yourself on transit passing through Miami, or going to Disneyland with family or friends, how about popping over to Walker’s Cay to experience ultimate shark and cavern diving right out of a James Bond movie? After all, most underwater sequences and sharks for Thunderball were filmed in the Bahamas. Flying in you look down on scattered islands and beautiful submerged sand banks in the shallow seas after which the Bahamas are named (baja mar in Spanish means shallow sea).

I’d booked for 3 days and 6 dives and on the first morning I couldn’t wait to get in the water. Our first dive was ’shark canyon’, an interesting dive but with no sharks. But all was to change for the afternoon dive, starting at the shark rodeo site at Snoopy’s Reef, then heading off to explore the surrounding reefs known as the Spiral Caverns. The sharks were not fed that day but as the boat revved up the engines to say ’we’ve arrived’ I could see lots of fish swimming around - and sharks. I couldn’t wait to get in and those first few moments after dropping off the back of the boat were classic.

Looking into the clear waters I soon realised there were sharks everywhere. These were Caribbean Reef Sharks that have an obvious dorsal fin grey to grey brown upperside fading to white on the underside, often with a bronze area on the flanks. They also have a short blunt snout and the classic shark profile. You also get a déjà vu about them since they have been the ’extras’ in so many films and wildlife films. Caribbean Reef Sharks were the sharks found sleeping on the seabed by Jacques Cousteau, disproving the idea that all sharks had to keep swimming to breathe.

blueShark02Descending towards the bottom I had another classic profile, looking up at the white underside of the sharks with the underslung mouth. Best of all, some would cruise gracefully past just beyond touching distance so that I could look straight into the eye. It was not a cold eye nor a cold animal but an animal of grace completely at home in it’s surroundings. For a while it was difficult to work out who was watching who and the shark’s slowly dispersed once they realised they were not being fed.

We than headed off into the surrounding reef - a honeycomb of interlinking tubes and caverns. You could always see ways out so it was quite safe. Best of all, going through tunnels and interlinking caverns full of fish fry, occasionally a shark would swim past, even passing between me and the diver in front! This was right out of a James Bond movie and I expected a baddie to swim round the corner - or - even better some buxom Bond girl in one of those 60’s wetsuits!

As shark feeding took off in the Bahamas they realised sharks had been fed off Walker’s Cay since the 1930’s - with a designated area to dump fish remains that attracted (and still attracted) sharks. It wasn’t that far from the swimming beach but the sharks left people alone. But a better offshore site was needed for divers, hence the location for the shark rodeo in natural amphitheatre in the reef.

The next morning we were off for the shark feed, with the ’iced chumsical’ - a mixture of fish, fish heads in a dustbin frozen around a bar with a rope running through it. When we got to the site we were told to get in the water and go to the bottom and kneel down on the seabed with one of the guides. There were fish and sharks everywhere, plus a large and curious Nassau Grouper that joined our group. Another guide had a rope with him with a clip at one end that was then clipped to an anchor on the seabed. With the other end tied to the stern of the boat the ’chumsical’ was kept in midwater. When it first dropped in the water all the fish went in yet most sharks were more patient and relaxed. They slowly came in and seemed to be waiting for the two Nurse Shark that had appeared.

The Nurse Sharks were able to get a better hold and to break up the chumsical. The sharks would leisurely go around in spirals, some swimming just in front of us, some behind us, and a few coming right in between us. At the chumsical itself (about 20m away) lots of sharks were feeding but not in frenzied way. Instead they seemed to be queuing, taking turns to feed, the intensity of feeding sharks ebbing and flowing. The chumsical can break up in minutes but we were lucky and it stayed on the bar for 20 minutes. It meant I was able to relax, swim up into the water column and just watch the sharks (and other fish) feeding and swimming close by.

A few (dominant sharks?) had loads of fish following them, often with small fish swimming under the mouth less than an inch from the jaws. Some believe it is the safest place for the fish to be but it was obvious the sharks weren’t interested and it is more likely that fish are waiting for any titbits from the feeding sharks. I reckon there were at least 100 Caribbean Reef Sharks up to 6ft in length and two Nurse Sharks. I was also looking for Bull sharks but early July is the wrong time of year (the best time of year for Bull sharks is our winter).

Ever so often a large chunk would break off and our guide would tap his cylinder to say ’watch out’. If the chunk came towards us (and the sharks feeding on it) we’d move to one side so that the sharks wouldn’t crash into us as they fed. When the remaining chumsicle broke off the sharks shoved it in one direction so we all followed for a while. But as the chumsicle hit the bottom the thrashing mass of sharks reduced the viz so we headed back to the anchor, not for safety, but to look for any teeth that had been shed. Carefully inspecting the sand I found five teeth. Other divers were also looking for teeth - but on more than one occasion when I assumed it was another diver alongside me, a shark swam by!

On the last day we visited the site once again. Since they were not being fed I just watched the sharks. They were swimming slowly around and I noticed that one larger shark was being followed by a whole load of fish and other sharks. Based on my experience swimming with dolphins and getting close to whales, I decided to join the group. By choosing NOT to swim directly towards them but swimming parallel you can get quite close as inquisitive ones will ’close in’ towards you. This method works well with turtles. Swim close by and let them come to you but don’t chase them. Otherwise they’ll swim off and the rest of your group will not get a good view.

Using this technique I managed to get right in behind the lead shark with the other sharks around me. We swam like this for a while but the lead shark, now followed by a load of fish, several sharks - and me - finally had enough and with a flick of the tail shot off at surprising speed, leaving the rest of the group swimming around looking lost! I’ve also swam with Atlantic Spotted Dolphins off Bimini in the Bahamas and it is much more manic diving with dolphins than with sharks! It is just a pity I didn’t manage to swim with 10ft+ Bull Sharks.

And in 2017 I finally got around to do a cage dive to see the Great White Shark - off Stewart Island, New Zealand.

Useful links:
Swimming with sharks, dolphins, and diving - www.biminiundersea.com