Three to four dives each day, over nine days… … at the same site. No, it is not a dive itinerary gone wrong; it is because we were at the Bahamas, scuba diving at a site called ‘Fish Tales’ and we were part of a story of how gravely misunderstood predators of the seas were.
On our way to the Bahamas, Michael, our expedition captain, issued to us a rubber wrist band with a smartly embossed caption that read ‘Sharks are friends’. While some recited the slogan with scepticism, others speculated if the sharks we were about to meet, were in fact, literate.
Any doubts, however, played little part in our minds as we felt compelled to leap into the water, albeit several lemon sharks conspicuously patrolling the surface. The sharks were, after all, the reason we travelled 30 arduous hours across the globe (stopped over at Miami for a bit of shopping) and braved the Caribbean Sea (while playing cards and snacking titbits) for a date with apex predators. Not to mention, lugging around scuba and photography equipment an ounce shy of being you-gotta-be-freaking-kidding-me-heavy.
Lemon sharks get their name for being overtly jealous when scuba divers do not give them sufficient attention – no, not really, but it would have been a good story.
The first dive with the lemon sharks felt somewhat like going on a blind date in a foreign country. We did not quite know how to make first contact; do we blow some bubbles? Shake a fin? Or offer a universally-accepted body gesture that we came in peace? Amidst our awkward endeavours to make acquaintance, one thing quite evident was that the lemon sharks had as much interest in us as a student savings account. Forget about Spielberg and the John William’s two-noted jingle, the lemons were so shy we had to stalk them like a cat just to take a good picture.
Dives at Fish Tales started on day 2 and we anchored ourselves there for the rest of the expedition. Each day, more sharks gathered and by day 9, we had about 40 sharks that kept us company. The nurse sharks were coy, although shameless when it comes to feeding off bait that may fall out of the crates used to attract them. The Caribbean reef sharks were elegant as they slithered through the waters. They appeared to get increasingly accustomed (or resigned) to our relentless attempts to stroke their bellies. The lemon sharks had little respect for personal space. They would wriggle between our legs and brush against our shoulders as if swimming around us was not an option. Sometimes a lemon would just park itself beneath our feet to receive a hug. I gave a passing lemon shark a kiss but ideals of romance were short-lived as my lips felt like they were exfoliated against industrial-strength sandpaper.
And there were the tiger sharks.
When a tiger shark is in the vicinity, you could feel its presence before you could see it. The tiger is cautious, and would emerge from the shadows at the corner of your eye. The other sharks make way when a tiger approaches. The tiger stamps its authority with its sheer size and majesty; there can be no mistake that it is the apex predator of the Caribbean waters.
There was an incident that gave us a timely reminder that despite our growing comfort interacting with the sharks, we were, after all in feral territory.
It was 11 a.m., we were diving with the usual school of Caribbean reef and lemon sharks until the currents began to pick up. The visibility consequently dropped and curtains of shadows formed to set the perfect milieu for the tiger shark to make its presence felt. Not one, but three tiger sharks prudently circled us; a group of six divers. As the visibility continued to fade, the tiger sharks inched closer towards the crate of bait that sat in the middle of the divers. Before we knew it, the tiger sharks dropped caution to the wind and were swimming amongst us. There was a strange sense of false security as the divers soaked-in the rare opportunity of having tiger sharks so up close and personal. We maintained eye-contact with the tigers (as instructed) but realised that the tigers’ attention was solely on the bait crate. Visibility dropped further. As we were busy taking photographs of the magnificent creatures, one tiger shark decided that the plastic bait crate was too enticing to leave alone. The tiger dived towards the crate with its jaws wide opened and gnawed the bait crate whole. It shook its head fiercely a few times to rip open the crate, but nothing gave way. The commotion stirred up the sandy bottom and exacerbated the visibility. We could barely see our respective dive buddies who were only a few meters from us.
The tiger shark made a second attempt. Inexplicably, it drew the excited divers even closer towards the action with cameras ready, oblivious to the fact that there were another two tiger sharks in close proximity. The bait crate was battered this time. The crate found itself between the jaws of the unrelenting tiger shark. In one solid crunch, the plastic crate shattered like twigs of toothpicks in an ear-splitting snap! Bait, in the form of dead fish scattered like confetti. The sharks around us, all 30 of them got into a feeding frenzy. Shark was attacking shark. The floor stirred into a mini sandstorm. We knew that we were in a bit of a predicament; the sharks could not see us, and we smelled like dead fish.
I backed my scuba tank against my buddy’s and we were fending of sharks with our underwater cameras (bless the 8.5” dome port I bought for the trip!). The three tiger sharks got way too close for comfort. With their eyes partially closed, we knew that we were no longer in a petting zoo. We used our camera ports to press against the nose of the tigers and in one occasion, my buddy had to reach out with his hand to push a sniffing tiger away.
The dive master signalled that we needed to ascend to the boat. We did, finning backwards to see a school of 20 sharks tailing us. Amanda, a professional underwater photographer, exclaimed as she surfaced “what the heck was that?!” We all took a moment to let the heartbeat settle before bursting into utter exhilaration. We were safe, and we had a story to tell for a very long time to come.
Oh, we went back into the water two hours later when the visibility cleared up. The sharks were calm again, and we got back to stroking the bellies of the lemon sharks.