I HAVE NO CHEST HAIR. I neither drive a sports car nor a Harley-Davidson. To my amazement, my stereotypical idea of a testosterone-laden shark-diver did not fit - neither with me, nor with my fellow-travellers on Jims boat.
The reasons for us to gather on board were probably as many as the number of passengers. We had only one thing in common. We all wanted an experience far beyond the usual.
In the early hours, at 2am, a yellow cab arrived to deliver my dive gear from the airport - as always. Luggage-handlers seem to hate my bags.
Everybody was asleep except the captain, the cook and me. I reckon there were many dreams on board, and perhaps also the odd nightmare.
The boat departed from Florida and West Palm Beach immediately after my bags arrived. Finally we were off, for the best shark diving in the world!

Public opinion still has it that sharks are life-threatening creatures, the embodiment of instant violent death. They are described as monsters prowling our seas, representing a threat to anyone swimming, surfing, fishing or, well, diving.
Our fear is built on feelings emanating from some kind of collective assumption. The tragic part is that the assumption is wrong. Our anxiety is largely irrational, founded on illusion.
People I meet raise their eyebrows in surprise when I confess my intention to dive with tiger sharks without using a cage. Some try to conceal their astonishment. Others blurt out the spontaneous question: How can you be such an idiot
I agree that it sounds a bit daunting when sitting at home on the leather couch, even to me.
To a certain degree, we all carry a piece of the shark myth - especially when it comes to the tiger shark.
On the one hand, it is appropriate to hold wild sharks in high esteem (Total Respect! April). On the other hand, the public really needs to try to forget all those cheap horror tricks running on the Discovery Channel, and every comic strip and sensational story it has ever read.

Bahamas has a tropical resonance about it and seems far away, but it is only a slow 5-6-hour ride in a blue boat away from Florida.
Suddenly, morning has broken. We have arrived in Freeport, among the Bahamas 700 islands. A little drowsy, I stumble around in an ocean of underwater housings, cables and flashlights to find my way through the cabin door. The sun blazes.
Passports and other formalities are promptly dealt with, then we head out to realise our expectations.
There is some tension in the air. We wonder what the dive will be like. Jim beckons us into the saloon and runs a long briefing. Two hours long.
There are strict rules regarding our dives, especially with tiger sharks, and a lot of the briefing is about showing respect, working together and the stricture dont touch the bait!
A lawyer, a salesman from West Palm Beach and a perfectly calm Texan seem to take it all in their stride.
They listen carefully, absorb the information and nod. The Belgian wildlife photographer and I ask nearly all the questions. Jim takes his time to explain the entire scenario.

I feel super-briefed by the time the boat approaches the white sandbanks. The sea surface glitters. We have a full week ahead of us, high expectations and all seems good.
The boat anchors. Mikael, a heavily sharkoholised gentleman from Stockholm, is standing on the aft deck, clearly enjoying it all. This is his fifth trip to the site - in fact Mikaels fins have flapped at most shark sites with a capital S around the world. Its Christmas Eve out here all the time, he says.
Jim opens the bait ports in the bow, and bait flows into the water. Without bait, you will get a short glimpse of a tiger shark at best.
Large brown shadows soon appear just beneath the surface. At first there are three or four, but their number soon increases. I get very excited, and can hardly wait.
Theyre just lemon sharks, says Jeb, seemingly totally relaxed.
Just doesnt exist in my shark vocabulary. I ask - perhaps with some urgency - whether I can jump in yet.
Jim realises that I must. Sure, Magnus. The pool at Tiger Beach is open!

The lemon sharks around the boat are all marvellously bulky, their dollar grins extremely photogenic.
My first hours on the sand under the boat, 5m down, provide a great experience. I discover that an 8GB CF memory card can seem tiny in certain circumstances.
The place has a sense of magic.
The lemon sharks with their boorish yet harmless behaviour are slowly transformed into lemon bears.
Jeb is a base-jumper. His buddy Liro, from Finland, is a 33-year-old retired magician. Both are still waiting in the stern when Mikael and I ascend from our looong first dive.
They tell anecdotes from their previous years trip. Everything had been fabulous except for the cup of coffee that spilled into Jebs laptop. It never quite recovered.
Passionate shark activists, both men are excited about experiencing Tiger Beach again. Its a privilege, says Liro.
There is only one overly macho guy in the group aboard. He is German, has brought his American wife - he wants; she follows - and gives the impression that he simply needs to tick the tiger shark off on his species list.
The other divers are just passionate about sharks. We are looking for confirmation of what a tiger shark really is, as opposed to our inherited image of it.

We didnt think it would be long before the tigers appeared, but the entire first day passed without a visit.
The second and third day rolled out with some spectacular adventures, but no close encounters with tiger sharks.
We did see wild ones approaching at the limit of visibility and occasionally a bit closer. Theyre scared to death of us, said Jim said, and rightly so. We need one of the models.
He tells us about a sports-fishing vessel from Florida that, some weeks earlier, had landed one of the really big sharks. The fishermen had posed proudly with their trophy in the harbour, and then just let the carcass hang, totally useless. Had the models run away from Tiger Beach because of this occurrence Jim wonders.
Normally, a staff of regular tiger ladies turns up at this site, he says, many of them very experienced as photo models. A few are labelled super-models.
Of course, they all have their own names. Emma is the big wow-shark; Tanya is a long, slender beauty.

On day four, we place our bets on a gorgeous drop-off called The Place at the End of the Map. We have almost forgotten about tiger sharks, and are kept busy with Caribbean reef sharks at 20m.
Then, in a moment of magic, two tigers arrive, backlit along the wall. They are far away, but their silhouettes are unmistakeable. They loiter slowly towards the bait, and it takes them nearly 15 minutes to arrive, sniffing anxiously, at the filled plastic crates.
The intensely blue hues, the reef and the slow, deliberate movements of the two sharks I will remember forever. I stay down as long as my dive computer will permit, and ascend very reluctantly.
The next buddy-pair enters the water, and we keep at it until evening falls.
The Place at the End of the Map is our turning point.

Around the Bahamas you see hardly any small sharks, only big ones. There are plenty of lemon, Caribbean reef and also the more pelagic silky sharks.
Sometimes, if the season is right and you have lots of luck, you may encounter a big hammerhead or bull shark, but the tigers at Tiger Beach are the great prima donnas.
Tiger sharks are the longest carnivorous sharks in the world. They have an infamous reputation as man-eaters. But we had the privilege of meeting a quite different kind of tiger - a shy, wary and cautious shark.

Our last day is beyond description. We get tiger sharks for real - lots of sun, clear water and plenty of sharks. This is like it usually is, says Mikael. The entire group is rapturous - or nearly all of us.
From a drama perspective, the trip is perfect. A slow beginning, escalating experiences, the drop-off and, the grand finale, Tiger Beach in full bloom. How did all this happen Have I missed a film director sitting down there somewhere
She keeps her distance for a long while. Suddenly she decides to follow the scent trail again. Only two divers remain in the water. The massive striped body approaches warily over the glaring sand.
The sea is blue. The sand ripples reflect light onto her white belly.
Her head grows steadily in my viewfinder. She gets closer and closer.
Her blunt nose nearly touches my cameras dome port before she turns slowly towards the bait. She scrutinises me as I observe her. This feels like a moment I wish everybody to experience. This is worth remembering forever - or, at least, for the rest of my life.
Thats the way I bade farewell to the tiger sharks at Tiger Beach. I sincerely hope that many of you get the chance to see and participate in something similar - for the sharks sake, as well as for yours. Mikael was right: it was like Christmas Eve all the time.

Jim Abernethys Scuba Adventures, www.scuba-adventures.com


Every one of the following shark-diving sites deserves five out of five stars, says Sharkoholic Magnus Lundgren. Several other destinations could easily be included - such as Fiji, with its massive bull sharks and gracious silvertips, Cocos with its schools of hammerheads, or Galapagos with its whale sharks, hammerheads and, indeed, Galapagos sharks - but this is Magnuss hot half-dozen...

Species in focus: Tiger, lemon, Caribbean reef and nurse shark
With luck: Big hammerhead and bull shark
Season: All year
Comments: Chances of seeing hammerheads are best between November and April

Cuba (Jardines de la Reina)
Species in focus: Silky, Caribbean reef, nurse shark
With luck: Lemon, blacktip, big hammerhead and whale shark
Season: Best November through May. Best chance of whale sharks in November
Comments: This virgin archipelago in the south of Cuba has enormously rich marine life, and offers a combination of shark and ordinary diving

Species in focus: Great white shark
Season: October through December
Comments: Best diving with great whites in the world. Clear water, close to a colony of elephant seals. Take a bus from San Diego to Ensenada to catch the boat.

Philippines (Donsol at Luzon Island)
Species in focus: Whale shark
Season: November through May, but February to April is best.
Comments: This area is said to have the worlds largest population of whale sharks.
In the top season they loiter at the mouth of the Donsol river.Visibility is limited because there is lots of plankton, and only snorkelling is allowed.

South Africa (Cape Town & environs)
Species in focus: Great white shark
With luck: Mako, blue and sharpnose seven-gill shark
Season: May through October is the best season for great whites, but divers can go out all year round, weather permitting. Breaching white sharks can be seen from April through September. For mako and blue shark the season is November-June, with February through June the best choice.
Comments: The season lasts year round with different species. May seems to be the best month for most of them.

South Africa (Aliwal Shoals)
Species in focus: Tiger, blackfin, sand tiger shark
With luck: Hammerhead, whale, bull, dusky, bronze whaler shark
Season: Year-round
Comments: Different species at different times of the year, but tiger and blackfin sharks year-round. Weather-dependent.