Sharks by night
SO IT TURNS OUT THAT you can hear people swearing under water at night. That isn’t my first thought, however, as my dive-buddy, cursing repeatedly through his regulator, locks eyes with me.
Flashlights and bait-box flailing, he frantically shakes my arm to direct my attention behind me. Actually, my first thought is similar to that expressed by my guide as he yells at me.
I realise what has happened. I turn slightly. Less than a metre from my fins are two 3.5m female tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) and behind them a posse of 15 or so large lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris), dissolving like a toothy plume into the Caribbean night behind us, where our dive-lights no longer reach.
It is past midnight, and we are at a depth of 14m at classic Tiger Beach.
I am ashamed to admit that I have managed to get myself into the one situation my guide and good friend told me absolutely to avoid.
For the past five years, I have focused my diving almost exclusively on photographing sharks. Despite that I had, until last January, not dived at Tiger Beach, a must-do site for shark aficionados.
Located outside Freeport, Grand Bahama, Tiger Beach is a small reef and sandy area where you are almost guaranteed close encounters with large tiger, lemon and Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi). I was invited to spend a liveaboard week focused on night-diving there with my good friends Joe and Mike, who photograph and work with sharks for a living. Our plan was to spend three days and nights capturing images of the tiger sharks there before sailing on to Bimini to photograph its great hammerheads.
Tiger Beach is a year-round destination, but if you want to combine it with Bimini, January to March is your window of opportunity.
Unfortunately, this period coincides with winter weather in the Bahamas, so you have to factor in losing a couple of days’ diving to the weather.
We sailed with Blue Iguana Charters out of Miami, Florida, and Tiger Beach was our first stop. The diving here is generally straightforward, the only challenges arising from intermittent strong currents.
As you will be sitting still at the bottom, it’s usually a good idea to put on a little extra weight, especially if you’re a photographer. The current will push you around less and you will kick up less backscatter-inducing sand.
ATTRACTING THE SHARKS is not complicated. The lemon sharks arrive as soon as the boat does, and the tigers are never far away.
Once the diving starts the dive-guide, in my case Joe or Mike, brings a metal box full of bait, and the well-habituated sharks know what to do.
The tigers’ “relaxed” behaviour here is very different from that of the tigers I have seen in South Africa and Hawaii. For lack of a better expression, the Tiger Beach sharks are very well-behaved and will, as if programmed, follow the scent of the bait-box and come up straight against the current.
This imparts a sense of predictability to the diver, but you must never relax because now and again they break their pattern and sneak up behind you. Keep your head on a swivel!
Most of the big tiger sharks that frequent “the Beach” are such regular visitors that they have been named.
They have somewhat different personalities, too. Some are more unpredictable than others, and you must have the utmost respect for these predators at all times when in the water.
Often we have more than 25 sharks around us, from bottom to surface, which could be overwhelming if you have not dived with sharks before. Especially so because they will come within an arm’s length of you.
Key is to be aware of where you are in relation to the bait and the current, so that you don’t end up downstream from the box. This is the path the sharks will take, and you don’t want to be squirming in front of them as they make their way to the bait.
Obviously when working with large and potentially dangerous predators it’s important to do so only with professional and serious operators. Always follow guides’ instructions and remember what they tell you and you will minimise the risks to yourself or the animals, and can fully enjoy the power and beauty of one of the ocean’s top predators.
The MO for night dives is the same as for the day dives, but with the reduced overview you need to be even more alert.
I have noticed that most sharks behave differently after dark – they seem a little bolder, more decisive and more powerful or direct.
However, we dived with the two tigers both by day and at night, and this distinction was less apparent.
At either time they would come up obediently through the current to the bait-box, often dipping their heads down to the sand, almost like hunting dogs sniffing a scent trail.
NOW, ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE of doing what your guide says. The first night we get two night dives in, and it is at the end of the first dive that Mike, my guide, grabs my arm and gives me the underwater scolding I told you about at the beginning.
During the dive-briefing, we had agreed that when we finished the dive it was my task to navigate back to the boat and swim in front of Mike, who would be carrying the bait-box.
He needs to be last so that no-one was between the bait and the sharks, and he would be unable to navigate because he needs all his attention on the sharks in order to give us as much safety and control as possible.
Swimming back to the boat, I have paid too little attention to the current and Mike’s position. I am now right beside him, with my focus on the surface ahead, looking for the boat. I am oblivious to the fact that I am drifting between the sharks and the bait – the very thing we had agreed should not happen. Mike is not happy.
Two calm strokes with my fins and I am in the lead again, but my embarrassment knows no bounds.
Once up on deck I apologise profusely for my mistake, but all Mike says is: “That mistake is so common – just don’t do it again!”
On the next dive, I get it right.
AS WE KIT DOWN AFTER the last night-dive, the weather reports are showing storm winds. We decide to leave Tiger Beach, sail to Bimini, where better weather is reported, and spend three days there before returning to Tiger Beach.
Bimini is one of the few places in the world (Jupiter, Florida, being another) where from January to April you can with some degree of certainty dive with the largest of the hammerhead sharks – the great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran).
In addition I have seen bull sharks (Carcharinus leucas), juvenile lemon, Caribbean reef and nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) there. Juvenile tiger sharks are always around.
Bimini shark-diving is similar to that at Tiger Beach, but you are closer to shore and I have never experienced any strong currents there, apart from tidal flows that may also affect visibility.
On the first dive of the first day we have seven different hammerheads with us. All the while, greedy nurse sharks keep jolting for attention around the bait, while cautious bull sharks circle on the periphery.
The day is full of action, but we are all really looking forward to nightfall.
Great hammerheads are magnificent animals, and for some reason they always give me the impression of being smarter and more calculating than many other sharks. During the day they often appear cautious and attentive (although this varies among individuals), but under cover of darkness they change and seem much more bold, quick and assertive.
Apart from their obvious body shape, with the T-shaped head and large, curved, sharp dorsal fin, which combine to give them their spectacular appearance, they also have a truly beautiful pattern of movement.
While big and bulky, they have all the grace and undulating agility in the world. I am always amazed by their ability to turn on a dime so rapidly, despite their size.
It’s this gracefulness combined with power that ranks them among my favourite sharks.
At night, our biggest challenge is to keep the pesky nurse sharks at bay. They are very bold and keep pushing us around and stirring up the sand to find morsels from the bait.
The bull sharks are out at night too, and are quick to snap up any scavenging crab bold enough to leave the sand within the reach of our lights.
Early next day we have time to make only one morning dive before the weather worsens and we are forced to seek shelter. For the rest of the week the weather stays the same. Strong winds and rain all over the Bahamas make diving impossible on both Tiger Beach and Bimini, and the rest of our trip before flying back to Scandinavia is spent sulking on the boat.
Of six planned full days of diving, we get to do only two days and nights. It’s a big disappointment, but the fact that we got footage of six different species of sharks, both in day- and night-time conditions, is a testament to how spectacularly good the shark-diving is in the Bahamas!
• Blue Iguana Charters runs Sunday-to-Saturday Bahamas & Tiger Beach dive-trips from the Florida Keys aboard its 20m liveaboard which takes six divers. Pricing is from US $3300pp, www.blueiguana charters.com