Shark! The word invokes a chilling image: A dark dorsal fin slicing through the surface of calm water. A huge open mouth revealing razor sharp teeth. Yes, folks. This is shark diving in the Bahamas.
Drawn by the sounds of the boat engine, almost 40 sharks congregate around our anchoring dive boat.
The sight of these sleek, powerful creatures circling the vessel is enough excitement for some passengers — they decide to stay in the boat. But the rest of us exhibit no fear as we race to gear up and jump in.
WHAT TO EXPECT DURING DRIVE
As Smitty the dive master describes shark behavior and what to expect during this dive, about two dozen four-to-six-foot (1.2 to 1.8 m) Caribbean Reef Sharks and one seven-foot (2 m) Bull Shark circle the boat.
The animals also know what to expect, and seem impatient for the action to begin.
We are vacationing in the Bahamas, an island country in the Atlantic Ocean, and diving with sharks is on our to-do list.
Over two decades ago, Bahamas’ resort owners and dive masters pioneered predictable shark encounters. Our dive spot lies in the open ocean, a 45-minute boat ride from shore. Many marine experts visit these sites to study shark behavior.
The dependable return of these imposing creatures to shallow feeding sites provides the opportunity for enthusiasts to observe and study the underwater world and its inhabitants, and learn that sharks and humans can coexist in the sea.
Shark dive operators are careful to feed the sharks only small amounts on an infrequent basis, preventing any dependency on the feedings and altering the shark’s natural behavior.
SHARK DIVING IN THE BAHAMAS
As the divers descend, columns of eager, enthusiastic bubbles rise to the surface from a depth of 40 feet (12 m).
Struggling to control racing pulses and shallow, rapid breathing, divers move into position on the white sandy bottom next to a high-profile coral head.
The instructions replay loudly: “Control your breathing, stay on the bottom, stay together, don’t reach out and try to touch the sharks.” Not to worry about that last one!
Smitty asks each person if they are okay, using scuba hand signals.
Once the group is kneeling in a semi-circle, backs against the coral head, he signals his brother, Captain Delbert, to drop the bait bucket from the stern platform.
SEEING THE SHARKS
The sharks and a variety of reef fish, including big grouper, yellow-tail snappers, and blue stripe grunts, swim with controlled curiosity until the bucket pierces the turquoise water with a splash.
Immediately, they converge on the bucket, hitting it with their noses, bouncing it around like a volleyball.
Before the bucket hits the white sand bottom, the sharks fiercely tear off the plastic wrapping and expose the bait. Fins, tails, teeth, and sand fly everywhere.
Wide-eyed divers stare at the spectacle, underwater cameras flashing. The feeding frenzy lasts only a minute, but the guests of honor continue to cruise effortlessly, hoping for a second course.
All too quickly the furor is over and the sharks return to their curious inspection, sometimes within arm’s length of a diver’s mask, providing an opportunity for the patient photographer to single out specific sharks and capture that one photo depicting the wild beauty of these majestic creatures.
BEST DIVE OF MY LIFE
The divers check gauges for available air, bottom time and film. Smitty’s signal begins the slow ascent to the surface after what feels like a quick 30 minutes.
While shedding fins, masks, tanks, and wetsuits, divers breathlessly describe their experiences with “Did you see that… ” and hope to have captured this thrilling adventure on film.
The luncheon guests continue circling the dive boat anchored in the flat calm, clear Caribbean Sea. It is lunchtime for all on board now, whether they braved the shark-infested waters or not.
“No food for the cowards,” shouts one diver with adrenaline still racing through his veins.
“That was the best dive of my life,” exclaims another soggy, awe-struck diver while packing away her gear.
Smitty and Delbert claim it’s like this every day in the Bahamas — bright sunny skies meeting warm clear blue water in all directions.
“Don’t go home tomorrow and we’ll bring you back here next week,” Smitty teases. And after a dive like that, it’s an offer worth considering.