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August 19, 2009

Sharks, finally

After thinking about sharks, reading about sharks, watching TV programs about sharks and wondering if I’d ever actually see a shark, it finally happened. I saw sharks and I swam with sharks while diving from the Turks and Caicos Explorer II. Ryan from Fisheye Scuba had told us there’d be plenty of sharks at Turks and Caicos, and he was right.

The first encounter came at a dive site called Thunderdome off the Northwest coast of the Turks and Caicos island of Providenciales. The site was named after an underwater dome that had been put in place for a French TV show in the early 1990s. The steel dome, which is at a depth of 35-40 feet, is collapsed now and was perfect for taking one of our waterproof test cameras along, the kind that do not need a waterproof housing. The segments of the formerly hemispherical structure have broken apart and collapsed, but the pieces are arranged such that you can swim inside and underneath. Visibility was excellent and there were hundreds and hundreds of fish, with large schools of yellow French grunts.

I ventured away from the main structure to explore a large piece of the dome that had broken off completely. That’s when I saw my first-ever shark – a five-foot nurse shark that was laying on the sand under a piece of the dome.

Nurse sharks are very different from almost any other shark in that they like to lay motionless on the sand for lengthy periods of time. I was very excited to see the shark and slowly approached it, taking a bunch of pictures. I wanted to alert Carol who was exploring another part of the dome, but was afraid the shark would swim off and I wouldn’t see it again. I also didn’t know what to expect. This was, after all, a shark. So I stayed my distance, taking pictures. At some point the shark moved a little, then some more, but didn’t swim away.

I went to get Carol and she took more pictures. I had wondered for so long what it’d be like to see my first shark, and here he was.

We did another dive at Thunderdome, a night dive. I had expected to be nervous descending into the black ocean, but I wasn’t. We all had green lights to our tanks so we could easily be located, and we all had two divelights. Lights were clearly visible and so it was easy to locate one another. Diving around the dome in the dark was fun and the divelight spectacularly illuminated the structures. We saw the nurse shark again, swimming with a big turtle. Carol later said she saw it hunting and it was quite ferocious.

The next day we did another dive at the North-West side of Providenciales. The site was called “The Amphitheatre,” referring to a smallish patch of sand sitting at the bottom of a first wall at perhaps 85 feet. When you look at the walls surrounding it, it looks like you’re on a stage looking up at the bleachers of an amphitheatre.

This I where I saw my first “real” shark. As we were reaching the edge of the reef and began dropping down the wall, a sleek reef shark cruised by in the distance, elegantly and effortlessly. It didn’t come close, it just cruised by to take a look. I felt no fear, just awe. I only saw the shark for a few seconds, but it gave off this aura of effortless power, purpose and confidence that I had never seen in any other sea creature. It was instantly clear that the shark considered itself on top of the food chain.

We didn’t see the shark again on this dive and the boat moved on to the island of West Caicos where at a wonderful divesite dive site named “The Gully” there were several sharks, just appearing out of nowhere. You'd turn around and there was a real life shark just cruising by, only feet away from you. They circled around, swam right up to us and under us, but never displaying aggressive behavior. It was an awesome site seeing those sleek creatures cruise around us.

And they didn’t just appear for a bit and then leave; they hung around and stayed with us the entire dive. Interestingly, they stayed even though we had about 10-12 divers in the group. Apparently they are used to people. I expected to be hugely nervous and my heart pounding, but none of that happened. It does get a bit disconcerting as they tend to cruise toward you then sort of turn around you, disappear, then appear again and swim a closer circle. It was an incredible experience, and unlike at some of those places where they feed sharks for special shark trips, the ones I saw were totally wild.

We did a second dive at “The Gully,” and this time it was all about sharks. They were there, circling around us from the moment we entered the water, just swimming and circling. Overall there must have been six to eight sharks, and they were between five and eight feet long. They’d come in fairly close, then slowly disappear again into the distance. Next thing you know, the shark is right back. This was a bit spooky, knowing when you get in the water, the sharks are right there. I was not afraid and neither my heart rate nor my air consumption went up, but I must say it can feel eery when a predator this large heads for you, circles around you, swims away, then comes back and swims a tighter circle.

When I later looked at the pictures I’d taken I noticed that almost all the sharks had bite marks on them and Joe, one of the divemasters, said that those marks were new and had not been there a couple of weeks before. The only thing that could leave such deep marks might be mating rituals, or they were inflicted by larger sharks in a shark feeding frenzy. Opinions were voiced as to what might have triggered such a frenzy, and none of them were comforting.

I saw sharks again at a second West Caicos dive site named Rock Garden Interlude. This time a reef shark followed us and circled around us. I got some good video of it, but stayed close to the dive master. One thing that’s interesting is that none of the other fish appeared perturbed by the presence or approach of the sharks. Each of the smaller fish would have made a quick meal for a shark, but apparently there are some rules down there.

We then moved on to the small island of French Key. There were reef sharks in abundance and also a most accommodating nurse shark. The reef sharks did their coming and going routine whereas the nurse shark sat between coral heads, then lifted off and moved around a bit, just to rest again.

Seeing sharks was an incredible experience, and that alone made this trip worthwhile. In Roatan you sign up for a shark trip and then go see a bunch of sharks that are there because they know they will get fed. On Caicos, and especially the island of West Caicos, the sharks are simply there and part of the ecosystem. Seeing both nurse sharks and reef sharks up close was something I’ll never forget.

After a lifetime of reading about sharks, seeing them in person and diving with them was incredible. It’s also clear that while most sharks have common characteristics, the different types of sharks act very differently. The nurse sharks lay in the sand, resting or perhaps sleeping, and then cruise around close to the bottom for brief periods of time. They neither seem afraid of humans nor do they show any interest. Reef sharks, on the other hand, constantly cruise and may come very close. They seem quite interested in divers and sometimes seem on collision course. I am not sure what may trigger one to take bite or become aggressive. None of the ones I’ve seen on this trip showed any aggression.

Posted by conradb212 at August 19, 2009 08:22 PM