Not everyone approves of this sort of baited diving, but Paul Woodburn was up for some shark-diving thrills on a liveaboard out of Florida
FOUR DAYS SPENT AT SOUTH BEACH, Miami is part of a compromise agreement with my wife Lisa. We hire a Chevy Camaro at the airport for a cracking last-minute deal and check in at the Carlton Hotel. Not bad for $100 a night, considering that we’re a block away from Ocean Drive, where Versace’s old home, now a hotel, charges $1200! Ocean Drive has a dozen or so restaurants offering relatively good food for the price. The strip attracts all sorts of Florida poseurs, driving Lamborghinis and on skateboards. We do an alligator trip to the Everglades on an air-boat, make the 3.5-hour drive to Key West, and visit what is claimed to be the world’s largest dive store, Divers Direct. I drop Lisa at the airport and let go of the Camaro. So sad, parting with that car! Now I head north on Route 95 to meet the Dolphin Dream liveaboard at Riviera Beach. A handsome-looking boat, it’s a 26m ocean-expedition charter yacht that started out as a shrimp trawler and has been operated by Captain Scott Smith since 2005. I have the rest of the night free before we sail, and the Tiki Waterfront sea grill bar is the place to pass time, with a heavy rock band performing a good mix of covers while I snack on the seafood. Dolphin Dream’s cabins, all below the main deck, are very comfortable, with plenty of power sockets. Twelve cylinders are lined up ready on the dive deck for the guests, and aside from Scott the boat carries dive crew Mike and Connor, and cook Gail. Wolfgang Leander, in his 70s, is a skin-diver with a passion for sharks. He does this trip half a dozen times a year. He seems to know a lot of the divers, who range from a brain surgeon to a baron. I don’t feel out of place at all! Breakfast is in the Bahamas. We check in with customs, then set off on a two-hour sail with a couple of fishing rods out – so it will be wahoo and mahi-mahi for dinner, very nice indeed! About 25 miles north of the west end of Great Bahamas, we arrive at Tiger Beach, and anchor in 6m on a big old ship’s chain. It’s time for a bit of wrangling, to attract more sharks prior to our dives, so Mike and Conner tie a grouper-head onto a boom and dangle it off the dive platform. I take some photos at a comfortable distance on the step with my 300mm zoom lens, and it’s scary even from here, with the sharks nearly coming right out of the water as they fight for the head. Diving is done independently, from 10am to as late as you want. You can jump in and out as often as you please. I might do one dive and they would fill my tank while it was still on my back, so that 15 minutes later I could be back in the water. I guess this is one of the few places in the world where you can get really close to lemon and tiger sharks. The tigers don’t appear as often as the lemon sharks, and we’re careful not to get that close to the tigers, as they’re pretty shy. We see only two tigers over the week, but we do see them every day. We also spot a hammerhead, but only briefly.
The lemon sharks are not shy, and I have so much fun with them. They usually swerve to avoid me right at the last second, so eventually I start to lower my camera into their path to get a good portrait, which seems to work very well. Once I get one following me, with her snout on my dome port, while I do two full rotations. It reminds me of my dog, which plays more in return for snacks. After seeing Mike on the surface having chum thrown in front of him for a shot, I start doing the same. With my camera set I give one of the crew the nod and he throws a bit of fish near me. I position myself as quickly as I can before the sharks approach. It will be one at first, but once she has had a taste of the fish she soon spreads the word, and her friends turn up. I am soon closely surrounded by a dozen lemons, right on my dome port even when no treat is in sight. At one point I don’t have my camera in front of me, and three are swimming right up to my face. But it’s comfortable enough to push them sideways out of my way – no choice, really. Feeling that I have tempted fate enough, I head to the boat ladder. Wolfgang and the crew say they have rarely seen anyone do this before, so beware. The sharks are mainly females; Wolfgang says the males tend to be less playful. The lemon sharks are so characterful; look closely and you will see that they have “eyebrows” and crow’s feet, and appear to be smiling! The tiger sharks have big, dark eyes, and make their presence felt when they turn up. One has the right side of her jaw disfigured, probably from a hook. She even has a small remora above her eye, so I give her the name Groucho. All she needs is a fat cigar and a pair of spectacles! As the week goes by, I decide to do a twilight dive on the chain, and it’s not bad, with morays, peacock flounders, a shoal of snapper around a coral whip and squirrelfish. The sharks pass us now and then but, quite surreally, we ignore them on this occasion. All the dives are relatively easy and give me a chance to use a single tank, which I rarely do. Mike and Conner look after the cameras well – they have their own housed SLRs, so they know how careful they need to be. Mike has the same set-up as me, which proves handy when I need a spare part. He is also a great help with post-processing for many people. There is always a drift-line out. It gets in the way of a lot of photos, but hauling it in is not an option! Gail and Scott fish for yellow-tail snapper at Tiger Beach, and these are used for dinner and sometimes as chum. There are two large tables the other side of the dive deck for eating, chatting and playing with our photos. Beer is free. The vis goes down gradually over the last two days, but I have already taken many photos, so I have time to sort out my favourites. I will be returning on this boat at some time in the future, perhaps to skin-dive with dolphins and maybe, as it does combo trips, to revisit the sharks.
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK to Miami. The liveaboard departs from Riviera Beach in the West Palm Beach area, 70 miles north – you can fly there, or take a Tri Rail train or bus (expensive). DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Dolphin Dream, www.sharkexpedition.com WHEN TO GO: Conditions are generally good year-round, though late summer is the hurricane season. PRICES: Conditions are generally good year-round, though late summer is the hurricane season. TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visitflorida.com
Who is the fairest of them all?
Starting to get closer to the tiger
Wrangling with a lemon
The biggest smile wins the snack
A lemon shark oozing with character
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