Lesley Rochat in her silver freediving suit with Emma, the tiger shark that gave John Bantin his own free ride
YOU HAVE TO USE your snorkel, Lesley. You need to be looking behind you when floating on the surface all the time,” says Scott Smith persistently, when I ask why he doesn’t think my freediving with the tiger sharks without a snorkel is a good idea.
Scott elaborates: “I’ve watched a freediver being bitten by a tiger shark. We were standing on the stern watching him floating on the surface when the shark snuck up from behind him and bit down on his body.
“We thought: that’s it for this guy, he’s about to be bitten in half, he’s a gone-no! But the shark only mouthed him gently, a few puncture holes in his wetsuit and not a single bit of his skin was broken.”
Scott’s story highlights once again those misperceptions people have of sharks being monster man-eaters with insatiable appetites for humans.
Clearly that tiger shark was curious and, not having hands to investigate the freediver, it gently mouthed him instead, before deciding he wasn’t on its menu. Quite simply, if it wanted to eat him, it would have.
I have returned to shark lovers’ paradise, Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, on a photographic expedition on board the Dolphin Dream, which Scott owns.
I’m here for two weeks, gathering images and footage for a new shark-awareness video called Freediving With Sharks (you can find it on YouTube), and for a book project for the AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, the organisation that I founded and run.
Last year, when I first freedived with the tiger sharks, I felt nervous before I got in.
Put a tank on my back and throw me into “shark-infested” waters and I’m in heaven, but although I’d done a bit of freediving with blacktip sharks, the idea of doing the same with 40 big lemon sharks, and what is suppose to be the second most dangerous shark in the world, the tiger, wearing nothing but my bikini, made me feel vulnerable.
My misplaced fear dissolved into the infinite turquoise visibility the second I dived down to experience the simple joy of being free with the animals I love so much.
It was then that I caught the freediving bug, and was determined to return with better freediving skills one day.
The day has arrived 18 months later, and I’m super-confident. Fear is alien now. Having trained with Trevor Hutton, my parter and South Africa’s most accomplished freediver, I’m enjoying more bottom time with the sharks, loving the freedom only freediving brings.
Tiger sharks’ sneaky behaviour is very familiar to me. I recall last year that eye contact with one that was sneaking up from behind caused it to turn away.
I quickly mastered the art of getting the best shot by hiding behind my camera until the shark was within reach. In my years spent diving with sharks, I know it’s safer than sleeping in my own bed, especially considering the high crime rate in South Africa.
I’m aware, however, that tiger sharks are often surface-feeders, and sharks in general are very curious animals.
The very, very small risk of a close encounter of the less preferred kind is therefore higher when freediving than when I’m on scuba. So today, after missing a tiger shark’s close inspection of me at the surface, which startled me when she was already passing my shoulder, I decide to pay heed to Scott’s advice. I put my irritating snorkel back.
I take in a breath and dive into the ocean’s familiar silence, down past some lemon sharks to greet a beautiful big tiger shark below.
I’m concerned to see that she has a hook in her pectoral fin, and another has a hook in her mouth – Man’s destructive mark.
It saddens me to know that although sharks are protected from commercial fishing in the Bahamas, recreational anglers may still catch them.
Swimming besides this fine-looking animal, I find the temptation too great and, slate me as a shark conservationist but I reach out to touch her gently.
I must however remember the rules, remember my place as a visitor graciously accepted into the sharks’ domain, and never get too bold or overconfident. These are supreme predators, after all.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that if people spent as much time with other predators such as lions or crocodiles, for example, as we shark-lovers spend diving with sharks, there would be many fatal encounters.
And I can almost guarantee that if you reached your hand out to a crocodile it would become a tasty snack, as happened to a diver on an expedition to snorkel with crocs in Africa last year.
I don’t handle bait or feed sharks and I do try to remember not to swim in the chum slick or downcurrent.
But after my hours in the water with all kinds of sharks, all of which have been so gentle, it’s easy to forget that they have teeth, and big ones at that.
The warm water on my skin and just the air in my lungs, her and me side by side, with lemon sharks surrounding us – this experience is a privilege.
I know I will do this till the day I die. And if it’s God’s will that a shark takes me, considering the very slim chance of that happening as only about five people are killed by sharks a year, I’d consider that the perfect way for me to go.
Dolphin Dream, www.dolphindream team.com. Lesley Rochat will be leading a photographic expedition to the Bahamas later this year – if you’d like to join it, you can find out more at www.lesleyrochat.com