I GRIP THE HANDRAIL TIGHTLY as the boat pitches and yaws in the choppy seas. The weight of the dive tank on my back, along with the July sun, causes sweat to pour down my face.
I wait patiently for the captain to give me the go-ahead to jump into the restless ocean with the anchor and secure the boat to the wreck of the Atlas tanker 34m below.
Today we’re seeking out the grand attraction for our 18 divers on board – Carcharias taurus or the sand tiger shark, wreck denizen of the North Carolina coast.
With several rows of gnarly, pointed teeth projecting from their jaws, and small beady eyes that seemingly look everywhere at once, the sand tiger is renowned for being the meanest-looking of shark species.
Unlike dolphins, which instill feelings of joy, the sight of a sand tiger can invoke an atmosphere of danger and aggression. Ranging from 1-3m in length, this shark can intimidate even the boldest of divers.
However, this threatening image is far from reality. The sand tiger is a docile, lethargic species that, using proper technique, is easily approachable.

THE RUSTED REMAINS of the Atlas are known to attract sizeable populations of these amazing predators. The tanker was attacked by a German U-boat and sunk off the Carolina coast in 1942.
At the time, no one could have fathomed that this wreck, with its tragic history, would become a favourite haunt for sand tiger sharks and all the marine life that co-exists with them.
My pulse quickens as the boat slows and crawls nearer to our target. The tension brought on by the thought of jumping into an ocean full of sharks is only heightened by the fact that the water clarity on the wreck is often low by North Carolina standards.
The eerie mood of this hazy water has given the wreck the reputation of being haunted by divers who have frequented it over the years.
This feeling is magnified by dozens of large, toothy creatures lurking about.
Once we’re over the wreck, I secure my full-face mask, equipped with surface communication, and nervously wait for the final order.
Seconds later, the captain shouts “OK!” as he pulls back on his throttles to halt the forward motion of the boat.
In a flash I’m over the side, clutching the anchor and with a coil of chain in my hand. As soon as my feet hit the water I invert into a head-down position and make a mad dash for the wreck directly below.
The initial azure tone of the ocean dissipates rapidly to a green hue the further I travel.
After a few moments of vigorous kicking, I begin to see what I believe to be the top of the wreck below me.
To my surprise, the Atlas has come to life and is moving!
I slow my descent as I try to make sense of this scene. Within moments it becomes apparent that it isn’t the wreck that’s shifting, but a layer of at least 40 sentinels hovering over its upper sections, blocking me from reaching my destination.
I fan my legs out like a flailing sky-diver to try to slow my descent and avoid crashing into the sharks, with their rows of ragged teeth. I allow the anchor and chain to slip out of my hand and travel noisily ahead of me, in the hope of clearing a path through the partition of predators.
The rattling of the chain startles a handful of the more skittish sharks, causing them to bolt, but the bulk of them remain where I now need to find a path through the gauntlet.
I manage to evade most of the sharks, but inadvertently kick a few with my fins. The sharks, startled by my sudden appearance, are darting around in all directions, bumping into one another as I weave my way through.
The backwash from the thrashing tails nearly dislodges my mask; all I can do is shield my face with my arm and swim hard for the wreck, now visible below.
With a clank, the anchor touches down on the remaining hunks of metal decking and I-beams, as I follow behind.
Once on the safety of the wreck, I pause to look around. Sharks are everywhere, but somewhat dispersed by the noisy foreign invader who dropped down from the mysterious world above.

I FIND A STOUT PIECE OF WRECKAGE and wrap the anchor-chain around it. Once secure, I transmit a simple message to the captain: “OK, OK, OK.”
Soon after, the anchor-line comes tight as it is tied off to the cleat up on deck. I pause to check that the tie-in location is strong enough to endure the enormous strain from the boat being pushed about by the wind and sea.
All seems well. The journey is over, and I hover over the deck and take a deep breath. The tie-in experience was nerve-wracking but exhilarating. This jumble of contrasted feelings occurring simultaneously is enough to satisfy any adrenaline junkie.
While unwinding, I transmit a condition report to the captain so that he can relay this information to the eager divers above, waiting impatiently for their turn to dive with the sharks.
I press the button on the microphone and state in a clear voice: “60ft of vis above the wreck; 25ft mid-water and less than 15 on the very bottom; 78°F degrees with a light current running from stern to bow. Over.”
“Roger that,” says the captain. “Are there any sharks”
“A few,” I say.
It’s time for me to take a turn around the wreck and spend some time with my “friends” before returning to the boat to help out on deck. As I swim, I see sharks above and below as well as 360° around me. Some are swimming in and out of the structure of the remaining I-beams that, in the hazy water, resemble an eerie apocalyptic image of a gutted skyscraper.
Once I drop below 25m the visibility worsens, and the rush of not being able to see the sharks around me enhances my senses. I must hope that the perceptions of the sand tiger sharks are rather sharper than my own, and will prevent an alarming head-on encounter.

AS THE MINUTES PASS, some of the largest sharks I have ever seen slowly emerge from the turbid water. All I can do is subtly change course to avoid contact. Logic tells me that size matters down here, and that I should be the one to yield to the on-coming traffic.
These animals are more scared of me than I am of them, but it doesn’t feel like that when a 3m shark swims directly at you.
After a few minutes, I ascend to the clearer water above the thermocline to enjoy the view once again. There are more than just sharks to admire.
Large schools of Atlantic spadefish swim above me unhurriedly in the gentle current, while jacks excitedly chase darting balls of baitfish in and out of the safety of the wreck. Every so often, it’s possible to see a sandbar shark or, if you’re lucky, a hammerhead passing by.
I emerge from the side of a large baitball and am stopped in my tracks at the sight before me. Through the hazy water, I make out a school of sand tiger sharks all swimming gently into the current in mid-water – a line stretching farther than I can see.
I approach the mass slowly, manoeuvring carefully, trying not to scare them so that I can join the congregation.
Once settled within the school and heading in their direction, I try to count their numbers, quitting once I reach 80.
With only 12-15m of visibility, who’s to say how many more lie beyond the fringe of my vision This is the biggest gathering of sand tigers I have ever seen, and I am awestruck at the sight.
Eventually, I make my way back to the anchor-line to begin my ascent, only to come across divers who, by now, have made their way into the water from the boat. I do my best to guide them to where I saw the schooling sharks, but many are too distracted with the spectacle of marine life before them and pay little mind to my presence. With sand-tiger sightings everywhere on the wreck, all participants in this dive will get their fill of these remarkable creatures before the day is over.
Back on the boat, the excitement of the dive continues, with each diver telling tales of derring-do among the hordes of sharks. The atmosphere is electric. The dive leaves an indelible mark on me, and sand tigers and sharks in general become my favourite marine-life encounters from that day on.

THE YEAR WAS 2002. Since then, I have had the pleasure of living and working for many years in such places as Africa, Truk Lagoon and Vanuatu, but the many memorable dives like this one continue to pull me back to the North Carolina coast to live, work, and dive.
Today, I am captain of the very same dive-boat on which I worked as a mate in 2002. When not tending to my boating responsibilities, I spend much of my dive time photographing and filming the sand tigers and other shark species. I have been fortunate enough to film this schooling phenomenon numerous times, as well as many other captivating moments.
Shark-diving has gained in popularity in North Carolina over the years. Federally protected in the USA since 1992, sand tiger shark populations are making a comeback from devastating fishing practices in previous decades.
Once they were feared and even hated. Now people understand better the vital role they play as apex predators in balancing our marine ecosystem.
Those who seek close encounters with sand tiger sharks are creating an industry where there was none before.
Such interest can promote the recovery of the species, by creating economic incentive to maintain healthy populations of these sharks by coastal communities.
With their grim smiles and sinister looks, sand tigers are far from obtaining the same endearing status as dolphins, but with continued education there is hope for the survival and even proliferation of the wreck denizens of North Carolina, as well as all shark species worldwide.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina or Washington DC. From the former it’s a three-hour drive and from DC six hours to Morehead City at the southern end of the Outer Banks. Flights to regional airports are also available.
DIVING: Olympus Dive Centre has been wreck-diving the Outer Banks for over 25 years, www.olympusdiving.com. For smaller groups, the six-passenger Atlantis IV operates from Atlantic Beach, www.atlantischarters.com. Dive operators offer full-day two-tank recreational dives with a 40m max depth, though technical charters can also be conducted. Half-day inshore dives are available for beginners. Diving can be up to 40 miles from land, involving two-hour boat rides.
ACCOMMODATION: www.crystalcoastnc.org.
WHEN TO GO: The dive season starts slowly in April, picks up speed through June and runs full out until the end of September, slowing down in October. Charters run through winter, but sporadically. The Gulf Stream delivers warm clear water to the North Carolina wrecks in summer, with water temperatures ranging from 18-24°C in early season, peaking at 27°C July-September. Visibility averages 15-18m and can exceed 30m on a good day. Along with the blue water come occasional strong currents, so use of SMBs is recommended.
PRICES: Charter fees start from US $125 for a full-day two-tank dive – tanks are extra. Accommodation ranges from the Olympus Dive Centre bunkhouse at $25 a night to $200 for hotels in peak season. Return flights from London to Raleigh-Durham cost from £500.
FURTHER INFORMATION: uk.visitnc.com

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