LET’S FACE IT, divers like to experience the adrenaline rush, the fear, the nervousness and the unpredictability associated with risk. Listening to others tell stories of their deepest dive, the crazy currents, the penetration of wrecks and caves, the fierceness of the conditions, the one story, above all, that captures everyone’s attention, be it in wonder, terror, incredulity or envy, is the one about diving with sharks.
Sharks can be encountered on many normal dives, with glimpses of sharply pointed dorsal fins or the swish of a tail as the animal hurries away.
However, spending time around them, within arm’s length of their business ends, having them swarm around you, eyeballing you as possible food, being buzzed so closely overhead that you can feel the hair on your head move, is a different experience.
In recent years, I have been in sharks’ lairs many times. Organised shark-feeding dives are controversial and concerns have been voiced. The main one is that feeding a wild animal may lead to problems with their behaviour and disturb the natural balance.

RECENT RESEARCH HAS INDICATED that carrying out shark feeds respectfully and sensitively, with small groups of divers and minimal interference to the marine environment, can be not only a breath-taking experience but form part of the data-gathering process needed for the conservation of these animals.
Observing behavioural patterns, sexing the sharks, using the dives as an educational tool for shark conservation and to counter illogical Jaws fears, such experiences can give divers a healthy and compassionate respect for sharks.
I believe that shark-feed dives overall have become more ethical and more directed towards studying the sharks, providing the opportunity for marine biologists to tag and take tissue samples to help them understand shark behaviour, and to use underwater photographs of the sharks to help with identification.
It is essential to listen to and obey any instructions given by shark-feeders and dive guides. Their experience is paramount in ensuring the safety of both divers and sharks.

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE of a shark-feed dive was at Stuart Cove’s in Nassau in the Bahamas. I took my daughter, Megan, then 16, on the two-tank dive a short boat ride away from Stuart Cove’s set-up on New Providence island. Away from the cruise-ship terminals and large chain hotels, it’s in a quiet area about 40 minutes’ drive from downtown.
We started with an observation dive, descending along a small reef wall. After a few minutes of gently finning in good visibility, looking at the beautiful, healthy reef life, I noticed several Caribbean reef sharks approaching us, circling at a distance then swimming away, only to reappear a few minutes later from a different directions.
As the dive progressed the sharks grew bolder, coming closer and closer. Too soon we had surfaced, leaving the sharks behind on the reef.
After an hour’s surface interval we were taken to a sandy clearing at around 15m, where we were instructed to kneel and keep our hands on our bodies (or our cameras), rather than have them flailing about as potential titbits for the sharks.
Once we were settled, the shark-feeder entered the water with a crate containing several freshly cut fish-heads.
The slick permeated the openings in the crate, bringing the sharks close to the feeder.
They followed him to where he knelt in the middle of the circle. Using a pole to spear a fish-head, he would hold it in front of him, encouraging the sharks to approach. As they were almost at the bait, mouths open showing hundreds of sharp pointed teeth, the feeder would whisk the fish-head away, then hold it out for the next approaching shark,
only to do the same.
Finally, after several minutes, he would let a shark take the bait. Stuart Cove’s believes in giving the sharks only three or four fish-heads per dive, to avoid getting them too used to being fed.
We had more than 25 sharks swirling around us, so there was no danger of overfeeding.
After this amazing experience, I wanted more – to get even closer. This I was able to do on a photography dive with Fin Photo, Stuart Cove’s full service photo centre. This was a private dive with an underwater photography expert and a feeder.
I decided to take my daughter with me again, as a possible (bait) model! As I was going to be positioned right next to the feeder, I was given a chain-mail jacket to wear.
On the first dive, we free-swam with the sharks, the feeder finning next to me. His crate contained only a few scraps of fish, giving out just the right amount of scent.
The sharks followed us closely over the reef, giving me ample opportunity to take photographs with the reef as background.
During the second dive, the feeder positioned himself on a wreck, then started wrangling the sharks with the bait. Being within a metre of the feeder, and much closer to the end of the pole, I was soon finding that, even with my extreme wide-angle lens, I couldn’t get the whole shark in!
I finished the dive with many photographs, and a scratched dome-port from the sandpaper-textured nose of one shark that got too close.

AFTER THIS EXPERIENCE, I tried a similar dive on Grand Bahama island. The set-up is similar, but with a company called UNEXSO.
It offers only group shark-feeds, on which the divers form a semi-circle with a barrier at their backs. The feeder is situated centre-stage in front of them.
I made sure to locate myself on the end to get images of the sharks as they circled behind us. They wouldn’t let me any closer to the feeder, but the feeder moved along the line towards me so that I could get some closer shots.
I then arranged to take both my daughters on a dive with tiger sharks at the famous Tiger Beach. I had organised a day-trip on which we would be in a small circular cage, let out on a rope from the boat to a distance of 10-20m. Before we jumped in, the crew chummed the water.
It wasn’t long before two large sharks were seen off the stern. Distinctive stripes slashed across their skin and huge heads with massive mouthfuls of teeth left no doubt as to their species.
We were told to slip into the cage, then given hookah mouthpieces (to which the air was supplied directly from a generator on the boat).
The cage was let out to float in the ocean, tethered only by a thin piece of rope and the hookah hoses.
Frequently, as the sharks approached the cage, sometimes trying to bite it or nose-butt it, I considered how easy it would be for them to bite through the rope and hoses, leaving us floating free in the ocean with no air!
The cage was big enough only for two people at a time, and awkward to get into because of its circular shape.
Often, only one person could get in or out before the cage had to be let out from the boat slightly because the sharks got too close.
On one occasion my 14-year-old, Camilla, was left in the cage by herself for five minutes. I could see three sharks taking great interest in the cage, head-butting and nudging it. After what seemed an interminable time, the cage was pulled back in and she scrambled out, telling stories of the sharks gnawing at the cage while she hovered in the middle, trying not to hold on. I only wished she had had my camera.
The sharks stayed with us for a couple of hours, joined by another couple after the first hour. Sometimes they were just in our peripheral vision, more often close enough to touch.
They disappeared as suddenly as they came, leaving us wanting more, and me wanting to dive with them without the confines of a cage – one for the future.

MY NEXT EXPERIENCE of an organised shark dive was not a feed. Great white sharks congregate at tiny Guadalupe Island, off Mexico’s Pacific coast, during October and November. It’s thought that they must come to mate or give birth, though no baby sharks have ever been seen there.
I was on a five-day liveaboard trip aboard Nautilus Explorer, and was told that it is illegal to feed or bait sharks there. They arrive naturally, in any case, cruising at around 15m and occasionally coming to the surface.
The Explorer had two cages that could be attached to the back of the boat for guests to use whenever they wanted, and two cages that they submerged to 15m on a rota system. Again, hookahs were used.
Sea conditions were a little rough on our first day, making it impossible to put out the submerged cages.
The fixed-surface cages would rise and fall with the swells, making their use possible, though a little uncomfortable.
I slipped into one of the cages and started looking around, surprised, even in the bad conditions, at the great vis. I could see large schools of fish, and even sea-lions swimming in the distance.
After 35 minutes, the cold was setting in. My 5mm wetsuit along with hood and booties should have been fine given the sea temperature, but when you’re standing still the cold can get to you quickly – a 7mm suit would be better.
I still hadn’t seen a shark, and was just about to climb out when another person in the cage tapped me on the arm and pointed down.
Cruising by, just below our feet, was a large male great white that seemed to have come from nowhere. I hung about for 15 minutes, but he didn’t reappear.
Next day the seas had calmed, and we clamoured to be first in the submerged cages. Dropping into the blue, supported only by an umbilical and metal rope, I hoped they wouldn’t snap!
At 15m we settled in to wait. Scanning from side to side, up and down, we didn’t have long to wait. A huge female great white swam lazily out of the blue, circling both cages. She stayed, joined later by another female, for several hours, and the next day returned alone.

I FELT CONFIDENT ENOUGH from seeing her relaxed behaviour to ask our divemaster if I could climb out of the top of the cage and stand holding onto the metal rope to take photographs.
He signalled: “Go for it!”
Hesitantly, I ascended the ladder and climbed through the small opening, keeping watch on the shark at all times. She didn’t seem particularly interested in me, but continued cruising around the two cages checking us out.
I even saw a kamikaze sea-lion grab hold of the shark’s fin in its mouth and tug on it! She let it play with her, totally unbothered! It felt incredible to be in the open ocean, unprotected, with this magnificent animal.
Next day she returned, this time accompanied by a much smaller female and a male. Her behaviour had changed completely – there seemed to be a frisson in the water, a sense of foreboding.
Her body language was more pronounced and she kept darting around the cages, turning suddenly, then disappearing, coming at us very quickly from another direction.
There was no way I was getting out of the cage that day. The experience confirmed how wild and unpredictable sharks can be.

MY MOST RECENT EXPERIENCE of a shark feed was in Beqa (pronounced Benga) Lagoon in Fiji. Here I was to dive with bull sharks.
My dive-guide would allow me to get as close to the shark-feeder as possible, while protecting me with a pole, held out towards a shark if it got too close.
As we jumped into the water, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The visibility wasn’t great and there was quite a strong current.
We were told to descend the mooring line to the top of an overturned wreck. We investigated for a short time while waiting for the slack tide, before moving off the wreck to a protected area surrounded by reef.
We were positioned with our backs against a reef wall, with a rope strung in front of us to grip. As the feeder arrived above us, swarms of sharks surrounded him. Not only were there massive bull sharks, but lemon, nurse, black- and whitetips as well.
Huge schools of jack and pilotfish surrounded the sharks and feeder, making it almost impossible to see him.
As he settled onto the ocean floor, the slick permeating from the cut-up fish inside his drum wafted about, sending the sharks and fish crazy.
After several minutes, the shark behaviour changed. They seemed to organise themselves, approaching the feeder one at a time, swimming by him slowly and gently.
Now the feeder would offer a speared fish-head and allow the shark to take it gently. If a shark appeared to be approaching too aggressively, the feeder would put the fish-head back in the drum until it had passed.
The shark soon learnt to approach the feeder gently if it wanted to eat.
As queues formed for the food, the sharks on the outer periphery seemed far more curious about the divers. They would disappear, then reappear beside me, sometimes skimming over my head, or coming from my blind side.
As soon as the feeder started to feed the fish, my dive guide signalled for me to move to an area 2m from the feeder. There was a small coral boulder to protect my back, and a sandy bottom on which to kneel.
The dive-guide hovered behind and above me, ever ready to advance his pole slightly if a shark came too close, too fast or too aggressively towards me.
Being this close to the huge bodies of the bull sharks got my heart pumping.
I was impressed not only by their length but by their massive girth – as well as all those teeth!
They would come extremely close, checking me out with their black, seemingly soul-less eyes. Of all the sharks with which I have dived, these seemed the most unpredictable and sly.
My quest for new shark dives continues. And remember, it’s a fact that diving with sharks is statistically less dangerous than playing golf!