GREAT HAMMERHEADS (Sphyrna mokarran) are magnificent, if strange-looking creatures. With eyes set so wide yet on the sides of their wing-like heads, they are forced to sway their heads from side to side as they swim in order to get a picture of what’s immediately in front of them.
The image of one of these animals coming directly towards you is quite daunting at first.
“I’ve killed hundreds of them over the years,” claimed the fisherman at the North Bimini marina in the Bahamas. “They’re dangerous man-eaters, and I’m doing the world a favour.”
That isn’t my experience, gained from diving with great hammerheads a couple of miles away from where he was speaking. In fact I would tend to liken a great hammerhead more to an old-fashioned underwater Kirby vacuum cleaner than to a man-eater.
True, they’re big and impressive sharks. Most of those we dived with were around 6m long and that’s a lot of fish, but they seemed more intent on looking for food hidden under the white sand of the seabed than taking any close interest in us.
At up to 450kg, great hammerheads are among the largest of sharks. Unlike the smaller scalloped hammerheads, they are not a schooling fish.
Bimini is the site of the Shark Lab, run by the iconic Dr Sonny Gruber of the Shark Research Institute.
With the Gulf Stream passing close by the island, it’s a good place to study a wide range of sharks. It’s so close to Florida that many Americans consider it to be their territory, but I was with Stuart Cove, Bahamian-born and “Mr Shark” to those in the world of movies.
Stuart has been encouraging sharks to come close to cameras since the making of that scene in which Sean Connery as 007 had a close encounter with a tiger shark when he dived into the wreck of the Tears of Allah.
Stuart Cove has been the shark-wrangler on nearly every movie that has featured sharks since then.
There are many places where divers regularly encounter sharks in the Bahamas, but we were at the new shark-dive hotspot, discovered only in the past couple of years.
I anticipate that the place will be knee-deep in boats next January and February, when the great hammerheads return during their annual migration.
I was lucky. For once I was in at the beginning of things, but so were a lot of other people who had been invited along.
There were some well-known wildlife cameramen in attendance, including Andy Casagrande and Frazier Nivens. Video-maker Mark Rackley and his girlfriend Cat Rockett preferred to freedive with the sharks.
The boat was packed with Epic video cameras, the professionals’ choice and costing around £50,000 a go. I counted seven of these giant rigs dwarfing the few conventional if still expensive stills cameras on the fast Newton dive-boat that Stuart had allocated for this project, so there was a lot of capital investment aboard.
We benefitted from the shark-dive dream team luring the animals in for us. Besides Stuart and his two leggy blonde staff instructors, Liz and Charlotte, there was Beto Barbosa, the Brazilian master-baiter.
Alvin was our captain. He was adept at acquiring the necessary fish-stock for the bait that great hammerhead sharks evidently find tasty.

DIFFERENT SHARKS PREFER different prey. While oceanic whitetips like bonito and mahi-mahi, great hammerheads spend much of their time hunting for sting rays in the sand.
They consume the rays whole, including their venomous spines, which are often found embedded in the mouths of great hammerheads caught by fishermen.
These sharks are encountered in both tropical and seasonally warm temperate waters, and they are said to be highly nomadic and migratory.
Naturally, we had no sting ray carcasses to use as bait, so a big box full of the corpses of unfortunate barracuda that are caught but rarely eaten by people – because of the risk
of ciguatera poisoning – did the job.
Alvin had also managed to acquire a mass of fish-cleanings from the nearby fishing marina, and one sack of so-called grouper heads was found to be full of large parrotfish heads, so be aware of that when ordering grouper fillets in any restaurant.
Alvin had started the chum slick drifting down from behind the boat where it was anchored at around 11.30am each morning.
The sea was calm and the Bahamian winter sunshine encouraged us, though it wasn’t guaranteed, and some days the sky was overcast.
A gentle but persistent current was effective at sending out the message that there might be an easy meal in the offing. That same current proved slightly inconvenient for us divers, because the desolate sandy seabed gave us nothing on which to grip.
Stuart organised a line of rope that was held in place by three Danforth anchors and chains. Wearing plenty of weight, we were able to kneel on the bottom and jam our thighs under this to keep ourselves in place.
With so many photographers and film-makers, we divided ourselves into two groups and had a disciplined 40 minutes at a time in the water before retreating back to the boat to let the others take our place.
At only 7m deep, decompression was not going to be a problem, and there was plenty of shark action for everyone.
At any one moment, at least two of Stuart’s shark-baiters would be in the water, scraping away at barracuda bodies with knives behind us.
I’m not sure if the scraping action had any particular effect but the combination of that and the chum slick certainly worked.
Initially each day the great hammerhead sharks turned up on cue
at around 2.30pm and it was “game on”.
The first group of divers hurriedly checked their kit before getting into
the water to join them.
Of course, we attracted more than just hammerheads. At times we would have up to a dozen large nurse sharks, each smothered in large remoras, nosing around us looking for bounty.
Catching the scent of the chum on the current, some would leave the seabed that they normally hugged and hover in mid-water above us, savouring the smell. That’s something you don’t see every day.
I reflected that even if this had been billed as “the great nurse shark dive”, we would have been more than satisfied, but it was the great hammerheads that were the stars of the show.
These magnificent beasts would appear wraith-like out of the gloom.
At first they’d make an exploratory pass, hugging the seabed with tall and impressive dorsal fins that stretched to perhaps a couple of metres high from their pectoral fins. These are big fish.
We had strict rules that none of us would pass the line of rope laid in the sand, but naturally we were all well up against it.
Gradually the shark passes would get closer. Big predators don’t get to be big by being incautious. After an hour or so, they were coming within a couple of feet of us as they got tuned-in to the bonanza of fish-cuts that Beto and Stuart had previously buried in front of us.
I don’t know if the hammerheads simply gained confidence or if they grew hungrier as the day wore on, but by four o’clock the beasts were confident enough to pass around us – and suddenly they were over our heads and at our backs, at which point it became a cameraman’s free-for-all.
This was the time when these beasts would climb up into mid-water and give us those elusive underside shots, revealing glimpses of their toothy expressions.
Sometimes we got an extreme close-up on our wide-angle lenses, perhaps a little closer than was useful.
It looks more dramatic than it felt at the time. We never grew tired of this routine. I was there for a week.
Gradually people got called away to other activities in different parts of the world and had to leave us, until the last day, when just two video cameramen and two stills hotographers remained.
The person who laughs last, laughs longest, and nothing was more true on this occasion. On our last day we went out to the site as usual at 11am.
The sea was like glass and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun shone relentlessly and there was no current, so no need for the restraining rope.
Unusually, the sharks were already there, waiting for us, their large dark shapes making ominous silhouettes against the sandy seabed as they circled below us. We couldn’t wait to plunge off the back of the boat to join them.
We were in the water with them for an amazing five hours of continuous action, surfacing merely to change a tank or a memory card.
During this time, two of the girls stripped down to their bikinis (none of the guys complained) and freedived down to swim alongside the sharks as they hunted for morsels of fish in the sand.
The ampoules of Lorenzini are special sensing organs called electro-receptors. Their legendary sixth sense for finding prey or food, using the widespread network of jelly-filled pores, seemed a little over-rated to my mind, because the great hammerheads often missed buried bait and had to spend time hunting around for it.
When a designated shark-feeder actually offered a dead fish up to their mouths, they usually failed to react to it directly. If the feeder put it behind their back, the shark would miss it altogether.
Is it right to lay bait for sharks in order to dive with them Well, you won’t get the close-up experience unless it’s done, that’s for sure.
The sharks don’t come to see us because they like the look of rubber-clad, air-bubbling monsters, so you must be the judge of the ethics.
Don’t be misled by opinions based on nothing more than misinformed prejudice. Sharks have teeth, but so do dogs and horses.
Great hammerheads are not the mindless man-eaters shark fishermen like to portray. To dive close to these strange and wonderful creatures was nothing less than spectacular.
I went home with thousands of shots. The dozen nurse sharks with their remoras simply got in the way!