SHARK FEEDING IS NOT WITHOUT its risks, despite the precautions usually taken. In the Bahamas, the feeder nowadays wears a chain-mail suit, gloves and an American football helmet.
Australian Valerie Taylor, veteran shark naturalist with her film-making husband Ron, was the first to experiment with chain-mail suits. There was one famous television sequence in which she encouraged a large shark to bite her arm.
Chain-mail doesn’t stop feeders from getting hurt, however. Leon Joubert, a one-time shark-feeder in the Bahamas, experienced a shark getting its teeth tangled in the chain-mail material cladding his arm.
He wasn’t bitten, but in its violent struggle to get away the animal twisted and fought and managed to break seven bones in Leon’s hand, arm and shoulder, and to sever two nerves.
After a couple of lengthy operations and nearly a year of therapy, he recovered a high proportion of the use of that arm. He later went home to South Africa to start a business called – Bitten by Sharks.
Shark-feeders didn’t always wear a full suit and helmet to do their job. Michelle Cove, another pioneer of shark-feeding, got scalped by a shark when she dived in to right an upturned baitbox during a staged feed, and sustained an accidental bite to the back of her head.
Her injury was so severe, and she was bleeding so profusely, that the captain of her boat fainted when she climbed back on board.
You can poo-poo it, but every day long lines of people, of whom few are accomplished divers, wait patiently, signed disclaimers in hand, to rent a wetsuit and a set of diving equipment and join a shark dive at South Ocean near Nassau.
With fast boats that can carry up to 15 divers each, some days as many as 45 people get in the water with the same number of large hungry sharks and live to tell the tale – and what a tale it is!
Back in the USA, from where most of these visitors hail, they’ll be regaling their disbelieving friends and neighbours with the story of how they swam with sharks, and they’ll have the still photographs or the video to back up their story.
You can dismiss it as a circus or an underwater theatre, but the sharks are unaware of that – they’re simply there for a free handout of food. Why else would they want to come up from the depths to be close to noisy, air-bubbling divers

MANY OF THESE PEOPLE are enjoying a day away from their cruise-liner, and instead of gawping at the fish in the Atlantis Hotel’s aquarium on Paradise Island, they get in the water and let the fish gawp at them instead.
Good for them! It’s good for the sharks too, because when it comes to conservation, the dollar takes precedence. These sharks earn a fortune for the Bahamas economy, which is why they haven’t been killed, cut up and dragged off to the Far East.
Shark tourism draws an estimated $78 million annual income for the national economy, and reef sharks are estimated to be worth around $250,000 each in tourism and shark-related activities.
The punters are usually arranged in a kneeling formation on the seabed and told to keep their arms folded and not make any sudden movements. This is to prevent them shoving a hand into a passing shark’s mouth unexpectedly.
They are encouraged to use the viewfinder of their compact camera if they want to take pictures, rather than thrusting the thing out in front of them in an inviting way as they look at the LCD screen. The shark-feeder comes down from the boat with the bait-box when everybody is ready, and inevitably brings the sharks with him or her.
Some of these participating guest-divers may hardly know the difference between a regulator and the corrugated hose of their rented BC before they get in the water, but why should any experienced diver want to join in on one of these shark dives
I’ll tell you why. Sharks are impressive creatures and female Caribbean reef sharks are the ones you always see in movies featuring “shark-infested waters”.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no feeding frenzy. Sharks are long-lived creatures that spend their time trying not to get damaged by either their prey or other sharks. Up to 40 swim round in some semblance of order, and there is only a moment of urgency when one of them manages to procure a mouthful of bait and swims off in a hurry so that it doesn’t have to share it.
Naturally, the people in control of the box of dead fish-cuts tend to be the focus of this concentric activity. Although the hub of the feed is where the most action is, as two or three sharks compete for that final lunge, the sharks passing in and out of the circle give keen photographers ample chance to get those natural-looking shots of sharks that are so elusive out on the reef.
The first rule of good underwater photography is to get close, then get closer still. These sharks come very close. They often come close enough to touch, and touch you they often do as they swirl by. As they pass you can even see their tiny ampoules of Lorenzi, the pressure-sensing nerve-endings around the sharp end of these animals.
An enlightened Bahamian government has encouraged the dive centre, Stuart Cove’s, to sink as many wrecks as possible in shallow water for the benefit of divers. Some of these wrecks are covered in coral growth, others strangely bare.
The young people that take on the job of shark-feeding are very competitive and like to try to outdo each other.
Chang, a Chinese-Australian and one of the most experienced feeders, took to feeding the sharks around the aft deck of one of these wrecks, one with no coral growth to speak of.
He liked to have the audience holding on safely to the outside of the stern railings, and the chain-mailed company photographer and videographer waiting for him to arrive theatrically on the upper part of the superstructure surrounded by the sharks, like a bunch of overweight pigeons.
Then he would leap, weightless and super-hero-like, down onto the deck and start the feed. All this gave an interesting background to the photographs and, while Chang the chain-mail-clad feeder was doing his stuff for the paying audience, the underwater photographer could also get unusual shots of sharks swimming round the rusting metal.
Successive shark-feeders have continued with Chang’s method of using the wreck, although some still prefer to do the feed on the sandy seabed.
One of the dramatic tricks sometimes demonstrated by the feeder is to put a shark into “tonic immobility”. This means holding it by the dorsal fin and tail and turning it over. I asked Stuart Cove how he discovered that sharks became docile when he first did this many years ago.
“Kalik,” he replied. That’s the local Bahamian beer. When they were kids, Stuart and his friends would go out fishing in the Tongue of the Ocean and inevitably find their boat surrounded by sharks that fed on the scraps discarded when they cleaned the fish they had caught.
After more than a few beers, someone would be encouraged to jump in and swim with the sharks. Don’t forget, this was in the days when all sharks were considered “man-eaters”.
Things progressed, as they do, and the boys would go further on each trip, daring each other to do something riskier. Eventually they ended up grabbing hold of the sharks, and finding that the animals became torpid when they did so.
A game played once they were into scuba-diving was to grab a shark, point it in the direction of a friend under water and let it go like a missile.
Boys will be boys, but this knowledge of what we now call tonic immobility has been used time and time again since by shark conservationists, for example to remove fish-hooks lodged in their mouths.
The practice might sound rather cruel, but the sharks do seem to enjoy the attention. I’m sure that if one of these big and powerful animals wasn’t willing to be held and even caressed, we’d all know about it. They have a lot of teeth.

OF THE THOUSANDS of paying guests to enjoy shark-feeding experiences at Stuart Cove’s, none has ever been injured by the sharks. However, it’s always on the cards for those holding the bait, because a shark closes its eyes with its special nictitating eyelids at the moment it grabs the bait. Both shark and feeder can make mistakes.
The audience shouldn’t feel threatened, because the sharks are focused on the cuts of dead fish offered. It’s not something you see every day but you can be sure that the feeder keeps his hands away from those hungry maws, chain-mail or not.

* Stuart Cove’s, www.stuartcove.com