CAN YOU GO TO THE BAHAMAS for a week in a fortnight’s time?” asked Jane from Sportif Dive. “I need to go check out some hotels but can’t make it – would you be able to go instead? By the way, there is the possibility of doing some shark dives.”
First thought: of course I can go, there’s nothing in the diary I can’t change.
Second thought: I had surgery on my wrist two weeks before and will still be in a cast.
I took advice from friends and ended up with a water-resistant cast cover sleeve from Hammond Drysuits. I could fill it with fresh water (I wasn’t allowed to get sea water, with all it’s micro-organisms and parasites, on the incision site) to eliminate the risk of pressure build-up at depth, as there would be no air in the sleeve.
It would be difficult, but manageable. I was very interested to find out how the dive centres would react – as well as the sharks!

REEF OASIS
IN GRAND BAHAMA I was to dive with Reef Oasis. Italian shark expert Riccardo Avogadri was an early practitioner of shark tonic immobility (TI) there.
TI is an unlearned reflex characterised by a state of immobility and torpor, induced by grasping the first dorsal fin with one hand and the body immediately behind the anal fin with the other, inverting the shark and holding it as rigid as possible – although now it also seems possible to put a shark into a TI state by holding its snout and dorsal fin.
It seems that covering the ampullae of Lorenzini receptors in the snout interrupts the electrical impulses. Sharks normally enter a TI state within a minute and can stay this way for up to 15 minutes before righting themselves and swimming away.
Miguel Angel Somavilla would be our shark expert. He asked us to carry our kit to where the dual-hulled dive-boat awaited in the shallows off the beach.
Helping me with my gear, and thoughtfully giving me the end nearest the entry platform, one of Miguel’s two safety divers even insisted on setting up my equipment for me.
A 10-minute boat-ride brought us to Shark Junction. We had been briefed to form a line, kneeling on the sandy bottom at 14m with our backs to a small overturned boat wreck. Visibility was quite good, at around 20m.
I jumped in and was handed my camera – normally I dive with a big DSLR, but with only one hand free I needed to use a much smaller rig.
As I descended I could see six large Caribbean grey reef sharks circling below. The safety divers positioned us at arm’s width from each other before Miguel, clad in full chainmail, descended with the small cylindrical bait-box containing fish-guts and pieces.
Miguel had told us to turn off our strobes until he was settled and the sharks had calmed down. Electrical impulses emanating from flashguns are known to excite sharks’ senses. He positioned himself about 5m in front of us and the sharks swarmed around, bashing into
him and the container as they tried to get at the fish.
We had been given 5mm full suits and told that this was mainly for protection in case the sharks took an exploratory bite, although in the cool 23° water we were happy to have them.
The suits were all-black, because bright colours can excite the sharks. We had also been given black gloves and told that
with them on we could “stroke” the sharks, but only front to back, from dorsal to pectoral fin.

THE ATMOSPHERE WAS TRANQUIL as Miguel took his time seeking out the calmest shark before gently placing his hand over its snout.
He waited for it to settle on the bottom before gently gripping its dorsal fin and raising it into the water column.
The shark looked totally at peace. Seven or eight other large sharks (they are obviously well fed), swam around Miguel and the passive shark. Keeping a 3m distance from us, Miguel moved slowly along the line so that we could observe the shark more closely and take photographs.
Beatriz, a fellow lady diver, reached out and hesitantly stroked a shark, while others buzzed over our heads, giving Simon, whose first sighting of sharks under water this was, a bit of a fright.
Once back in the centre he attempted to lift the shark on one hand into a vertical position. He managed this for
a few seconds only, and the shark seemed to come out of its trance and swim quickly away.
It didn’t seem too happy and was a little agitated, as if it wasn’t sure what had happened, but it was soon back to collect its fishy reward from the bait-box.
Miguel then attempted to “hypnotise” a large female, which had a fish-hook and line with weights trailing from her mouth. It had clearly caused an infection, and Miguel wanted to cut the hook off, but the shark wasn’t playing ball.

UNEXSO
THE FOLLOWING DAY we had three dives booked with the largest dive centre on Grand Bahama, UNEXSO. The last dive of the day was to be at Shark Junction again, but this one was advertised as a shark feed.
Again, the dive-staff were extremely helpful and sensitive about my bad arm. The boat was docked in the marina next to UNEXSO’s massive dive-centre and retail shop, and seven other divers boarded, so it was only half-full. The other divers were fairly inexperienced, macho Americans who clearly wanted to feel the adrenalin rush of danger.
In stark contrast to the cautious approach at Reef Oasis, here we were given wetsuits with brightly coloured stripes, and even brighter yellow fins.
Shark-feeder Stephen delivered a detailed and humorous briefing. He told us that he too would attempt to “hypnotise” the sharks, but unlike Miguel told us we didn’t need gloves and could stroke the sharks anywhere and in any direction. He also said he would bring the sharks very close to us.
Cheering and high-fiveing, the Americans were very happy!

WE DESCENDED INTO shark soup – there were a lot more animals than on the previous day, 15 to 18 – which made me wonder whether a little chumming had been going on during our briefing.
Several huge Nassau grouper and lots of jack and snapper were also present.
Unfortunately, my mask had been damaged after my previous dive when dive-staff had thrown it into a corner and chucked weight-belts on top of it.
I realised this only when I jumped in, because it flooded almost immediately.
I was handed another mask from the boat and started my descent. This actually worked out well, because I was the last to be positioned and was put at the end away from the Americans.
The loudest and brashest was having problems with his buoyancy and being helped to dump all his air. Stephen had told everyone not to wave hands around or stick them out in front, but as soon as the man’s buoyancy was sorted he started pointing towards the sharks and sticking his GoPro out towards them. He continued to do this throughout the dive!
Stephen positioned himself just 3m in front of the line of divers. Things seemed much more frenetic – sharks were everywhere. Stephen came closer still to us, passing along the line an arm’s length away and handing out fish-pieces to the sharks. Bashing into us, the sharks fought to be nearest to him. Seeing a shark’s mouth heading straight towards you with the eyes hooded over in anticipation of food was quite disconcerting!
Now I have dived with many sharks in both natural encounters and on shark feeds, and have never felt as uncomfortable as I did on that dive.
I knew I could always use my camera to push a shark away if necessary, but I was concerned that inexperienced divers were being involved in this sort of practice.
Stephen then “wrangled” a shark into a state of tonic immobility. In contrast to the serene and respectful actions of Miguel the previous day, he would grab a snout and push it down onto the sand and hold the shark there until it calmed, at the same time kicking out at the grouper trying to reach the bait-box.
He then brought the shark around and waited while the Americans all gave it lots of strokes and prods, posing for each other’s videos. After feeling so happy with the team’s helpfulness towards me on the boat, this lack of respect for these magnificent creatures jarred.
Miguel does the TI dives three times a week, but Unexso carries out shark feeds, and thus the TI, every day.

STUART COVE’S
NEXT ON THE ITINERARY was a visit to Nassau to dive with the world-famous Stuart Cove’s. I had dived there eight years before with my then-16-year-old daughter Megan and had found it extremely professional, taking the safety of the participants very seriously.
Stuart Cove’s has four massive boats that each take 30 divers and are geared up for the multitude of cruise passengers who visit the islands daily. It also has six smaller dive-boats for private tours.
We were assigned our own boat and crew. Not only did we have a boat captain, shark-feeder, safety-diver and videographer on board but also a deck-hand to help us with our gear. Setting up mine, he assured me that he would help me as much as he could, and he really did. He even insisted on doing up all the clasps and buckles on my BC!
The crew were exceedingly friendly. They asked where we would like to dive and whether we wanted to take the bait-box down and hide it on the dive-site so that it would attract sharks without it being a feed as such.
We were given many reef and wreck options, but settled on a tanker called Sea Trader. Despite being sunk less than a year ago, there were signs of coral growth. We followed the bowline to the top of the deck at 16m, then went over the side to the sandy bottom at 22m to inspect the propeller.
Our shark-feeder had gone ahead to hide the bait-box inside a hatchway protected by a galleried area in the stern.
We swam to the stern and watched as fat Caribbean grey reef sharks materialised from the blue from every direction.
Hanging next to the rail watching as the sharks swam through the gallery looking for food, we were careful not to make them feel trapped, spacing ourselves apart to allow them plenty of room to exit.
Moving away from the stern, I explored the tanker, aware of curious sharks following me. Finding a “No Smoking” sign, I signalled for another diver to pose for me. The wheelhouse looked eerily as if it had just been abandoned, with charts and notices still pinned to the walls.
Soon depleted air and deco time forced our ascent up the line. The sharks still circling around and below us made for a very interesting safety stop.

OUR NEXT DIVE was on a shallower reef. Again our feeder hid the box, and
we watched as a few sharks became curious, but it was not as exhilarating as the first dive.
Ours was the only boat moored at each of the dive-sites we visited. Stuart Cove’s has plenty where sharks can be seen, so the boats communicate with each other to make sure that this is the case.
The next day we dived on a smaller, shallower wreck, the Ray of Hope, where the bait-box was hidden again. Many more sharks than on the previous day’s dives swarmed around us as we explored the picturesque wreck, which we liked so much that we returned for a second dive.
Shark-feeder Terri briefed us to position ourselves on the outside rail around the bow. She would then descend, in full chain-mail, to sit on the deck and entice the sharks.
Aware that something different was happening the sharks darted excitedly all around us, buzzing over our heads and barging through the arm’s-width space between us. Feeling more protected as most of my body hung down over the side of the hull, with only my arms and head exposed, I felt quite comfortable.
I hooked my bad arm through the rail and balanced my camera on the rail itself.
A sudden frenzy ensued as Terri speared a fish-head with her long steel pole and held it out to a shark which, its eyes hooded over, took it quite delicately.
Other sharks tried to push it out of the way to get to the food first, but without luck. The sharks seemed almost completely oblivious of their observers, checking us out only occasionally.
Although fairly frenzied, the whole dive felt completely safe and controlled, even when Terri brought a fish-head out right in front of my camera so that I could try for the “money shot” of a shark bite.
She surfaced first, taking the bait-box and sharks with her, and we waited five minutes before ascending.
At only 14m we had plenty of air left after a high-adrenaline but very safe 35-minute shark feed.
After lunch we headed back out for a third dive. I felt I had pushed my wrist as far as it would go that day, especially as a shark’s tail had given it a bit of a whack, so I elected to stay on the boat with a couple of others in the group.
Diving a similar wreck close to the Ray of Hope, the other divers reported on a similar dive to our first that day, with great visibility and many sharks.
Stuart Cove’s bright pink courtesy bus dropped us off at our hotel, a 40-minute drive away in downtown Nassau. Being the only dive centre in that remote part of the island has many advantages, however, the shark dives being the best!
Bimini, our next destination, was the one I had looked forward to the most. The great hammerhead dive there was the one that had made me want to find a way to dive with a cast on. Even the thought of the 5.30am pick-up for the half-hour flight didn’t dim my excitement.
I have been lucky enough to dive with scalloped hammerheads in Hawaii and the Galapagos and seen glimpses of great hammerheads in San Salvador and the Maldives, but I had wanted to do a close-encounter dive with them for a long time.


NEIL WATSON’S
ARRIVING EARLY IN THE MORNING, we were driven to Bimini Sands Hotel, where Neil Watson’s dive centre was located. We were to check in first and prep our cameras before diving two hours later.
Unfortunately it took nearly 90 minutes for the surly and unhelpful staff to check us in.
Rushing to get our cameras prepped before the boat left, I neglected to re-check that the camera was seated properly in the housing. I had put it together the night before and checked that everything was working before I packed it, but it must have got jarred during the flight, and the lens was slightly out of alignment.
Practically running to the boat with five minutes to spare, I was surprised not to be met by any dive-staff or helped on board by a deck-hand. They were all huddled together on the top deck, and remained that way for most of the trip.
None of us had brought dive-gear except for masks and fins as we had been told that a 15kg baggage allowance was imposed on the inter-island flights. At every other dive-centre we had been able to rent virtually new and branded gear.
Neil turned up and complained that we didn’t have gear. Although he had been previously informed that this would be the case, he told us he didn’t have enough for the 11 divers aboard and that we would have to split the dive into two shorter dives and share.
Eventually, however, gear seemed to materialise and suddenly there was enough for us all, though little of it seemed to be in good condition.
One wetsuit had a huge chunk missing from the backside, as if a shark had taken a bite of a tasty rump. Several BCs were either too large or too small. One diver had to be virtually shoe-horned into a too-tight wetsuit.
My regulator was freeflowing and leaking from the first stage. The amount of air in the tanks also varied – I had only 110 bar. I queried this and the leaks with Neil and was told not to worry – I would be fine! Well, he was the instigator of the great-hammerhead dives in Bimini, so I trusted his judgment and looked forward to the dive.
At the site, a 15-minute ride out, shark-feeder Brad, a very macho Forces type of guy, gave an extremely serious and thorough briefing.
He told us that we needed to be no more than an arm’s width apart, in a straight line, with him in the centre of the line. He would position us cross-current, and gave us white plastic sticks made from plumber’s pipe to hold out towards the sharks in case they came too close.
These would be placed in the sand, where we would be instructed to kneel.

BRAD ALSO TOLD US that the sharks would patrol only in front of us, not behind. One safety-diver would be stationed behind us. We were to follow an anchorline to the sandy bottom at 9m, then swim across for the safety-diver to position us.
Relying on my fellow-divers to help me, as I had no help from the staff, I eventually jumped into the sea and headed down to where most of the others were already situated.
Visibility was very bad at around 8m because a storm the previous day had disturbed the fine sand, and the manoeuvring of the divers hadn’t helped.
I tried a test shot, only to find that my camera wasn’t working.
The safety-diver positioned me next to a very short white stick and beside Brad. The diver on my other side was signalling that he didn’t have a white stick, and he wasn’t the only one.
Brad started dropping chunks of fish into the water in front of him and a huge hammerhead appeared out of the murky water. Swinging its hammer from side to side, it grabbed at the fish, turning away from me at the last moment.
Nurse sharks were pushing towards Brad, trying to get a piece of the action, and while his attention was drawn away, the hammerhead circled and came straight at me. I extended my stick – it seemed to ignore it but then, only a metre from me, turned away.
Repositioning myself in the slight side-current, which made it difficult to stay upright, I prepared for the next pass.
Another large piece of fish was dropped into the water column in front of Brad. The shark approached from his other side and grabbed the fish just before reaching me.
On the next pass, Brad didn’t release a fish. This time the shark kept coming until its huge hammer filled my whole field of view. I pushed out with the stick, but it paid no attention. Holding up my camera I pushed that out towards it too, but still it kept coming.
All I could focus on was its mouthful of teeth, looking almost too small for its head but still a fair size. It touched my camera and stick and pushed on towards me. With the stick in my bad hand, it was virtually useless. I pushed hard with my camera against the side of its head and it tried to take my strobe in its mouth.
I was leaning further and further back, almost lying flat, when Brad grabbed its hammer in both hands and pushed its head away from me with all his might.

THE SHARK TURNED SLIGHTLY, then came at me again. Again, Brad pushed it away and it finally got the message. Its body language seemed to indicate tension and it approached from different angles, as well as from behind and between us.
Beatriz didn’t have a stick, and as the shark approached she fell flat on the sand as it virtually pushed her over.
After 15 minutes I checked my air to find I was down to 20 bar! We had been told to let the safety-diver know if we were low but I hadn’t seen him throughout the dive and couldn’t now.
I tapped Brad and signalled that I was going up. Waiting for the shark to be in front of the group I swam across to the line and ascended, thinking how much I had disliked having to physically interact with the shark and how unsafe I had found the dive generally.
I have great respect for sharks and hope I treat them with the respect they deserve, but this dive left me feeling uneasy. I don’t blame the shark for the closeness of the encounter – it was acting as it would naturally with food about.
I do blame the way in which the dive was conducted for making it act that way.
There had been the possibility of diving with tiger sharks at Tiger Beach in Grand Bahama, but because of an “incident” the previous week, all diving there had been stopped.
Which only reinforces that these are wild apex predators, and sometimes I feel that dive centres that conduct these dives day in, day out can become that bit too blasé about them.

* Reef Oasis Dive Club, Grand Bahama,
reefoasisdiveclub.com
* UNEXSO, Grand Bahama, www.unexso.com
* Stuart Cove’s Nassau Bahamas Dive Adventures, New Providence,
www.stuartcove.com
* Neil Watson’s Bimini Scuba Centre, Bimini, www.biminiscubacenter.com