IF YOU SEE ONE WHILE DIVING, CALMLY LEAVE THE WATER, KEEPING IT IN SIGHT AT ALL TIMES. Thats what the Collins Sharks and Rays Guide (a bible among divers) says about the tiger shark. I thought: To hell with that, lets get in the water anyway!
The tiger shark is considered the worlds second most dangerous fish after the great white, and it comes second only by a single attack. The species is found across the world in tropical waters and people get a sort of nervous twitch when you mention the name.
Spearfishermen, snorkellers and even divers are scared of this species. Great whites pose threats to surfers, spearfishermen and swimmers. Tiger sharks are reputed to pose a threat to everyone who dares even to look at the water.
Yet Id heard it all before - about bull sharks. The third most dangerous shark was said to be a killing machine, zealous, indiscriminate and downright nasty. What you get if you crossed Dr Shipman with The Rock.
Sure, they are big, beefy and armed with teeth that would tear your arm off before youd noticed it had gone, but they arent too bothered about divers.
I know because Ive been in the water with them. In Cuba theres a dive on which people willingly get into the water to watch bull sharks get fed, and in 12 years no one has been hurt.
Normally divers get to watch this spectacle from a distance, and with a dirty great wreck behind them offering protection of sorts.
Yet I chose to sit next to the feeder. The sharks milled about, interested in the fish, coming in to investigate my flashguns and camera, but never showing signs of seeing me, cartoon-like, roasting on a spit.
In the Bahamas, off Walkers Cay, there is also a place where snorkellers can swim with these impressive creatures, so it seems that perception is a little out of kilter with reality. These encounters got me thinking. If I felt safe in the presence of the third most dangerous shark, what about the second
The problem was in finding someone to put me in harms way. Tiger sharks are fairly common and are seen regularly in Hawaii, the Bahamas, the mid-reaches of the Red Sea, Western Australia and off the coast of South Africa.
Yet locating anyone willing to swim with a tiger shark, let alone risk someone else swimming with them, wasnt easy.
However, while researching a trip to dive during the Sardine Run in South Africa, I came across Blue Wilderness Adventures, based in Durban.
Its run by Mark Addison, who is behind many of the South African shark sequences featured on the BBC and Discovery Channels. He has worked with tiger sharks for several years and was, so he said, getting a good encounter success rate, using tethered bait on the sea floor.
I met Mark at the London International Dive Show this year, and he told me about a new technique he had started using. He was finding more success and more sharks free-swimming near the surface with a buoyed bait called a baited stem.
It sounded a little risky, but National Geographic photographer David Doubilet was waiting for Marks return so that he could experience it, and I wasnt about to argue with the Master, so I too was sold on the idea.
I was like a schoolboy who has just found a£20 note outside a sweetshop - right up until the moment we actually attracted a shark to the boat.
Then something primordial jabbed my brain - what the hell was I doing
I was about to get into the water with the sort of shark that quite regularly snacks on long-haired youths in wetsuits as they bob around in the surf zone on a piece of plywood (or whatever surfboards are made from).
Most sane people would have got nervous a long time before (probably before theyd even booked the flight), but it was only now that my sloth-like survival instinct tapped me on the shoulder and yelled in my ear. I got nervous.
Around the RIB swam a 3.5m tiger shark, attracted by the thick plastic container of sardines and lumps of bait hanging from the baited stem.
When the shark was comfortable (well, we could hardly wait until I was), the buoy was detached from the boat and left to drift along in the current. This was the sixth time Mark had tried this technique, and it seemed to work well at attracting sharks. The question now was, how would the sharks react to me
Sharks detect electrical fields to find prey, and in the water I carried a camera connected to two strobes (flashguns). You dont get much more of a weird electrical field than that.
Picture an ice-cream van driving down a quiet cul de sac with the music on full blast. In shark language I was wearing a huge sign that read Hey, come and look at me!
As the bubbles cleared, I dropped down a few metres and then looked around. I could see the baited stem and I could make out Mark snorkelling on the surface. My safety diver, Gail, joined me soon after and then I saw what I had flown to the other side of the world to see.
Cruising just under the surface without a care about anything around it was a tiger shark. Scientists know this large, devastatingly beautiful creature as Galeocerdo cuvier. I know it, as Oh my God, thats a bloody big shark!
The stupid thing was, it wasnt even a particularly big one. Soon after, a larger female turned up.
Things were getting serious. Most sharks steer clear of divers for the most part. Not tigers. Both animals swam in to eye me up, their black, almost lifeless, eyes sweeping across my body.
Had it been a beautiful woman, Id have felt flattered by the attention. As it was, I could only hope that Mark was right about them being just inquisitive.
I neednt have worried. They were immaculately behaved.
They attacked the bait, thrashing around at the surface to tear it off, and then slowly circled closer to me, looked, then swam back around to take some more bait or shake the sardine container.
Sardines are used as they are a very oily fish. The smell carries, Bisto Gravy-like, in the current. It certainly impressed the tigers, who follow the scent trail to the boat.
The wire stem from the buoy and the line holding the bait gave the sharks little concern. In fact, if you place human-like emotions within a sharks capabilities, I could have sworn that they were playing with them.
Both animals would wrap themselves in the line, thrash around on the surface, untangle themselves, swim around and do it all over again.
Every so often they took some bait, but most of the time they just toyed.
Great whites, arguably the most feared creatures on the planet, swim off and are never seen again if they so much as touch a line. Tiger sharks dont seem to care, which in my opinion makes them even more dangerous.
They were unaffected by the presence of the boat and only slightly deterred by exhaust bubbles, as I found out when one carried on coming and I started to feel uncomfortable.
Usually, when I breathe out, the bubbles force sharks to turn away. This tiger gently moved off and then came back when I ran out of puff. I dont think it was being aggressive, but it reinforced the respect I had for them (not that it needed much reinforcing). These sharks were unafraid of anything.
That first day, typically, was perfect condition-wise. The sea was flat calm, the visibility 25m or so and the current weak, just enough to carry us a couple of miles in a two-hour drift. But I admit that I was too apprehensive really to get involved.
I hung back from the baited stem and I breathed out when I felt the sharks were getting too close. Basically, like someone losing their virginity, I was nervous.
Funnily enough, two of my best images came from that first day, which was just as well because the next day conditions deteriorated. The visibility was still good, but the wind was whipping the sea, causing a turmoil of small bubbles to form just beneath the surface.
As with the first day, the sharks appeared at around 11am. No matter what time Mark dragged his clients out of bed to get on the water, the sharks steadfastly refused to appear before that time.
The first approach was characteristic. The baited stem hung from the back of the anchored boat with the sardine oil washing down in the current. About 50m off the back attached to a line hung a chunk of bait. A few metres behind that, the sharks dorsal fin broke the surface.
It is usual for the shark to swim straight at the bait, which is pulled gently into the boat, before veering off as it sees the hull. This happens a couple of times until the shark is undeterred by our presence and swims around in the chum line waiting. Sometimes the shark is allowed the bait, and thrashes around on the surface, throwing spray everywhere. The baited stem is then set free and the divers enter the water before the boat is set adrift to stay with the stem, sharks and divers.
I slipped into the water and saw the same 3.5m animal as the day before. Much more comfortable in the water, I got as close as I dared and wasnt doing too badly. Then another animal appeared as the stem entered its territory.
The tiger sharks off Aliwal Shoal are believed to have fixed, overlapping territories. As you drift in the current you pick up and drop sharks along the drift as you pass through each territory.
Most sharks are 3-4m in length and quite happy to feed from the stem. There is also a much larger shark - which is rather shy, but puts the willies up the other sharks - and a 1.5m male which wants to feed.
In the shark world the larger females feed first, so he is understandably shy.
As we passed through the sharks ranges we at one point picked up four animals. Things started to get a little ragged.
Tiger sharks seem to know when you can see them and will act uninterested. Its the ones that you dont see that will get you.
On more than one occasion Gail (my safety diver that day) pointed out a shark I hadnt seen. It would be very close by the time we made eye contact and it moved off.
Although there were no rushes or aggressive behaviour, it is almost a given that should they get the chance they will test you. Thats how limbs are lost!
We passed through that intersection of territories in something of a nervous blur. Things were happening a little too quickly for my liking. I had to be alert, which distracted me from photography. However, we got back to a manageable three sharks eventually.
The only other time I really felt threatened was a late-afternoon excursion. The light was fading and the sharks, uncharacteristically, were still around. They were also much more active and interested. They found it easy to avoid detection until they were very close by swimming vertically up from the now-dark bottom. A large female bumped one cameraman and on her third pass very close to me Id had enough. I got out of the water.
The weather conspired against me from then on and I had to spend several days on the beach, as both the wind killed the surface conditions and then the visibility was destroyed by a cloud of plankton. After two really good days it was pointless trying to make something of a bad job, so I sat and waited for things to improve. I had booked two weeks specifically to deal with this possibility, but it was no less frustrating.
Slowly the conditions came right and, when I finally got back in the water, the surface was again calm and the viz, though not great, was decent.
The frustration had built my confidence too, and so I planned to stay near the surface and close to the baited stem. This was where the action was and I aimed to be among it.
We had two 3.5m animals circling and feeding for a couple of hours and I was able to get some stills and video completed in gorgeous light.
The sharks were very ordered and came in one at a time. They wrapped themselves in the line, splashed around, ripped off some bait and then swam off to let the other do something similar.
One had a nasty wound on her dorsal fin. Tattered badly at the rear, she had clearly overstepped the mark with a larger shark. Violence is a constant danger, even for the second-in-command of the marine food chain.
The next day the current had swung around, and while it had knocked the visibility down, it gave us a good opportunity to get to the bottom-feeding station.
There is only one shark that comes to the bottom, but she is a big animal and will ignore divers while feeding.
Mark went to the station first to position the bait and wait for it to arrive. It took around half an hour, but with a given signal I went straight down and positioned myself next to the small cavern that marked the spot.
At 4.5m, the shark Mark had named Barbara-Ann dwarfed us and the cloud of bream that gather to pick up scraps that fly around during these events.
Barbara-Ann made three passes and ignored us as she took the tethered bait. You have to tie down the fish in this case, otherwise the shark simply picks it up and swims off, probably giggling to herself as she leaves the divers behind. There was none of the feeling of frenzy that I have seen at other shark feeds.
All in all this was about as far from chaos as you could get. You could almost see the shark concentrating and working out what she needed to do to remove the food.
The bait was tethered at the head and when that section was the only bit remaining, she positioned it so carefully in her mouth to sever the rope that I believe she had worked it out. In one thrash of her head the bait was free.
Strangely, I felt quite safe being close to such a potentially threatening creature. Human instinct says stay away, but when you have spent several days getting to know these magnificent animals, you realise that while they can be a danger, they are not that interested in us at all.
The tiger sharks at Aliwal shoal are the subject of scientific study and Mark Addison is dedicated to improving our knowledge about them. They are found around Aliwal during the southern spring, summer and autumn.
The sharks we dived with are thought to occupy one section of reef and have never been caught in the shark nets spread along the coastline, leading marine biologists to believe that they have a very limited range.
They regularly catch tiger sharks in the shark nets just off the swimming beaches, which I think is a crying shame these days. Yet as I discovered, the tiger sharks, while bold and inquisitive, are little more dangerous than your average reef shark. They are certainly far calmer, and a great deal less skittish. Perhaps the Collins bible should be revised.