Story and photos by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
You only turn fifty once, so I didn’t want a normal birthday party – I wanted something bigger, I wanted to be overseas and diving with big sharks. We looked at a number of destinations that featured large sharks, but at the end of the day there was only one choice: a country I had always dreamt of visiting that was still home to healthy populations of big sharks – the Bahamas.
With my birthday in January it couldn’t have been better timed as this is the best month to see great hammerhead sharks in the Bahamas. We contacted Eli Martinez of Shark Diver Magazine who organises special shark diving trips to the Bahamas on the liveaboard boat Dolphin Dream. These trips sell out early so we booked straight on for the following year.
At last we were in the USA at the Riviera Beach Marina, Florida where Dolphin Dream is based. We could hardly believe the beautiful weather – no wind, crystal clear water under the boat, we even saw a couple of manatees swim by. It looked like it was going to be a great trip, then Captain Scott gave us the bad news. It was blowing 40 knots offshore and the wind wasn’t going to drop until the end of the week.
Overnight we departed for the Bahamas, about 150km off the Florida coast. We expected a rough night but it was surprisingly calm, and when in the morning the boat was sitting peacefully. Maybe the forecast was wrong. We got up to find we were already tied up in the harbour at West End, Grand Bahama and outside the harbour looked flat. It wasn’t until outside we discovered the wind was howling over 30 knots. Welcome to the Bahamas.
On our second day with the wind dropping a little it was decided to move to the southern side of Grand Bahama, find a calm spot and attract a few sharks. So in the afternoon we anchored on a rocky reef, threw in some baits and went diving.
The first dive ended up being very pleasant, exploring a pretty coral reef, home to some lovely tropical fish. But the best part came at the end. The baits had worked and we met up with two Caribbean reef sharks. Eli was on the bottom with a box of fish pieces trying to entice them but they took their time, slowly getting closer and closer, until finally building up enough confidence to feed.
The next day the wind still blew but we managed a few more dives with the Caribbean reef sharks but in the afternoon we got some great news; the wind would drop overnight and we could head to Bimini to look for great hammerheads!
The following day finally no wind. We anchored off South Bimini and soon had a dozen large dark shapes patrolling under the boat – bull sharks. We didn’t really want bull sharks, as they can keep the hammerheads away, but Eli went down with the baits and we all followed only to find the visibility just 3m. Not the best, especially with 3m bull sharks on patrol!
Once on the bottom Eli was doing his magic, scraping a fish piece, but only a few nurse sharks nosed around for a feed, with the bull sharks lingering on the edge of visibility.
Suddenly a larger shark appeared, a 4m great hammerhead – what an incredible creature. It was quickly followed by another, then two more. Then we had five great hammerheads cruising around us. Fortunately with the arrival of the hammerheads the visibility started to improve and we could watch these amazing creatures being hand fed by Eli.
The great hammerhead is easily one of the most graceful and impressive sharks we have seen, and these ones had no fear of divers, and neither did they present a threat to us. It was wonderful to watch how manoeuvrable they are, and with that wide head able to turn around in their own length. It was also unnerving to be watched by their beady eye perched at the tip of those weird mallet-shaped heads.
We had two special days with the great hammerheads with conditions improving by the minute. By the end of the second day visibility was 40m and six great hammerheads were circling us.
One last day of diving remained so it was time to see some tiger sharks, so overnight we headed north. But the horrible conditions returned with strong wings and choppy seas. Still, we woke to find ourselves at a spot called Fish Tales where 50 odd sharks were cruising on the surface around the boat.
With so many sharks present you had to time your entry so you didn’t land on one! And once underwater the sight was even more breathtaking: Wall to wall sharks; lemon sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, nurse sharks, and one very large tiger shark. Eli was already down below feeding the tiger, a 4m long girl he said he knew quite well called Hook.
Once on the bottom dozens of sharks milled around us. One big tiger shark pushed through the pack to feed. Tiger sharks are really gentle giants, moving slowly and taking their time, but occasionally they need to be pushed away should they think your camera could be a tasty meal.
We enjoyed four great dives at Fish Tales, which must be one of the best shark diving sites on the planet. We only saw the one tiger shark, not the usual two or three, and she disappeared after the second dive, hunger satisfied. This was of no account as it was truly a joy to be with 50-odd lemon sharks and Caribbean reef sharks circling us at all times.
Even with some poor weather the shark diving in the Bahamas was marvellous. What an unforgettable birthday!
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