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March 2010 Archives

March 1, 2010

An adventurous dive with sharks

On Sunday, my Sandals dives were cancelled because of high winds. However at 11.20 I found out that the Stuart Cove shark-feeding dive would run in the afternoon, leaving at 12 noon. So I scrambled to retrieve dive gear and do the paperwork (two separate liability release forms), then joined the group which had only 7 divers in total, plus a shark feeder (Ingrid) and an underwater videographer (Janine). (I wondered how difficult, in the long-ago days of TV's “What’s my line?” the miming of either of those occupations would have been?)

After a preliminary wreck dive, Ingrid gave us a shark briefing as well as some safety advice. (Dive briefings can sometimes be casual affairs, but on this one, every diver was listening as if his/her life depended on it.) Caribbean reef sharks live for up to 40 years, if lucky enough not to be killed by humans, but aren’t sexually mature until they are about 10-15 years. The death of each mature shark represents the loss also of future shark generations.

National Geographic says that 40 million sharks are killed each year, largely because shark's fin soup is highly valued, especially in China. Finning is a brutal practice in which fisherman cut off the fins and throw back the hapless shark to bleed slowly to death in the ocean. Considering sharks have been around for over 400 million years, it seems shocking that human greed is threatening to make them extinct over a few decades: see Shark Allies.

I had been slightly concerned about the ethics of shark feeding, in case the tourist attraction created a dependency culture. Much to my relief it turns out that the bait supplied by these daily feeds amounts to a light snack that doesn't affect their need to hunt and feed. Sharks are the vultures of the ocean, seeking dead and diseased flesh (carrion) and thus keeping the oceans clean. Jaws movies and general superstition have given them an unfairly bad name.

Live divers are not their preferred food, but they may test if something is edible by biting (which could lead to an accidentally sticky end of your dive if you get in their way). Anyway, these are wild animals and powerful swimmers, and when excited by food their thrashing about creates strong turbulence, so you need to stay alert. If what they bite is unyielding, their teeth are sacrificial: apparently each shark may grow and discard over 20,000 teeth in its lifetime.

I was pleased to see that Ingrid and Janine both put on chain mail protection (there was no cage, just a small bait box). We, the other divers, had only subtle protection: the sharks are supposed to be attracted to the fish bait and the person dishing it out, rather than to us. We were briefed to keep still and follow instructions, at all costs avoiding any thrashing about of arms or legs. Experienced divers try to make minimal movement to conserve air anyway, but we had added incentive on the shark feed. This image shows the lovely Ingrid in her chain mail with excitable sharks milling about her bait; you can just make out some divers kneeling or lying prone in the sand behind her:

ingrid.jpg

Technically, our dive was very simple: we added extra weight to guarantee negative buoyancy and kneeled or lay in a circle watching Ingrid and sharks at the centre. We remained almost motionless for 50 minutes, which sounds a long time but believe me there was not a dull moment. This was, by a long way, the most exciting, engaging and interesting dive I have ever done. Being so close to these acrobatic fish was totally absorbing, rather than frightening, akin to an extreme form of aquatic modern dance.

You can see the dive boat at upper right of this picture, and I am the diver small at lower left. The second image below gives a better sense of how close they came, though the shark image isn't as good:

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sharkUpclose.jpg

We were warned that the sharks might knock out our regulator or mask and firmly told not to touch the sharks – but nobody told the sharks not to bump into us. The constant circling, the sharks' extreme closeness and the small group size meant that photography could hardly fail. I even took some decent shots myself, though I freely admit that the images here were all taken by Janine of Stuart Cove. In the one below, I'd just taken out my air regulator to make the photo recognisable, BTW: I don't think I'd have felt as calm if a shark had knocked it out!

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About March 2010

This page contains all entries posted to Jacquetta in March 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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