Animals, Travel
Shark feed diving and shipwrecks in the Bahamas

“Today is the shark dive!”

I’m simultaneously thrilled and a little bit terrified. This dive is one of the highlights of my week-long liveaboard trip with Blackbeard’s Cruises in the Bahamas. I’m super-excited to see sharks, but pop culture has had its effect on me (I’m no stranger to Shark Week), and I have a bit of a fear healthy respect for these fascinating predators. My first experience with a shark was the day before (see my previous post), but seeing a lone nurse shark is a far cry from getting a front-row seat to a feeding frenzy of Caribbean reef sharks.

Caribbean reef shark
Caribbean reef shark – Photo courtesy of Kelly Gjestvang

Our divemaster gathers us around for our standard dive briefing before we get in the water. The plan is for everyone to gear up and get ready and then jump in one after another in quick succession once everyone is completely ready. The boat is alive with excitement, the other divers buzzing with the same anticipation. I am fifth in line to jump off the side of the boat, and I do so with a bit of trepidation. One hand on my weight belt, one hand on my mask, giant stride, splash! I’m in. I turn on my GoPro and make sure it’s set to video. I’ve never used it underwater before, and I’m excited for the chance to record this, but worried that I’m not using it right. I turn it on and off about three times to make sure. (When I look at my videos later, I see these three-second clips of myself and am reminded that, while scuba diving is amazing, there’s no way to not look ridiculous in a scuba mask.)

Me and a shark
Just me and a shark. It’s cool. This happens all the time. – Photo courtesy of Bob Gjestvang

I follow the other divers 60 feet down the mooring line to the dive site, which is actually a shipwreck called the Austin Smith. Even without sharks, the shipwreck is stunning. The ship is a decommissioned 90-foot Bahamian Defense Force Cutter that sank in 1995 while being towed to San Salvador to be sunk there as a dive site. The wreck is largely intact and upright, and it is teeming with coral and marine life. I swim along the side of the shipwreck and line up against its side rail, which is still in place. I hold on to the rail with one hand and wait for the rest of the divers to make it down and line up along the rail. While we’re waiting, the diver next to me points out a little anemone on the rail near my hand. It’s pretty, about an inch or two across. It looks like a flower. Then the diver wiggles a finger near it, and suddenly it sucks back into itself, like a turtle snapping its head back into its shell. I’m delighted. The anemone reopens, only to disappear again when I wave my finger at it. I leave it alone after that, even though I’m fascinated. I’m careful to keep my hand a safe distance away from it on the rail so that I don’t accidentally hurt it.

Sharks
The sharks begin to gather – Photo by Nikki Wall

Once everyone is in place, it’s time. The divemaster brings down what the crew refers to as a “chumsicle”. It’s essentially a giant block of frozen chum attached to a long rope. He ties it to the rail on the opposite side of the ship and quickly swims to a safe distance. And then the show begins.

Let them eat chum! - Photo by Nikki Wall
Let them eat chum! – Photo by Nikki Wall

I had seen a few sharks swimming around as I descended from the surface. But now they begin to swarm. Dozens of Caribbean reef sharks (and one very determined giant flounder) appear from all sides and begin to attack the bait. It is an awesome sight. Other smaller fish begin to swarm, as well, grabbing tiny bits of loose chum that are floating around, like little mice gobbling up fallen crumbs. The sharks continue to feed for at least ten minutes, by my unscientific estimation. The water is temperate, but sitting still for that long in the water, I’m starting to get cold. But I’m too fascinated by the sharks to care. Once the food is gone, the sharks slowly begin to disperse. Once our divemaster determines it’s safe, we are allowed to swim over the wreck and look around the boat. A few sharks still swim casually around, and lots of smaller fish have come to clean up any leftovers. A large gray angelfish swims right by my face, undeterred by my proximity on his way to get in on all the action.

Shark
Caribbean reef shark – Photo by Nikki Wall

After a few minutes, we all begin our ascent. As we do our three-minute safety stop at 15 feet, I see sharks swimming in the depths below me. I am moved by how beautiful and graceful they are. I’m mesmerized. And I can’t wait to see more.

Highlights:
4:42 – Disappearing/reappearing anemone
6:00 – Feeding frenzy starts

(For the video enthusiasts: This video was shot with a GoPro Hero 3+ and a FLIP3.1 filter by a completely untrained videographer using a GoPro underwater for the first time.)

Common sense disclaimer: Do not do this without trained professionals, and do not approach or touch sharks (especially when they are eating!).

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