“Tiger!” the captain yelled out in a thick Bahamian accent from his perch on the upper deck of our dive boat, the Thresher. Despite our entire group watching the water intently, his experience reading these waters were far superior. It was another 5 minutes before any of us could even make out the unusual dark shape approaching the stern. We had just dropped anchor at a remote dive site known as Tiger Beach off the West End of Grand Bahama. The anticipation and excitement was palpable during our hour and a half boat ride but within minutes the stern of the boat was teeming with lemon and reef sharks attracted by the fish oil soup being sparingly released from a tank on the back of the boat. We expected it to take a little while for the tigers to appear but we were pleasantly surprised by how fast they found us.
Most people would probably assume that you get out of the water when a 16 foot tiger shark appears behind your boat. On the contrary, tiger sharks were what we were here to photograph and the ‘pool’ wasn’t open UNTIL they arrived! Even from the surface, with small glimpses of the massive striped fish curiously approaching, Deb and Vinnie Canabal, the owners of Epic Diving and our hosts for this adventure, could see right way which tiger shark it was. They had a brief discussion debating the markings and mannerisms of this particular shark and quickly settled on Hook, a known resident of Tiger Beach. This 12 foot female was well mannered, curious and most definitely a beautiful shark despite the asymmetric shape of her jaw. Her name, it turns out, comes from her broken jaw caused by a successful fight with a sport fisherman. We would come to see first hand the impact of fishing on these animals with many carrying obvious scars, disfigurement and even hooks with trailing lines from more recent encounters with hooked bait.
It wasn’t long before the dark outline of another shark came into sight, and then another. Vinnie got geared up like a firefighter after an alarm bell rang. He slipped into the water like a flippered ninja to get a feel for the situation, say hi to his tiger shark friends and check the anchor. We were barely in our wetsuits and he was back on deck with a big smile, a thumbs up and to give the green light – the pool was now open!
Our group got dressed for the occasion – wetsuits, gloves, masks, fins, BCD’s, regulators, plenty of weight and of course a small fortune in camera equipment. One by one we entered the water with a giant stride off the back of the boat, right through the dozen or so reef and lemon sharks hanging out on the surface hoping for a treat. Somehow they manage to move right as you step into the water and quickly fill back in as you sink past them to the bottom.
This is an advanced dive to be sure but not because of all the sharks. Tiger Beach is a challenging dive site due to the very strong currents and lack of protection from the open ocean. There is no land in site and with each tidal cycle brings several knot currents that will drift the unwitting diver away from the boat if they don’t get to the bottom quickly. Luckily Tiger Beach is shallow (about 15-25ft) and mostly clean white sand making the drop to the bottom pretty easy and the landing soft. No need to worry about proper buoyancy on this dive as the goal is to sink to the bottom as quickly as possible!
I had been hearing about Tiger Beach for a couple years and had seen the impressive photos of these massive animals swimming past people. It was hard to believe this was even possible given the reputation of tiger sharks as vicious man eaters. It was especially hard to believe that I was finally here, about to experience this for myself. I checked my gear one more time, swung my feet onto the swim platform and took the leap. I was immediately surrounded by sharks, sinking to the bottom and watching from above as several tiger sharks circled Vinnie and Shane below. I could see the strobes of Shane’s camera going like crazy and the interaction was exciting! I touched down right next to Shane just in time for Hook to come in for a closer look. There was only feet between us, her eyes clearly looking me over as she swam past. The thought of being down here with this awesome animal was hard enough to get my head around when Vinnie gave the shark signal and pointed down current and indicated that we now had another tiger shark joining us. Before we could even get a good look at that shark another arrived and Vinnie gave the signal for shark number 3! Within the first 30 minutes we had 5 tiger sharks swimming around us with the errant reef and lemon shark also coming in for a closer look at the action on the bottom (most stayed up top with the captain who entertained the them up there to keep our interactions with the tigers cleaner down below).
While the diving was super exciting it wasn’t scary at all. I thought for sure that diving with tiger sharks would be nerve racking but instead I quickly relaxed and found an easy rhythm to each shark interaction. I found diving with tiger sharks is definitely interesting and one of the best wildlife experiences of my life! While you could enter and exit the water at your own convenience, everyone stayed down as long as possible and since it was only about 20 feet deep that amounted to well over and hour. As a matter of fact Shane and I were often the first in and last out of the water with dive times of over 1.5 hours! We just couldn’t get enough!
Each day we fell into the same routine – wake early, grab our gear and board the Thresher for the morning commute out to Tiger Beach from our basecamp at The Blue Marlin, a comfortable hotel on the remote West End of Grand Bahama. We had a light breakfast on the boat while enjoying being out away from it all on the water. We would keep a look out for dolphin, rays and a variety of other fish that might launch out of the water around us. Each day offers two dives (weather permitting) with as much as 3 hours in the water each day! By the time we return back to the hotel each day everyone is ready to relax by the pool and enjoy the hot tub before an authentic Bahamian dinner at the hotel restaurant.
The shark action is intense the whole time – especially given the curious nature of many of the tiger sharks that make an appearance. They approach respectfully and then interact depending on their level of comfort and individual personalities. I think one of the most amazing things I learned diving with tiger sharks was that these large fish are clearly individuals. Not only do they clearly exhibit very individual behaviors, they all had different personalities, levels of comfort around people and in some cases even preferred attention from specific people! While I have always given other mammals a lot of credit for their life experience and intelligence it had never occurred to me that maybe other animals, like fish, were also equally sentient.
It really sunk in with hook, the shark mentioned above. She clearly liked attention from Deb. Even when Deb had a full milk crate of bate she would come in to Deb’s lap, relax and seek attention while completely ignoring the fish in the box sitting right there. She even let Deb hold her and roll her onto our back. It was the craziest thing I have ever witnessed. While many detractors of shark diving disagree with baiting and interacting with sharks it was clear for all to see that this shark was in it for the attention and not for the food when it came to Deb. This amazing interaction between very different animals made it clear that not only did Hook recognize Deb (who looked about the same as the rest of us in a black wetsuit), Hook liked Deb! That is mind blowing!
For me the other take away from hours in the water with dozens of sharks was how gentle and cautious they actually are. While mistakes do happen, especially in murky water or at night, sharks really are not interested in causing trouble for people. When they do attack a person it is usually an investigatory bite – one of the ways sharks explore their world. When something is in the water and not paying attention they sometimes approach and investigate with a bump or a bite to see if it could be a meal. This is especially true for tiger sharks as their survival depends on finding a variety of food, often on the surface of the water. One of the ways we stayed safe to avoid a mistake is keeping our eyes on a swivel. If a tiger shark approached, just the act of looking at it would get them to turn away. They definitely recognize the eye contact and can tell that you are aware of them. I often had to look down to get them to approach close enough to get a good photo. For some of the tigers the big dome port on our cameras (which looks like big eyes) would cause them to turn away before getting close enough for a good shot. These animals are definitely respectful and have a pretty established dominance hierarchy within their own communities.
While many ‘experts’ will find some of my observations absurd I challenge them to be there in the water with these animals and keep an open mind. There is no other explanation for the behaviors that divers familiar with these animals observe on a daily basis. It is convenient for us to maintain our supremacy over the natural world by ignoring the lives and capabilities of other animals but just because we believe it doesn’t make it true. Just the fact that people like Deb and Vin can recognize each shark, often by behavior alone, is amazing. Many of the tigers at Tiger Beach are affectionately named and observed year after year by the couple companies that take divers to the area.
I highly recommend a trip to Tiger Beach. It is definitely one of the best adventure dive trips in the world and certainly my favorite shark dive to date!