For quite a while I have been seeing photos appearing on my social media of the clear waters of the Bahamas, usually with a hammerhead or tiger shark casually swimming by the camera or a diver.
If you’re anything like me, seeing photos like these makes you feel two things:
1 – Wow what an incredible photo, and
2 – WHY AM I NOT THERE???
In January I was on a film making course in Egypt, and someone asked me where do I want to go next, and without thinking, I said “Bimini”. From then I had been working out plans to make a trip there, and in March, I got on a plane.
The first thing you notice when you arrive, is that the water really is as amazing as you’ve seen in photos. It’s like looking into a swimming pool, I’ve never seen anything like it.
My plan was to see as much as I could, and get involved with anything going on. The first few days, I had limited chances to be out on the water, as the wind had picked up, so I made the most of exploring both the north and south island. During the first
week me and Jillian spent the day in the local school, talking about shark eco tourism and sharks in the Bahamas.
I started to get into the swing of life on an island, such as if I wanted to go out for dinner, it would involve a 10 minute walk to the water taxi, a short ferry ride, then a 15 minute walk to Big Game resort, all in the name of a burger, and that buying food for me to cook myself was going to be tricky unless I
wanted tinned pasta. Ok so enough about that, now onto the sharks…
Bimini is world famous for its shark diving, and it also hosts the Bimini Shark Lab, which have featured on various TV documentaries. I was able to visit the lab a couple
of times during my stay, including a special visit with Jillian as we attempted to help the lab feed their recently caught baby nurse and lemon sharks.
The baby sharks will be kept in an ocean pen for 30 days, before being tagged and released. The shark lab rely on donations and funding, so if you are ever in the area, I
would encourage you to make a visit and see what they do.
Being out on the boat with Jillian and Duncan is always fun, but when you get the chance to get in the water with about 6 or 7 caribbean reef sharks, it’s made even better. These are your classic looking shark, averaging out at around 2 meters.
I found it to be very similar to my previous experience of diving with oceanic blacktips in South Africa, these sharks very clearly relaxed with people in the water, probably because they are here all year round, and have a good chance of seeing a few divers in their time.
One day in particular stands out as being very special, as we were able to take some of the kids from the local school out on the boat to see a few different large fish. First stop was to Honeymoon Harbour, which is a great place to see southern stingrays. You slide off the boat into water about 2 or 3 meters deep, and walk (or swim) over to the beach.
Jillian gave a quick brief as to how they rays will behave, and we got straight to it. Some of these rays are about the size of a beer tray, and some about the size of a large round dining room table. Again they seem quite happy interacting with people, especially when those people have squid in their hands.
It was good to also see the much smaller blacknose shark come in for a look, and also a curious nurse shark.
Next stop of the trip that day was with the reef
sharks, and some of the guys were trying their hand at free diving. They were getting pretty good and it was difficult getting them out of the water!
We also headed to the hammerhead dive site, and I will talk about them in just a moment.
One of the things that really hits you when seeing these kids start to enjoy being in the water with sharks, is that these guys literally hold the future of sharks in the Bahamas in their hands. The Bahamas is a shark sanctuary, meaning you cant catch them, but it doesn’t stop some locals taking matters into their own hands when they see a tiger shark cruising in an area where there are tourists. If these kids can get an early understanding of shark behaviour, and also the importance sharks have in the Bahamas, then I am optimistic for the future of these animals.
Right, now then, the hammerheads.
This shark is the reason hundreds of people head to Bimini in the winter months, as the great hammerhead spends its time hunting for stingrays.
I had two days booked with a local dive operator, Neal Watson, you never can tell with nature, and putting all your hopes on one day is always risky.
As it happened the total number of sighting on the first day was one shark, for about 6 seconds.
Then the second day, totally different.
The end of March is starting to wind down the hammerhead season, and the dive master made it clear we could be waiting for several hours before anything turns up. On the second day we waited about 2 hours, then suddenly got the call, everyone get
in the water. The dive master had been in the water chumming the whole time, and would only give the call if a shark that was known to be a ‘feeder’ turned up, otherwise we might all get the in water and the shark would have been long gone.
However we got lucky, as two known feeding sharks spent around two hours with us. Nemesis and Chaos (all sharks named after greek gods). As well as around 25 nurse sharks, we got to see close up, just how
weird and wonderful these 3 meter sharks are. Great hammerheads are currently listed as endangered, due to demand for their big fins for the soup trade, sport fishing and by catch.
Having a large shark like this, totally at ease with you next to it in the water, looking right at you is an incredible experience. I wondered if the shark could tell I was smiling at her through my eyes. They come in to feed then do a big loop, away from all the begging nurse sharks, and then make a B line back to the feeder.
The feeders role is an impressive one, give the hammerhead a fish as it gets within half a meter of you, whilst avoiding the needy nurse sharks and staying vigilante through the hundreds of jacks swirling above you. Also of course ensuring all the divers are safe, and every now and then rotating them round to different positions.
All in all, an amazing experience.
I have come away understanding the role of the shark in the Bahamas a little better. It’s not just the case of there being great photos turn up on my social media, it’s that whoever took that photo, in some way contributed to the $13.8 million that comes into the islands every year through shark diving. Whether thats directly to the operators, or in directly such as hotels, restaurants, golf cart hire, grocery stores, condo rental and so on.
I am also reminded that the reason all those restaurants are able to serve fresh sea food every day, is because of the sharks, loose them, and Bimini along with the rest of the Bahamas would look very different.
A huge thanks to Duncan and Jillian. For taking me in and instantly including me in their lives for 2 weeks.
Thanks Bimini, it’s been emotional.
Photo by Jillian Morris