Shark Diving For Dummies
First published in
Xray Magazine #34 (Jan 2010)
Last summer, I was asked to
join a week long shark tagging expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. The primary
purpose of the trip was to find, photograph and satellite tag an illusive
aggregation of whale sharks.
It sounded like an
interesting project but the actual work was slow and monotonous. We spent
most of our time staring at endless blue water while chugging along looking
for shark fins. After a few days, we were all tired of getting cooked by the
hot Louisiana sun, so we took a break and tied up to an oil rig to chum up
some silky sharks.
Being an experienced shark
diver, I happily donned my gear and slid into the circling sharks to start
framing pictures. My partner Claire followed soon after and together we
casually swam back and forth through the excited sharks as we have done so
many times before.
At first, the sharks were
inquisitive but it didnít take long for them to figure out that the black
skinned animals (us) holding the small flashing animals (our cameras) were
obviously not food and probably not dangerous. Once the sharks relaxed we
were able to weave between them, pushing them away with gloved hands when
they came too close to photograph.
The incredulous fishermen
that we were working with, continued to drop fish scraps into the water and
the photogenic ball of sharks slowly grew into a respectable sized swarm.
All was going well until,
with a loud splash, the expedition videographer (Ulf) jumped into the fray
wearing just a pair of shorts and a colorful T-shirt. All of the sharks
immediately swam in his direction and he began back peddling franticly to
try to get out of their way.
I wandered over and politely
suggested that he climb back on deck and return once he was dressed
appropriately. This he did and the rest of the shoot went swimmingly.
Ulf Ďs naÔve entrance seemed
funny at the time but it could have ended badly. It got me thinking that
there are some diving skills that develop naturally but when it comes to
shark diving you canít just pick it up as you go along.
Unfortunately, there is no
Shark Diving for Dummies book so Iíve compiled a list of ten things
that every budding shark diver should consider before jumping in with a
school of sharks:
#1, Do you
Just because you donít have
first hand experience doesnít mean that you canít take advantage of other
peopleís. If youíre heading out with a professional shark diving operator
then you can probably rely on their guidance. If youíre planning to motor
out into the blue with a bucket of dead fish and a prayer then make sure you
at least know what species youíre likely to encounter. Talk to local
fishermen. Ask divers if they see sharks and ask them how aggressive they
are. Ideally, talk to local spear fishermen. They get harassed by sharks
more often than other divers do, so their advice will be invaluable. And, as
melodramatic as it sounds, ask locals whether anyone has been attacked by a
shark in that area. Solid information is your first line of defense.
#2, Dress the part.
You donít have to wear a
black ninja costume to avoid a shark attack but at least get rid of obvious
flashes of color or anything shiny that isnít essential. The idea is to make
it easy for the sharks to tell the difference between you and the bait.
Youíd be amazed how often sharks will swim up the chum slick and completely
ignore the bait because something else caught their eye.
Wearing a dark suit may be
best in most situations (e.g. around tropical reef sharks) but remember that
the big boys are partial to marine mammals. If you think you may encounter
white sharks then try not to look like a wounded fur seal. To this end, I
usually wear a black wetsuit in the tropics and a bright blue drysuit when
Iím chumming in areas where great whites might show up for dinner.
One of the most important
shark diving accessories is a pair of dark gloves. No matter how good your
diving skills are, when youíre dodging excited sharks, you sometimes have to
use your hands. You donít want to be waving around exposed fingers or be
wearing light colored gloves that look like pieces of fish.
Fins are also prime targets.
Lately, there has been a push for brighter and more elaborate fins by dive
manufacturers. Some companies are even selling fins that have fish-tail
shapes on the ends. If they help you swim more efficiently Iím all for them,
but they may generate more interest than you bargained for. Simple fins work
just fine and donít buy the white ones unless you want to show the teeth
marks to your friends after the dive. The moral of the story is: if it
moves, wiggles or shakes; try to tone it down.
Its common knowledge that
sharks possess a sixth (electrical) sense. Beyond this, they also have many
more subtle ways to interpret their surroundings including a row of tiny
hairs in a raised canal running laterally along their flanks. The sensitive
hairs register tiny movements in the sharkís environment. The more abrupt
the movement, the more likely they are to investigate it. Unless you want to
be closely checked out, use slow, rhythmic fin strokes. Good buoyancy is
also important. Crashing into the reef or struggling to stay down could
generate aggression or it may work in reverse and scare away a shark that
you were hoping would stick around.
but donít touch.
The best way to get bitten
by a shark is to touch one. It sounds obvious but a surprising amount of
divers decide to break this golden rule. We are tactile creatures. It is
natural for us to want to experience how things feel but it is important to
resist the urge to prod, stroke or grab a passing shark. Mostly they will
just move away but occasionally they react violently and reef sharks can
turn on a dime no matter how rigid they look.
This goes for sleeping nurse
sharks too. They can spin around and latch onto an intrusive hand so fast
that the recipient wont register that it has happened until it is too late.
On the other hand, sharks
sometimes like to touch too. Getting nuzzled by a gang of beefy sharks can
be rather frightening until you get used to it. Sharks donít have hands so
they frequently use their sensitive snouts to feel their surroundings.
Getting nudged or grazed will really get your heart pounding but this
behavior doesnít necessarily mean that youíre in immediate danger. The key
is to pay attention to the rest of the sharkís behavior. If they begin to
speed up or move in exaggerated ways then you should probably retreat to a
safe distance. The difference between curiosity and animosity is subtle.
When in doubt, assume the worst and leave the water.
out of the chum slick.
When hunting, sharks use
their senses in a specific order. Over long distances, they use their famous
sense of smell and their finely tuned ability to pick up on vibrations and
audible sound. Once they are close enough their eyes take over but when they
are almost upon the bait they roll their eyes back or raise their
nictitating eyelid to protect their sensitive eyes from harm. During the
final dash they rely on their electrical sense to home in on their prey. If
youíre positioned right in their path you canít blame them (while their eyes
are shut) for mistaking your arm for a fish.
Also, if youíve been holding
onto the bait you will undoubtedly have picked up its scent so keep well
away from the feeding event.
From a sharkís perspective,
any animal that floats at the surface is either resting, sick or dead. As
sharks invariably pick on the weak and also eat carrion, they are programmed
to investigate objects on the surface that may represent an easy meal. To
avoid looking like a dead animal get underwater as soon as you can and stay
Generally, I only snorkel
with sharks if they are too shy to approach while diving. If theyíre so
skittish that they wonít come near your bubbles then youíre probably fine
Now that youíre underwater,
upstream from the chum and dressed in your featureless black wetsuit, this
isnít the time to become complacent. Keep slowly rotating so that youíre
sure that no animals are approaching you from behind. Just like big cats,
most sharks are stealth hunters. They are much less likely to try to sneak
in for an inquisitive nip if they know that you have seen them.
#8, Watch for changes in
Some attacks come with no
warning at all but sharks often signal their intentions to avoid
confrontations. Any shark that starts to swim fast or erratically has
something on its mind. Exaggerated movements indicate that a shark feels
threatened or aggravated. Among reef sharks, lowered pectoral fins, arched
back and tight swimming patterns are well documented pre-attack postures.
Maybe youíre crowding the bait, maybe the shark is just having a bad day,
either way the best course of action is to retreat.
Cameras create tunnel vision.
Of course you want to bring
your camera; who wouldnít? But try not to become so obsessed with what is
going on inside your viewfinder that you forget about all the other things
Remember that your depth
perception changes as your lens gets wider. Donít swim so close with your
fisheye that you invade the sharkís personal space. Your huge dome port
looks a lot like a giant eyeball. You could be intimidating your subject
without even knowing it.
Also, because of the
electrical fields that surround them, camera strobes always get a lot of
attention. Be prepared to get your strobes bitten if youíre shooting in
close quarters to an excited shark. And, if a shark starts posturing DO NOT
FIRE YOUR STROBES! Many shooters have incited an attack by ignoring a
sharkís warning signals. Donít learn that lesson the hard way.
Sharks are NEVER expendable.
If you feel that the only
way to safely encounter a particular species is to bring along a powerhead
(bang stick) or other weapon, you should not be in the water. There is no
justification for killing or wounding a shark just because you want to have
a fun dive. If you think that it is too dangerous to dive without a weapon
then donít do it. There are cage diving operations all over the globe that
can safely bring you nose to nose with the oceanís top predators.
One final thought, over the
last decade I have photographed more than 60 species of sharks and dove with
many more without being harmed. I take every available precaution to stay
safe partly because the repercussions of a shark bite donít end when you get
to the ER.
Before you take chances with
your own safety consider the inevitable media frenzy that accompanies every
scratch inflicted by a shark and how that effects the publicís perception of
sharks in general. Many species are teetering on the brink of extinction.
The last thing sharks need right now is more negative press.
Find out how you can help to
protect sharks by visiting elasmodiver.com:
Andy is a Photojournalist and outspoken conservationist specializing in
images of sharks and rays.