'A Day at the Beach'
Diving with tiger sharks and lemon sharks at Tiger Beach
in the Bahamas
First published in
Diver Magazine September 2010
In 2001, an entrepreneurial dive operator named Captain James
Abernathy was busy developing his master plan. As an avid shark diving
enthusiast, Jim was furiously chumming all over the Bahamas to find the
sharkiest locations for his guests.
Dry Bank as it was known then, lay a few hours north of
Freeport. It had a reputation for big shark action among shark fishermen so
one weekend Jim decided to give it a try. In less than an hour of intensive
chumming, five tiger sharks showed up including a gargantuan sixteen footer.
Lemon sharks were even more plentiful. Jim immediately knew he’d found his
gold mine. He coined the name ‘Tiger Beach’ and the rest, as they say, is
Word of the spectacular new hotspot swept through the scuba
diving community. Within no time, divers were flocking to the site where
tiger sharks were virtually guaranteed.
Apparently, word also spread among the sharks themselves
because upwards of a dozen tiger sharks sometimes came to investigate and
the initial small gathering of lemon sharks eventually swelled into a legion
of lemons thirty or forty strong. Random visits from bull sharks and nurse
sharks added to the wild west feel and cameo appearances by enormous great
hammerhead sharks were the icing on an already top heavy cake.
Today, Jim Abernathy’s Shearwater and Scott Smith’s
Dolphin Dream are two liveaboards that regularly ply the waters around
Tiger Beach. Both companies offer excellent service.
A typical day on the Dolphin Dream starts with a very
big breakfast because unlike most destinations, at Tiger Beach there is no
reason to dry off until the sun drops below the horizon. As long as there is
chum in the water, the lemon sharks hang around 24/7.
Once the dive ladders are lowered, the diehards slide in for
their morning shark fix. After elbowing their way through a swirling mass of
sharks to the sugary white sand, most people dig in close to the bait boxes
where tigers are more likely to make close passes. Some divers head off
alone for a while to photograph lemons on the fringing reefs but the lure of
the shark circus always brings them back.
The diving is so shallow and relaxed that even air-hogs can
generally squeeze an hour out of each tank. As long as they remain close to
the ship there is little danger in letting their SPGs drift closer to zero
than would normally be advisable. Some Zen-like divers disappear for hours,
lost in observation of the endless parade of lemons.
There is no dive schedule at Tiger Beach. Once back on the
swim step, divers need only wait a few minutes for their tanks to be
replenished before diving back into the fray.
Many first timers never make it past the ‘wow factor’ of
being able to swim around with so many large predators. They spend their
entire trip in a tiger shark induced trance. Multi-trip veterans start
noticing more interesting behaviors as the sharks go about their daily
At the periphery of the action one or two lemon sharks can
usually be found lying motionless on the sand. They rest with their mouths
wide open so that freeloading remoras can finally earn their keep by
performing dental hygiene and removing irritating parasites from their skin.
To the uneducated eye, the sharks may look like they’re
swimming around randomly but there is always a subtle hierarchy of size.
Close attention will reveal smaller sharks giving way to their larger
brethren whenever they get too close.
Also, lemons sometimes band together in a show of hostile
solidarity. If they see another species of shark entering their territory,
the closest members of the pack will charge the newcomer in unison. This
generally has the desired effect to the dismay of divers that want to
encounter as many species as possible.
When the lemons are thick on the ground they even intimidate
the tiger sharks. Tigers are surprisingly shy and patient; willing to skirt
the perimeter until a direct path to the bait is finally open. Occasionally,
a behemoth tiger in the 14ft+ range will show up. The biggest tigers are
fearless, having earned their stripes during many years of hunting, mating
and brawling. Alpha-female tigers swim wherever they want, scattering the
lemons like children chasing pigeons.
When a shark of that magnitude enters the arena there is no
stopping them. Their jaws which are strong enough to slice through turtle
shell, can shatter the sturdy plastic milk crates that operators use to hold
the bait. Fortunately, very few of the participating sharks at Tiger Beach
show any aggression towards divers.
Occasional nips from lemon sharks have occurred but the
sharks can’t really be blamed if a photographer is frantically shaking a
dead fish in order to get point blank shots of a feeding shark. That’s just
Darwinism at work.
As impressive as tiger sharks are, it is the lemons that
offer the best photography opportunities. Lemons are posers, the shark
equivalents of catwalk models. They are bold enough to approach
photographers very closely but selective enough eaters to focus solely on
the bait while ignoring the annoying monkeys that keep getting in their way.
Because of their attractive golden cast, lemons stand out
extremely well against the perpetually turquoise backdrop of tiger beach and
their daunting size (usually up to about 2.5 meters) and rake-like dentition
present a powerful image to the camera. Portraits of lemon sharks
overwhelmingly scream ‘this is a shark to be reckoned with’.
The last dripping shark junkies collapse onto the deck just
in time to watch the sun turn red. Ignoring the delicious aromas wafting
from the salon, they dry their pruned hands and wrestle topside cameras from
their dry bags. When the sun sets at Tiger Beach the show is far from over.
Wranglers string baitfish onto monofilament lines and get to
work. By dangling tasty snacks in front of the sharks they are able to lead
them right to the guests that are crowding precariously onto the swim step.
SLRs chatter on rapid-fire mode as the sharks sweep by, heads above the
water, chasing the baits. Sneaky lemons obscured by the dying rays of the
sun lunge from unexpected angles inhaling the scraps and sending spray in
Some photographers bravely dangle their submersible rigs off
the step to capture the moment from above and below. It is a difficult
technique to master but extremely satisfying when all the elements come
together: water, air, fire, sharks and that intangible fifth element that
separates a snapshot from a magical moment - timing.
As the sky fades to black, the guests rush inside for their
own comical feeding frenzy. Battery chargers hum and computers whine
indicating the progress of downloading memory cards. Once the food has been
devoured, urgency seeps back into the salon. Tiger Beach is preparing for
its second curtain call of the day.
On the swim platform of the Dolphin Dream, floodlights drill
into the sea transforming the inky water into soft blue shadows. Half of the
exhausted guests remain prostrate in front of the TV but the diehards are
ready for one more hoorah. After struggling back into their cold, wet
neoprene they sink to the seabed and wait for the crew to empty the day’s
bait crates in preparation for tomorrow.
Soured carcasses rain down to the sand, igniting the lemon
sharks into a mushroom cloud of mayhem. The firefight begins. Pencil thin
beams from modeling lights flick back and forth in all directions. Strobes
momentarily light up the night exposing the positions of passing sharks and
hunkered divers, then plunge them back into darkness. It is a chaotic scene
but the lemon sharks, which are blessed with catlike night vision, somehow
manage to avoid collisions.
The ceasefire comes as soon as the scraps are gone. The
lemons dissipate in search of a real meal and the humans regroup at the swim
ladder. Laughter and nervous cussing pervade the night. The participants
strip down one last time and stagger away to their bunks.
That is Tiger Beach in all its glory. It is not for everyone
but for those that enjoy the wilder side of scuba diving, Tiger Beach sets
Andy Murch is a Photojournalist and
outspoken conservationist specializing in images of sharks and rays.
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