For sheer adrenaline, divers seek out sharks. There was a time when just to see a shark was enough, but now that seeing them is no longer a startling novelty, the emphasis is on seeing sharks up close and personal..
Viewing sharks under natural circumstances is normally a long-distance scenario akin to bird watching. Sharks generally keep their distance from divers. This is believed to be because the shark has no certainty what a diver is or represents, other than a potential threat or rival for dominance in the shark’s territory. The diver’s size surely plays a part in the shark’s calculations, as does the intrusive noise of exhaust bubbles issuing from the regulator, and the spatially expanding pyramid of bubbles rising as they head to the surface. Their reaction to this territorial invasion is often to perform a ‘fly-by’ – passing at a distance of several of their own body lengths and offering their flank as they move to a distance beyond visibility.
For years, divers have tried different techniques to fool the sharks, with very little success. You can crouch among boulders (equivalent to the birdwatcher’s hide) in an attempt to be ‘invisible’ to passing schools of scalloped hammerheads, but the second a diver breathes and the tell-tale bubbles issue forth, don’t believe for a second the sharks are fooled. Some have tried, with small degrees of success, to entice shark interest by donning garishly coloured wetsuits in fluorescent yellows, oranges and pinks.
By and large, dive operators have resorted to attracting sharks into close proximity to their diving clients by appealing to the sharks’ most basic instinct: availability of food, abundant and for the taking. Shark attraction dives are usually conducted by what is called baiting. This works fine for 99 per cent of all shark species, from great white sharks to reef sharks. It does not work for scalloped hammerhead sharks and, until recently, I was sceptical as to whether anyone could amass enough plankton to make a really good basking shark or whale shark dive. I was sceptical, that is, until I visited Belize…
SHARK SÉANCE IN BELIZE
I first met Brian Young while documenting the spawning aggregations of cubera, mutton and dog snappers at a reef called Gladden Spit, in southern Belize. Young is the owner and operator of Seahorse Dive Shop in the funky little backwater village of Placencia, and he told me of a unique dive he had conceived where whale sharks were virtually guaranteed. Of course, I knew whale sharks were in that area during the months of March, April, May and June. During the phase of the full moon in that period, the snappers mass in their thousands, schooling by day just by the drop-off, at depths of 25 to 60m. As the sun sets, the snappers rise en masse to shallower depths in an explosive eruption of fish sex: vast quantities of eggs and sperm released in a giant cloud to achieve fertilisation and dispersal with the currents. Whale sharks take advantage of this abundance of high protein food in concentrated abundance and rocket upwards from the depths, disappearing into these spawn clouds to devour vast quantities of protein-rich snapper spawn. As many as a dozen whale sharks have been seen on a single spawning aggregation dive, gorging themselves into lethargy, oblivious to all but the consuming of snapper caviar.
When the snapper are not spawning, they school at depth and whale sharks patrol beneath or around the school – whether from anticipation or boredom we can only guess. Find the school of fish and you find the whale sharks. But as the snappers routinely stay at depths beyond those accepted as safe for sport diving, seeing whale sharks was a matter of looking down, down, down. Brian Young’s solution to this problem has given rise to a unique diving strategy. Aware that some of the smaller, less mature whale sharks are sometimes attracted to bubbles, he realised that if he could somehow mass those bubbles together, it could mimic the phenomenon of snapper spawning and possibly trick the whale sharks into thinking the dinner bell was ringing.
By trial and error, Young created the ultimate whale shark attraction dive. Divers are given an intensive briefing in which they are instructed to stay together and maintain their buoyancy at 25m. The dive guides, Louis, Baba and Shaun, swim deeper, looking for whale sharks and the snapper shoal. When the school is located, they corral the divers together, to link arms and form a séance-like circle at 25m, just above the massive school of snapper. The divers’ exhalations are clustered in a tight formation, which rises and expands into a froth of effervescence. When all conditions are met, the whale sharks rise to enter this bubble cloud and swim in repeated circles around the diver’s circle.
The whale shark reaction to the rising cloud of bubbles brings to mind the question of what factor it is that cues the whale shark’s interest? Is it visual, aural, or a case of special perception in one of the shark’s special senses? The answer is unknown.
Sometimes, the whale sharks come close enough to touch, but be warned: reach out and touch and it will cost you. There is a BZ$ 10,000 (£2,600) fine for touching or grabbing a whale shark. Touching a whale shark will also end the encounter, as the gentle giants are skittish about being touched by and will depart into the blue. Offenders can also count on being vilified and pummelled by fellow divers when they return to the boat.
Other dive operators in Placencia have caught on to the success of Brian Young’s technique and perform a similar ‘faux-spawn’ exercise. Due to regulations, there are never more than two dive boats (with a maximum of 12 divers per boat and usually less) at the spawning sites. This is one case where the more divers the better. It means more bubbles and, hopefully, more whale sharks. For most divers, the experience of seeing the world’s largest fish (and largest shark) is a highlight without equal; in Belize, with the right operator during the right phase of the moon, it is a reality.
Contact: Seahorse Dive Shop, 00 501 523 3166,
SOUTH PACIFIC SHARK FRENZY
While not as well known as Rangiroa, Fakarava is one of the largest atolls in the Tuamotus Archipelago, French Polynesia. It is 34 miles across, with passes at the northern and southern ends.
I had helped organise a special, once-in-a-lifetime, two-week expedition of the Tuamotus on board a decommissioned Russian polar exploration vessel, the Akademik Shokalskiiy for two dozen divers, including my mentors Ron and Valerie Taylor. The Taylors and I had visited French Polynesia many times before, drawn by its justly renowned population of sharks. It had never failed to produce exceptional encounters. We heard the Polynesian government had issued longline fishing licenses to several boats and we were concerned that the shark populations might have been decimated since our last visits. This was to be a shark attraction dive, with our dive guide Sebastien Bertaut carrying a black plastic garbage bag full of grouper carcasses and a tuna head. As photographers, it is essential to get as close as possible to the subjects in order to make quality images. How close is too close would be determined later.
We took our RIB to the ocean-side mouth of the pass, entered the water and drifted with the incoming current and settled on a coral rise at a depth of 25m in the wide pass at the southern end of Fakarava Atoll. We hunkered down among the coral and boulders, carefully avoiding damaging healthy corals and finding lifeless rocks in order to anchor ourselves in one spot to make our stand. The sun shone brightly through the clear water, and our bubble streams danced as they ascended and were drawn into the lagoon. Through this curtain of bubbles they appeared: grey reef sharks, blacktip sharks and whitetip reef sharks. Not a few, not dozens, but hundreds. The scent of blood from the fish carcasses carried by the divemaster preceded us as a calling card and a-calling the sharks did come.
Three hundred plus noses focused upon the source of the scent and ventured to investigate further. The sharks flowed as a fast moving and erratic current, frequently in concentrated waves, as their hardwired competitive instinct made them strive to outperform their rivals. They came so close their noses bumped into the glass dome port of my camera, knocking me backwards with swift one-two blows. Their flanks rippled in the sunlight and their pectoral fins crashed into the strobe arms on my camera, jostling me from side to side. I was getting a workout just holding the camera between the pack of sharks and me! Occasionally, I would have to reach up and detangle a shark from the sync cord of my camera and push it away. The sharks were snappy and excited but not fearsome, or, at least, that is what I chose to believe.
When dozens of fast-moving and highly agitated sharks are at arm’s length distance, there is a frisson and an overwhelming sensation of awe, but experienced divers tend not to register fear as such. Whereas one shark can occasion concern, 100 sharks causes incomprehension. The mind just cannot accept the situation the body has put itself in. It feels like watching a movie instead of experiencing your own life – there is so much going on, it is sensory overload for even the most seasoned diver. It is also a dive of a lifetime. We had orchestra seating at the predators’ ballet and the performance lasted 30 heart-stopping, time-arresting minutes. As it became time for us to leave, Seb offered the fish carcass up to some impatient and voracious grey reef sharks, who competed among themselves and reduced a 10kg snapper to fish flakes in a matter of seconds.
At a time when long-line fishing and shark finning threatens extinction for many species of sharks, it was obvious to all of us on that dive that we were seeing the best of the last. The shark action at South Fakarava on that day will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Critics of baiting need not apply.
For the absolute best shark-diving operations in French Polynesia year-round, I can recommend these centres:
Rangiroa: Yves Lefevre at Raie Manta Club, tel: 00 689 968480
Tikehau: Sebastien Bertaut at Raie Manta Club, tel: 00 689 962253
Bora Bora: Michel Condesse at Bora Dive Centre, tel: 00 689 677184
Fakarava: Tetamanu Diving Center tel: 00 689 771006
TAKING THE BAIT
French Polynesia – the new shark rules
The islands and atolls that make up French Polynesia are home to the sort of diver who likes to make up his (or her) own rules, writes Simon Rogerson. While it’s perfectly acceptable to carry out simple dives, many French guides are fond of fast currents, baiting sharks and extreme depth – sometimes on the same dive.
Recent years, however, have seen the country’s incredible shark schools targeted by the finning industry, which has made inroads into practically every coastal community on the planet. A lot of sharks in one place made for an easy target, so the French Polynesian government responded earlier this year by passing a law banning the export of shark and shark-related products from its shores.
How effective the measures are in preventing long-distance vessels killing the sharks and taking their fins remains to be seen, but the new raft of laws also included a ban on the feeding of sharks. This was first taken as a serious blow to the independently-minded dive operators, who believe they are doing the sharks no harm by occasionally using bait. Nevertheless, several shark-attracting methods are still being employed, notably the old trick of wrapping a dead fish in newspaper, and sandwiching it between two pieces of dead coral, bound in string. Sharks are attracted to the bundle’s scent, but cannot feed.
By the way, news flash: as of April 15th a law went into effect banning the export sale of shark products in an effort to end finning. Also, the feeding of sharks in French Polynesia has been banned, making my upcoming dives likely to be very different from ones in the past.