By Tom Park
Humanity has always feared what we do not understand. This fear of entering the unknown binds us to the surface, and limits our ability to explore the depths below. The fear of encountering a monster of the deep, coming face to face with a shark has scared many away from the water altogether. But over the past few years, ocean lovers have increasingly become fascinated by these apex predators, and have begun seeking them out.
I was lucky enough to have this opportunity, joining a recent expedition off the coast of the Bahamas to seek out and scuba dive with Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks. Statistically, these two sharks are considered the second and third most aggressive and most deadly sharks in the world, and to make this interesting we were diving without a cage.
I have never felt anything quite like this before. We were thrown into a world where we were completely powerless and defenseless against the will of nature. We were staring down the eyes of some of the most feared predators on Earth, hoping that the trust we placed in these animals was not a mistake. While I have never felt more alert in my entire life, as ridiculous as it sounds, the sensation of fear was not present. We had placed our trust in these apex predators, and it almost seemed as if they were as curious in us as we were in them.
The expedition was filled with awe-inspiring sensations of fascination and disbelief as 15 – 17ft Tiger Sharks swam within centimeters of us, at times even forcing us to use our cameras as shields to push them away. Yet they displayed no aggression at all. During these periods where there were only 1 or 2 Tiger Sharks in the water and a few Bull Sharks lurking in the distance, things were surprisingly relaxed. It offered a rare opportunity to interact with these apex predators in a manner I never thought possible.
However, this sense of security was certainty tested. By their nature, Tiger Sharks are ambush predators. They rely on the element of surprise to catch their prey off guard. Thus, it is critical that as a diver you know exactly where every shark is at all times, you cannot let a shark get behind without realising. If you maintain eye contact with these animals they will simply cruise past. The trouble is when you loose eye contact, and despite the fact that these animals are 17ft long and wider than a mini bus, they have mastered the art of stealth and evasion. When there are more than 5 Tiger Sharks in the water, keeping track of each shark becomes an extremely difficult task. This is without considering the 7 additional Bull Sharks, who are all lurking just behind you way to close for comfort.
I never thought I would hear the day where someone would tell me “If there is a Tiger Shark in the water, do not pay attention to the Bull Sharks, ignore them no matter how close they get to you, focus on the Tiger”. An instruction you will almost certainty fail to adhere to. When the water was this saturated with sharks it provided for some of the most thrilling and unforgettable experiences that an adrenaline junkie could ever dream of. The feeling of pushing 3 Tiger Sharks away from you, fending off a few Bull Sharks and watching a Great Hammerhead Shark dart down into the circle of divers all in less than 10 seconds was a chaotic display I will never forget. Yet even during these rare chaotic encounters, the human body is so fueled by adrenaline that it does not have time to feel fear. You feel yourself act on primal emotion, unencumbered by the weight of rational thought.
After spending close to 5 hours in the water with these sharks every day for a week, you truly begin to trust them. You begin to anticipate the epic and unpredictable moments, you learn how to react to different behavioural cues, and how to respond when things get out of control. You may find yourself back to back with your dive buddy, but if you both understand these sharks and know how to react to their cues, you will find yourself in an environment that is something most people could never imagine.
Surprisingly, we were comfortable enough in the water with these predators that we even took up the opportunity to enter the water for a night dive. Now this was spooky! We were swimming through shark infested waters in the dark of night. Our line of sight extended as far and wide as the beam of our torch, the smallest shadow would raise every hair on our arm and plague us with goose bumps. This was one dive where we did not want to get lost! The miniscule amount of residual moonlight that made it through the depths of the ocean was our greatest comforter. This experience changed everything. We began to fear, not because of what we could see, but because of what we couldn’t. It was not a fear of sharks that we felt, but rather it was the fear of the unknown. It was this realisation that really drove home the notion that we only fear sharks because of what we do not understand.
While expeditions such as this are not for the faint hearted, they do not place divers in danger. Having entered these shark infested waters, and having personally interacted with these sharks, it is clear that they are not interested in harming humans. While they certainty tested us, we are not their food source and they are well aware of that. It is a less known fact, that every year animals including horses, cows, and ants each kill more than 4 times as many people than sharks. The shark attacks that do occur are almost exclusively a case of mistaken identity, due to swimmers swimming in murky water. Sharks are portrayed in the media and Hollywood as vicious creatures that unforgivingly seek blood, yet this portrayal is categorically incorrect. I urge anyone and everyone interested in the ocean to learn more about these incredible creatures, for many of these sharks are on the verge of extinction due to human ignorance. Sharks play a vital role in the ocean, and despite popular belief, they do not pose a risk to us. Like many of the Earths coral reefs, these sharks whilst critically endangered are not beyond saving.