Shark Tail 2011 with Host Gregory Sweeney
2011 started off in grand fashion with a cage less shark expedition in the waters of the Bahamas. My good friend Takaji Ochi and I organized this expedition to share the experience of being in the water free of barriers with these magnificent creatures.
An international (Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, United States) group of shark enthusiasts gathered in a West Palm Beach hotel the day before our voyage. We had a common goal to be in the water with these beautiful, powerful predators and to get great photographic images. The next day we transferred over to the boat that would carry us on the expedition: the Dolphin Dream, a 85 foot vessel that is very spacious and comfortable, with plenty of room for camera equipment and dive gear. We went over boat protocol, checked into assigned cabins, and assembled our copious amounts of underwater photography equipment. With Captain Scott at the helm we departed the dock at Riviera Beach Marina a little after midnight to make the crossing to the Bahamas.
The overnight crossing was very smooth; we arrived the next morning at the West End of Grand Bahamas Island. After clearing customs, we had breakfast, and then started setting up our dive gear. We had about a four-hour cruise north to Tiger Beach. Bottlenose dolphins escorted us to our dive location by surfing off the boat's bow. We reached Tiger Beach just a little after lunchtime. It was a beautiful day, flat seas, a light breeze, lots of sunshine, and turquoise coloured water with very clear visibility. Tiger Beach is a shallow sand bar, about 6 meters deep, with lots of light perfect for photography.
The crew went to work to attract the sharks. The boat brings with it 545 kg (1,200 lbs) of frozen chum, a assortment fish heads, fish backbones, several large grouper heads, and just about everything that the fish processing houses discard. A homemade concoction of fish chowder (blood, guts, and everything) is brewed up with salt water in a stainless steel drum then discharged near the stern of the boat. Sharks have a remarkably acute sense of smell, and within no time they pick up the fish soup trail from kilometers away and quickly congregate around the boat.
Old plastic milk creates are bound together and stuffed with parts of frozen fish. The bait crates are then hung from buoys in mid water and also brought down to rest on the ocean floor. Both crates quickly start attracting sharks and other small fish.
Shark wrangling is done from the stern of the boat and usually entails a boom with a pulley and a large grouper head tied to a rope. The lemon sharks very quickly start attacking the fish head. Our goal was to bring the tiger sharks closer in to the boat. Soon they take interest. The rope man has to be very quick in pulling the head out of the water; several times the tiger sharks won and ripped the head right off the rope.The Polecam : I always like to bring a new gizmo or gadget with me on my dive adventures. This year it was the polecam. The object was to safely obtain 50/50 (above and below water) images of the sharks with their mouth open going after bait without losing any of my fingers, hands, or arms in the process. The polecam is a simply homemade contraption consisting of a Nikon D80 with a fisheye lens in a Nexus underwater housing with two mounted strobes. The unit rested upon a kick board, to help with the 50/50 effect and to take the stress off the operator's back and arms. The underwater housing was attached to a stainless steel bracket, which was attached to a marine antenna mound then to a pool pole. A spring loaded bicycle brake lever activated the camera shutter. I would like to give a special thanks to David Trewartha for his creative engineering and welding skills in fabricating the stainless steel mounting system. Like most photography, timing is everything in capturing great images, and the polecam required a great deal of patience and timing to capture the shark with their mouth open. I have been on other dive boats where I have seen the shark rip the camera off the pole and swim away with it. So one has to be willing to sacrifice their older camera rig to get such images. The polecam can also be used for alligators and crocodiles. More exciting and unusual images are in the works.
For some first time shark divers, they felt they were diving into unknown waters infested with sharks – a common nightmare come to life. Apprehension put aside, they don their scuba gear; grab their underwater cameras, and plung into the blue waters of the Bahamas. Once the divers settled on the ocean bottom, lemon sharks quickly started arriving in numbers, maybe 20 to 30 at first, then dozens more. Strobe light started going off and the feeding frenzy started. Soon one or two tiger sharks would circumnavigate around our perimeter, making sure that it was safe for them to come in for food. The tiger sharks faded in and out, leaving us wanting more. So many lemon sharks so close gave me a chance to observe that they have different personalities (or like my friend Takaji would say, different characters). One might think that chaos reigns in various degrees at Tiger Beach, but there is some order in this chaos. The lemon sharks seem to have different duties or responsibility within this family of sharks. Some are on patrol to keep other species of sharks from moving in on their territory and others are on guard for possible danger. While some feed and guard the bait crates. I have seen the lemon sharks aggressively pushing the tiger sharks away from the bait crate in a team effort. I have also seen the tiger sharks use their massive size and weight to push the lemon sharks out of the way so they can get to the food.
Soon some of the divers need to ascend to the surface to refill their tanks and unload their full memory cards. Soon all are back in the water for another hour and a half dive till the daylight faded to dusk. That night after dinner divers were busy downloading their cameras and working away on their laptops. Since the weather was very cooperative we moored the boat at tiger beach under the stars.
We spent the next two days at tiger beach getting in as many dives as we safely could happy that the boat provides unlimited tank refills. We were no disappointed in the legions of lemon and tiger sharks. One of the divers spotted a great hammerhead at the distance: but as is it's character, it would not come in close enough to get photos. Some divers could not get enough of the shark action and decided to do a night dive – a decidedly eerie and surreal experience.
On our third day we shifted to a different location to photograph a different species of shark. Scotty's Reef starts on a white sandy bottom then transforms into a very healthy reef. Here we encountered the Caribbean reef shark, a beautiful sleek shark, it seems to levitate off the ocean floor and glide through the water with no effort. It is amazingly graceful. This is a great location to photograph sharks and reef in combination. Lemon sharks joined in the action at this location too; also several divers spotted a nurse shark. We were able to do several dives at this location since the depth started at 15 meters. A not so pleasant experience was seeing many large and healthy lionfish. This invasive species is a growing threat to the whole reef system in the Bahamas. Lionfish have an open season and divers are encouraged to kill on site. While this has created a new appeal for spear fishing and a tasty new snack, their numbers are still growing.
Our time on the reefs was beautiful, but the wind picked up and a decision was made to move to a shallow reef for over night mooring. That night after a very delicious meal by chef Gail everybody made the daily ritual of downloading their photos. Photographers smiled proudly as they shared their many great photos and everybody had animated conversations.
On our last day we moved back to tiger beach where there was a lot of shark action that day; 20 to 40 lemon sharks and two to three tiger sharks that stayed in the middle of the action the whole time. One of the guests quipped, "What's the best thing to place between you and a 12 foot tiger shark? - Your eleven thousand dollars camera equipment!". Sometimes the sharks will bump into your dome port or taste your strobes. I have seen sharks in the past bite down on the camera gear and swim away with it, then drop it after finding out it does not taste anything good to consume. On this wonderful day dove from dawn to dusk. After the last dive we pulled up anchor and started our overnight voyage back to West Palm Beach.
Being in the water with these enormous, powerful, and graceful creatures was truly an amazing experience. On this adventure I had reunions with old friends and acquired many new ones. This trip has released a few more sharkaholics into the world, which can only be a good thing for the species' future.
I would like to give a special thanks to Captain Scott and his crew for providing us with this truly special adventure. Their hard work, delicious meals, and getting us right in on the shark action made this trip very special. They are the best people in the business.