On July 5th, the Discovery Channel celebrated it’s annual airing of its ode to big fish – Shark Week. Unfortunately for me, on July 5th, I was stuck in a landlocked city in England with about as much hope of seeing a shark as I did of seeing the Loch Ness Monster, and so the week passed me by with little acknowledgement other than the odd sharky snap popping up on my Instagram feed. But arriving in Central America with three months solid diving stretching ahead of me, I began to consider the prospect of coming face to face with a shark a little more seriously.
Swimming with sharks holds a certain mystique with divers and thrill-seekers alike. It is a rare and unique opportunity to share the same space as a wild predator; it’s the ultimate rush. Most divers, at least the better informed ones, appreciate that seeing sharks is generally considered a privilege, sadly an all too rare experience these days due to extreme hunting and killing either for sport or for finning – a truly heinous practice that sees sharks captured by fisherman before their fins are sliced off from their living bodies which are then thrown callously back into the ocean. The shark inevitably suffers a slow and painful death, all in the name of feeding over-indulged humans the “delicacy” that is shark-fin soup.*
[Image courtesy of WildAid]
Fortunately, Honduras where I’m currently based is one of only 20 countries in the world where shark fishing is illegal. Thanks to the valiant efforts of local conservationists who have persuaded the government to recognise the monetary value of having a pristine, thriving reef with which to lure in tourists and travellers alike, divers can still enjoy the chance of spotting sharks gliding through the waters around the Bay Islands. It was looking likely therefore that a close encounter of the sharky kind could well be on the cards during my time in the seas of Roatan.
When I was counting down the days until my departure, both feet still firmly planted on solid ground, I spent a lot of time vehemently defending the character of sharks the world over; not the cruel, bloody-minded killers that Hollywood has wrongly type-casted them to be, but elegant, impressive and powerful creatures that should be studied with due caution and awe. Shark attacks on divers are incredibly rare, and the fear of being “eaten” by one is an all too often believed myth that, unfortunately, puts people off dipping their toes in the water all together. But it wasn’t until I came face to face with one that I was able to put my much-touted theory to the test.
Having been diving every day for a month, it was soon time to do my Deep Scenario, an element of the Divemaster programme that tests your skills and reactions underwater at depth. As the boat made her steady journey out to sea and we began to kit up, I started to feel an excited flutter of nerves. We’d be dropping straight out into The Blue, with nothing around us as far as the eye could see except for deep indigo water. We dropped down to 130 feet where we hung suspended, going through the tasks we were assigned. James had just taken off his mask and was going through the motions of replacing and clearing it, when we saw his eyes pop out of their sockets. “Over there”, he pointed, “shark!”
With equal part trepidation and thrill, I spun on the spot to see a sleek, imposing figure swim past. As we watched, it turned and swam towards us. Closer and closer it came, circling us to get a better look. My mind was racing and I felt like my adrenaline was competing with my fight or flight instinct, both desperately vying to be the over-riding emotion. I’m pleased to say that my awestruck curiosity won the battle, and we watched for minutes as the shark treated us to a front seat show.
Trawling my fairly shallow pool of shark knowledge, I guessed that it was a reef shark, about 7 foot long. Knowing that these are relatively disinterested in divers, we revelled in its attention, taking photos and exchanging underwater whoops of delight. After 5 minutes of circling, we decided that perhaps enough was enough, and began to head back towards the reef where the shark decided to drop back and leave us be.
It was only when we arrived back at the dive shop, high on adrenaline and waving the photos around to anyone who’d look that one of the other instructors asked for a closer inspection. He scrutinised the photo for a couple of seconds, zoomed in to better scrutinise our excited paps, and then announced: “That’s not a reef shark. That’s a silky.”
Although rarely spotted by divers, silky sharks can be found in deeper waters around Central America. Reading from the Wikipedia page (the source of all knowledge), we learnt that “the large size and cutting teeth of the silky shark make it potentially dangerous, and it has behaved aggressively towards divers. However, attacks are rare as few humans enter its oceanic habitat.” Well that changes things slightly. So it can be a “swift and persistent hunter” but people are normally safe because they’re not hanging out in its neighbourhood. Like we were. Just now. Pretending to throw each other towards it as bait.
With hindsight, I think I would have been a little more nervous than elated had I known this at the time, but I’m glad it didn’t have an impact on the experience. In actuality, the shark showed no real signs of aggression, and the memory is made all the more special knowing that we got a rare, intimate sighting of these graceful predators.
“It’s behind you!”
Feeling pretty high on life after my first ever shark sighting, it took a couple of days for the buzz to wear off, at which point I began to accept that these moments were likely to be rare and sporadic experiences, made all the more special for their serendipity. It came as a shock therefore when not three days later was I sharing the water with yet another shark.
Having just finished a dive, we were climbing back onto the boat with a group of customers when the captain announced that we’d been followed the entire way by hammerhead, hadn’t we seen it?…
Gutted to have missed out on such a rare opportunity we cursed our bad luck at not having spotted it and had just begun to pack our kit away when we saw a couple of boats speeding over to a patch of water. When we saw people jumping over the side we knew it was something good, and we sped over to join the fray. Leaping into the water with nothing but my mask and fins, I powered through the waves desparately hoping to catch a glimpse of a fin or the flick of a tail. And then someone pointed – “there, there!” – and I saw her swimming towards me just metres away.
I’ve often wondered how I’d feel about swimming with sharks. I’ve never been overly worried about encountering them on a dive as shark attacks on divers are incredibly rare. But at the surface, I’ve always be unsure as to whether I’d be too afraid to jump in, whether I’d look a little bit too much like a seal, whether I’d take the risk. But in all the excitement of spotting the hammerhead, I’m pleased that my instinct to seize the moment simply took over. With out even thinking, I was over board and speeding towards the rows of razor sharp teeth faster than you could shout “there’s a massive shark over there!”
With two sightings in just one week, I know how lucky I am. A friend has been working on the island for two years, diving six days a week and desparate to catch sight of a hammerhead, and it’s only now after a long, long wait that she’s finally had her wish granted. To swan in after a mere five weeks and spot not one, but two rare species has me feeling particularly providential.
There are many places around the world, Roatan included, where you can go on a ‘shark dive’ – an opportunity where you’re guaranteed to encounter sharks thanks to chumming or alternative methods. Never having done one and not knowing enough about the ethics of these, I can’t comment on the authenticity of these experiences, but I feel incredibly grateful that I got to swim side by side with two very different but very beautiful species of shark within the same week, purely by lucky coincidence. The memories will always retain an air of magic for me, knowing that I just happened to be in that particular patch of ocean just as these wild animals were passing through. Like ships in the night, our paths briefly crossed, and in that instant as we hung in the water coolly observing one another, we were nothing more and nothing less than two living creatures, sharing a moment of mutual interaction.
“So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The sheer transitory, incidental thrill of those underwater encounters is one that I will be thankful for forever. Let’s hope my own personal version of Shark Week is more than just an annual recurrence.