Day one of the shark trip started as most dive trips do: with the dive briefing. Designed to keep divers visiting any live-a-board or resort safe and practicing good etiquette, the Shearwater crew talked about where things are on the boat, how tanks will be filed, when dinner would be served, and so on. Two-thirds of the way through the discussion, questions about the sharks started coming out. And Matt, one of the Shearwater crew members, quickly replied, “oh just wait, we’ll do a WHOLE other briefing in the morning.” And, aside from needing to pop in at the Wynn Dixie across the street for a last minute beer and wine run, and carefully securing our gear in preparation for a forecasted choppy crossing, that’s as strenuous as things got for day one. Day two began with a stop at customs to clear us for Bahamian diving. Everyone slept through the customs visit – it was too early. In fact, most everyone slept until we got to the first dive spot. But once we arrived, the crew was ready and anxious to get things going. Boat crew members Matt and Mike went through the bunks knocking on doors, yelling “WHALE SHARK,” or “SHARK.” Of course we all quickly got up after that, regardless of how tired we were. What the crew knew was that before getting into the water, we had to have an hour conversation about how to be a shark diver. All divers should be covered head to toe, no wearing white or bright colors, we went over hand signals, how to interact and not interact with the sharks, and what to do when the big tiger sharks come around.
After the long but necessary briefing, I think everyone was appropriately nervous and excited at the same time, and the crew knew it. To help us ease into things, we anchored at a place called Shark Paradise. The goal was to chum lightly, if there is such a thing, and bring in some reef sharks to get used to things before we swam with the big tigers.
Dive one was great with lots of reef sharks, warm water, and Max. Max is a friendly grouper that the crew of the Shearwater knows very well, and Max loves getting right in there with the sharks to try and pick off pieces of what comes out of the bait box. He is a brave fish indeed.
The crew set up two bait stations on different areas of the reef, and it was their job, it seemed, to keep the sharks interested, together, and moving back forth between the two stations. To do this, crew member Matt would swim back and forth giving the bait boxes a little shake to bring the sharks in. Aside from making sure our images were relatively clear of divers and rising bubbles, everyone came away with great pictures for dive one. It was a great way to kick things off.
On the second dive I jumped in after fumbling with my housing for longer than I wanted, and the scene was the same, mostly. I swam down heading right to a bait station, took a picture or two, and then realized most of the sharks were over the top of a neighboring rock. So, as I started to swim over, I quickly noticed that both shark behavior and Matt’s behavior were different – there was more excitement. As I got to the second bait station, I was surprised to see why: the tiger shark known as Emma had shown up. Emma, who has her own Facebook page, has been swimming with the Shearwater crew for years and years. And Emma, depending on who you ask, is about fifteen feet long. To me, I would just say she is one big big shark.
That morning Emma was, as captain of the Shearwater, Jamin (pronounced Jay-men), put it, “persistent and excited.” I certainly agree, and then some. Emma was not only continuing to circle the reef, coming back to the bait box for a sniff and a nibble, but she was bouncing around to each diver. It was exciting, scary, beautiful, and fun all at the same time. Emma, like a dog, seemed to almost want to nose all the divers. She’d swim right up to us and when her nose met our cameras, she would turn; mostly. On two occasions she swam right at me and nosed my housing, except she didn’t turn. In fact, one time, she opened her huge jaw and started mouthing my housing. As per the boat crew’s instruction, I gave her my housing. The camera almost immediately fell to the sand, as she wasn’t too interested beyond an initial feel. But, she continued to swim forward and over me. I was almost lying on the sandy bottom as I watched the 15-foot tiger shark swim right over me with my heart aflutter. As she passed, I reached out to touch the tail end of her body. Feeling fear and awe, this was a great experience, and I’m convinced this apex predator, this mythical eating machine, is more curious and inquisitive, than harmful. Emma then swung around and made her way to the bait box. Of course, so much for easing into things as the hoped we would.
On day three we decided to try for our dolphin interaction. The winds were not only strong for the crossing, but were forecasted to persist through the week. Tropical storm Debby was whipping around the Gulf of Mexico. But because the winds seemed to calm down a bit on our third day, in spite of the forecast, we went for it. And after trolling the waters for most of the morning, we saw little but our cups of coffee, breakfast omelets, and each other. Sometimes, we were told, dolphin diving can be a practice in patience. Finally, around 11AM, just as everyone started getting discouraged, the dolphins finally showed up.
The routine for dolphin diving is simple: be ready to snorkel; have your camera in hand while sitting on the swim step; and wait for one of the crew members to yell at you. “Dive! Dive! Dive!” they call out, and then you plop off the swim step to kick as fast as you can to keep up with the dolphins –which you can’t. The magic happens when some of them get curious enough to turn around and show interest in people watching. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a lot of curious cetaceans that morning. Personally, I got a couple passes by an Atlantic spotted dolphin and a bottlenose, but they were brief. After this short morning encounter we spent the rest of the day traveling nautical mile after nautical mile looking, and looking, for more dolphins. We trolled the area for what seemed like endless hours. And as the day went on, our search was fruitless beyond our morning encounter.
Also, as the day went on, the weather worsened. I worried knowing the forecast for the week was questionable at best, and finding dolphins in choppy seas let alone swimming with them is more challenging. By 7:00PM we had found nothing, and gave up. Instead, we decided to settle somewhere for a few hours to have dinner and wait for the opportunity to turn on the exterior boat lights to try to bring the dolphins to us.
While twiddling my thumbs on the back deck, I was hanging out with Crew member Laz (short for Lazarus) and asked him if he could do me a favor. I noticed during the brief dolphin outings that he was pretty good at breath holding, so I asked if he could model some free diving shots for me. It was something to do, anyway. Ultimately, the pictures of him are some of my favorites of the trip. He had a talent for breath holding and was great to work with.
After dinner, around 9PM, crew member Matt came into the cabin excitedly yelling, “we got dolphins.” Half of the divers were already outside suiting up for a chance to jump in. There were a total of three dolphins in the water and they were zipping in and out of the light very quickly. Illuminating the water at night attracted a lot of little critters, with an abundance of flying fish for the dolphins to pick off one by one under the lights. And although the dolphins were excited, we couldn’t see them in the night, but instead, saw flying fish soaring out of the water trying get away from the hungry predators. It was an interesting show. Unfortunately, it was still windy and there was a bit of a current. Captain Jamin secretly pulled me aside and said she normally wouldn’t dive with dolphins at night with these conditions. We were right on the edge of what’s safe and acceptable, but because we had a bad day of dolphin searching she let us push the envelope a bit. Still, by the time I got my gear on, the first three divers were back on the deck and complaining about the challenging conditions. The wind was steadily blowing at 10 to 15 knots and there was a bit of current, so staying in one place was challenging, let alone making a good composition of a fast moving dolphin at night. At the end of it, a few photographers were able to pull off a couple of shots of night dolphins, but I certainly was not one of them.
On day four, we woke up with the boat at a place called Tiger Madness. It’s near the famous Tiger Beach, but it’s a bit shallower giving us protection from the wind that was still blowing, and was, honestly, relentless. It seemed to be getting worse by the hour.
According to the crew, Tiger Madness is a great place to get a real tiger shark experience with minimized distraction from pesky and opportunistic foragers like lemon sharks. Which brings me to one of the more interesting facts about the trip: when a diver gets into the water with lemon and reef sharks for the first time, the diver’s instinct is to be alert and watch each shark’s every move. When diving with sharks it makes sense to keep an eye on the apex predators swimming nearby–especially if there are a lot of them. Interestingly enough, by way of the crew’s instructions and through a higher state of instinct and self-preservation, when divers are in the water with tiger sharks, the focus is on the tiger shark and nothing but the tiger shark. The other sharks quickly take a back seat and blend into the background like reef fish or remoras. They truly become pesky foragers that are more often than not in the way of the wanted tiger shark experience. It’s a funny thing to have that mental shift.
That said, the morning began with the bait crates in the water to attract tiger sharks, and tigers sometimes need a bit of time to come in. So, we waited… And waited… And waited… And waited all day, for the tiger sharks to show up. Through breakfast and lunch and through the afternoon, no sharks were showing up. We were, after a previous day of near fruitless dolphin searches, discouraged. The divers and I had meetings with the boat crew to clarify why it’s necessary to wait this out and to go over options. Ultimately, we could go to Tiger Beach or somewhere else, but that would erase all the time we had kept the bait crates in the water to attract the sharks. It made sense to stay where we were. But as our discouragement about reached its peak, a couple of lemon sharks showed up.
“SHARK!” yelled a crew member while trotting through the boat cabin. Excited, everyone rushed to the back of the boat to suit up. Not long after the first diver jumped in, we got a tiger shark in the area. Eureka! Even though the conditions were still a bit short of perfect and the visibility was now starting to go, we were as happy as can be. We were in the water, and we were in the water with sharks! We were able to get in a full dive with some good interaction of the single tiger shark and the lemons continuing to circle in front of our cameras. It was the end of the day and the light was going away, but I took advantage of this by slowing down my shutter speed and going for long exposures and popping my flash at the end. This is one of my favorite techniques to use in photographing moving animals. It gives a feeling of motion and energy that is often absent from wildlife images that stop motion. Although discouraged by the long wait, the day ended well and we were excited to tackle tomorrow.
On day five, we woke up to the crew wrangling the sharks. This is the best activity for getting shots from the surface. If you want a shot of a tiger shark breaching out of the water, this is it. If you want splits or if you’re using a pole cam just under the water’s surface, this is it. But, in the spirit of trying and trying with no luck, we were, at least, consistent. Though the crew tried there hardest by throwing fish heads and pieces out on a hookless fishing pole and reeling them in, we only had a few lemon sharks at the surface, and they were mildly curious at best. After a short while we did spot a tiger, but she played shy and rarely came to the surface. After being patient for a few hours, and without generating a lot of action with the wrangling, we tried our luck at another dive. The first group of divers began to suit up to jump in. Being part of the second group of divers, I started suiting up with the first group already below. Before I was able to get everything together, crew member Matt was thrown from the swim step while about to enter the water. The conditions were still rough. The wind was still blowing, relentlessly, and it was still early in the morning. And almost immediately after Matt was thrown, the first group of divers came up—early. The divers said the visibility was very bad, and the current and surge were too much to handle staying in one place, which is required with tiger sharks. Alas, we couldn’t dive and we had nowhere else to go. This was it. We were in only 20 feet of water so any other location would be just as bad, at best. I quickly had another meeting with Captain Jamin and the crew, and shortly after, all the divers. We were at a point where a decision had to be made. We could stay and hope things would get better, or go back to Florida. The forecast said things were not just bad, but were predicted to get worse the following day, and by the time we would be doing our scheduled crossing home, things could get much worse with 20 knot winds and 10 foot seas coming right at us because of a possible change in wind direction. We felt like we had no choice, and the vote was unanimous: we went home.
After we got through a rough crossing, we felt we had made the right choice, as disappointing as it was. And either way, we were able to make the best of it.
We drank, watched movies, saw some alligators at a local power plant, drank some more, did a great macro dive at the famous Blue Heron Bridge near the harbor, and then had some margaritas.
It’s true the sharks weren’t as plentiful as we had wanted, but we had a great time, and Abernathy’s crew worked it. They truly gave it their all and did their best to make things work. The trip is truly one of the best out there. In the end, it was tropical storm Debby that was to blame, and we hate that bitch!
Wetpixel Shark And Dolphin Expedition 2012 - Images by jason bradley
I want to personally thank all the guests that joined this Wetpixel Expedition, and, despite getting spanked by the weather, made the best of it and everyone came away with some good images—proof we had a good spirited and talented group. Thank you Tracie Elliott, Jim Rakowski, Bill Stotzner, Andy Wallace, Chris Dashcher, Craig Dietrich, Borut Furlan, Laura O’heir, and Jenna Slovis. We hope to travel and shoot with you all again. Please find their Web sites below to check out more of their work. Craig Dietrich Photography or Pompano Dive Center, Chris Dascher Photography, Andy Wallace and Borut Furlan.
About Trip Leader, Jason Bradley:
Jason is a nature and underwater photographer based in Monterey, California and is happiest photographing and telling stories of aquatic habitats and ecosystems. In nature or in the studio, Jason is a self-taught photographer with a dynamic portfolio consisting of land and seascapes, wildlife, portraiture, science, conservation issues, adventure sports, and products and still life’s in a myriad of styles and looks. Jason runs Bradley Photographic Workshops, providing field and classroom seminars for photographers. Jason’s seminars instruct on digital photo techniques, retouching and post processing, digital asset management, digital printing, and he specializes in Adobe software such as Lightroom and Photoshop.
Jason also serves on the Education Committee for the Center for Photographic Art, a non-profit organization housed in Carmel California’s Sunset Cultural Center.