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Sharks! Get into the water!
Yes, in. And bring a camera, because you’ll want to document the thrilling face-to-facemask encounters that take place in the waters of the Bahamas.
Some are staged encounters, where the sharks are lured by the promise of a free meal of fish scraps. But others occur naturally, both in shallow waters and in the open ocean.
I’ve been observing and documenting shark behavior in the Bahamas for more than two decades, and have a pretty good idea of what to expect from each of the eight major species you are likely to encounter. Here’s a rundown on the cast of finned characters that patrol the waters of this island nation.
These are the superstars of the shark feeds that take place across the Bahamas. Conditioned by decades of feeding, Grey Reef sharks show up like clockwork when there is food to be had. And at sites where feeding takes place over a long period of time, some sharks will hang around between meals. When the feed bucket does hit the water, they swarm in with enthusiasm, coming in high and low from all directions. Manners go out the window as sharks vie for prime morsels, sometimes attempting to snatch a snack away from another animal’s jaws. Divers avoid the melee by keeping their hands to themselves and holding close to the bottom. It’s quite the show.
If they are near a staged feeding, these sleek six- to eight-foot predators are often first to the table. But though they are eager dinner guests, lemon sharks aren’t overly aggressive. They tend to move in for a nosh with a gliding nonchalance, often seemingly ignoring divers even when passing close by. When there’s no free meal, lemons tend to slow down and may even settle onto the sand for what looks like a quick nap. The only time these animals seem to get excited is when a dive master accidental tips open a bait crate.
Though not as skittish as the schooling scalloped hammerheads of the eastern Pacific, the great hammerheads that show up at Bahamas shark feeds still tend to approach with caution. Divers often need a bit of patience as they perch on a sand bank, scanning their surroundings for the distinctive profile of a cautiously approaching hammerhead. These fish can reach lengths of 14 feet, and the big ones are usually the females. If a smaller shark arrives at the bait bucket first, it may back away when a larger dominant hammerhead appears.
These are the true bad boys of the shark world. Bulls have a deserved reputation for aggressive attacks, but they tend to be on better behaviour in clear waters, as opposed to when they’re lurking in murky coastal waters, where they often hunt. Due to their stocky builds, these sharks often appear larger than their typical six- to eight-foot lengths. When bulls show up to a feed, they move in low and slow, with none of the erratic, darting motions typical of a reef shark. Any hammerheads in the area will likely scatter, and the bulls may become more active as their own numbers increase.
The heavyweights of the Bahamas shark scene show up on their own terms. They might meet a boat right as it anchors on the sand flats, or wait till the next day. When they do arrive, there’s no mistaking these large, stocky predators. The females can reach lengths of 14 feet, with thick profiles that can make them seem even larger. Tigers are cautions ambush predators, moving with a studied predictability, or sneaking up from behind. Given these tendencies, many operators choose not to put food in the water until after the encounter is over. The sharks have learned to wait it out, and as many as a half dozen may circle about in anticipation.
Streamlined and perfectly adapted to life far from shore, silky sharks rarely come close enough to reefs to be seen by divers. In the Bahamas, they are most often encountered around deep-water buoys, where they are attracted by the bait fish that congregate around these structures. Though silkies grow up to eight feet long, it is the juveniles most often found cruising around the buoys. The youngsters are not shy, and will often pass quite close to divers. Larger members of the species are known to get excited in the presence of food, so silkies aren’t typically enticed by feeding, and encounters instead focus on observing the sharks engaged in natural behavior patterns.
Divers travel to blue water for encounters these open ocean hunters, and these meetings aren’t for the meek. Oceanic whitetips roam through a vast blue desert where meals are few and far between. They swim with a slow, steady resolve—most likely to conserve energy—but once they come upon a potential meal, they will circle patiently, waiting for just the right opportunity for a sneak attack. When approaching divers, they tend to be cautious but persistent, testing for resistance or a lapse in attention. Key to a safe encounter is vigilance, as even eight-foot sharks will back off when directly challenged.
These ubiquitous shallow-water dwellers are the perfect choice for divers who want to earn bragging rights for a shark sighting, but without the whole gnashing-teeth and swirling-fins thing. Nurse sharks feed by night and nap by day, and can be found tucked under ledges all around the Bahamas. Some divers have likened nurse sharks to oversized catfish, because they suck in prey like a nursing infant. Hence the name. But though they lack big teeth, a nurse shark can take a nasty nip if provoked, so it’s best to keep hands off.