I quietly went into the water, trying not to make any noise on the surface as I had been told on the briefing. As quickly as I could I was headed down to the bottom at about 15 feet. Before I got there I was surrounded by two 10 feet tiger sharks, trying to take bites out of my camera housing. Welcome to Tiger Beach with Jim Abernathy, Bahamas
Julie and I usually do trips that are more dedicated to macro. Indonesia, Solomons, that’s the places we normally go. Unfortunately that does mean you don’t get to spend much time with large pelagic animals like sharks and dolphins. That’s why we decided to join Eric Cheng for a trip with Jim Abernathy in the Bahamas, diving with Tiger Sharks and Dolphins. We did not even bring our macro gear.
Before we went on to the boat we spent a few days in West Palm Beach, hanging out with Eric Cheng and Doug Seifert. When Eric first called me at the hotel he told me he was going to buzz our hotel in one of Jim's ultralight planes. Not 5 minutes before he called I saw some ultralights in the distance, and wondered if that was Eric. It was. We rushed down stairs to the beach and two small planes landed right on the water. Those things are awesome!
Before we went on the boat, the Shear Water, we had heard it was extremely small. The stories got so bad, we were a little worried. There is a fine line between small and uncomfortable, and we weren’t sure we were going to like 8 days on an uncomfortable boat. So when it was time to board we were relieved to see it really wasn’t that bad. Sure, it’s a small boat, but it’s not too bad, especially since Julie and I had one of the separate rooms instead of the bunk beds. The only thing that’s a little bit difficult is working on your camera, as there really is absolutely no space on the boat to do that. Luckily Eric had told us to set up our cameras in the hotel room, so we didn’t have to do that on the boat. During the trip you never have to change lenses if you have a wide zoom, so basically we only had to swap cards and batteries. We handed our passports and paperwork to Jim (they handle all customs and immigration stuff) and off we went to the Bahamas, only a few hours away from Florida.
The next morning Jim gave a briefing on diving with tiger sharks. Unlike other operations in the area we were not using cages, so the briefing was about how to stay alive around 10-20 foot Tiger Sharks that can accidentally kill you while playing with you. The most important thing, don’t ever stay at the surface, because there you look like the tiger’s main food source, the turtle. Enter the water slowly, then immediately head to the bottom. On the bottom, Jim had us always stay in certain grouping around the bait buckets, always avoiding being directly down current from it. He also gives you a small plastic stick, not really to poke the sharks with, but to keep them from being able to bite, as they can’t bite you if you keep this stick vertically in front of you. Your camera ended up being the primary repellant though.
Before we did our first shark dive, we were going to do a turtle release. Jim takes close to a hundred baby turtles from a rescue center and releases them into the wild. As a photographer this is an opportunity to get a shot of a baby turtle taking its first swim into the ocean. It was a really nice experience, and a nice introduction to the shark diving we were about to do.
Entering the water the first time with sharks is actually a little hairy, because the back of the boat is literally crawling with Lemon sharks. These sharks can be quite large also, anywhere from 3-4 foot to 6-8 foot, sporting a really menacing looking set of teeth. “Don’t worry about the Lemon sharks, only worry about the Tiger sharks” is ringing through your head, but as you look at 15 Lemons right where you enter, that’s starting to make less and less sense. But ok, you look for a small gap and slide in, hoping for the best and immediately head to the bottom.
Within a few minutes on our first dive, a Tiger shark showed up. The moment a Tiger shark shows up everyone is alert. You always look around you, making sure there is no sneak attack going on. It’s not that they are really planning to attack you, but the smell of all the bait could confuse them into trying what you taste like, and even though you’ll taste terrible, that one little nibble may be really upsetting to you and your body parts. The one tiger shark was quickly followed by a second, and then a third.
The sharks are attracted to the boat by a few bait boxes that are attached to the back of the boat. During the dives one or two of the boat crew will take down a bait box and take out a fish once in a while. They don’t actually hand feed the sharks, because that is what causes most accidents in other operations, they just take out a fish as a shark comes close, and let it go. The shark takes it, and heads off again. But sometimes the shark misses the bait and a sortof funny dance goes on as Jim or someone else is avoiding this massive tiger shark that is certain some kind of morsel is around. It sounds dangerous, but even on the first dive we did, I did not at any time feel that I was in mortal danger. Even when a tiger shark started to circle me and trying to eat my camera housing, I felt it wasn’t at all interested in me.
Like Jim had told us, you completely start to ignore the lemon sharks. There may be dozens down there, but they become like annoying critters as you try and take pictures of the tiger sharks. This all changes at sunset, as we start an activity called “Lemon Snaps”. The idea here is to bait lemon sharks onto the dive steps, by dangling fish in front of them, and then as they try to grab the fish, you take some shots hoping to get a really good split shot of wide open shark mouth. This happens so fast, it takes a fraction of a second, that all you’re really doing is trying to anticipate the bite, and fire of several shots. Most of the shots will be duds, but you do end up with a few really cool shark shots, unlike anything you’ve seen before.
The first couple of days are spent in a similar fashion. You wake up, have breakfast, maybe do a morning “Lemon Snaps” session, then dive into the water and wait for the Tiger sharks. Although usually no waiting is involved, as they are already circling the boat. Jim has grouped the sharks into three distinct types. There are the wild sharks, that have no idea what’s going but are attracted to the smell and noise. They usually stay on the fringe of the activity and don’t come close. We actually had a wild Tiger shark show up one day, which Jim had never seen before. Then there are the Players. These sharks know the deal, and although they are weary of the divers, they know that somewhere in the center there is food to be had, so they come in, take a bite, and head off again for another pass. The final group is the best one. They are called the Supermodels. These sharks swim around the divers as if they’re not there, and are only interested in the food. Sometimes you even wonder if they are indeed Supermodels, as they’re always posing just the right way. On our fifth day, as we were supposed to be switching to Dolphins, we had Emma, a known Supermodel show up. So we decided to do a morning dive with Emma, the largest Tiger shark this trip. You really feel like there is a bus going by you as Emma passes. But again, Emma seemed to pose no threat to the divers, and I regularly came close enough to touch her.
That afternoon we switched to the Dolphins part of the trip. This basically involves motoring around until you spot dolphins, and then jump in with snorkel gear and a camera. The very first dolphin we saw was a bottlenose dolphin and Jim said it was not going to be good, because they always leave quickly. But it turned out to be a really amazing encounter. The dolphin started to play with us, circling everyone, inspecting everything, and even offering small fish to us. We felt like little babies being taught how to hunt. Even Jim jumped in, as this hadn’t happened in ages. After the bottlenose left we found a group of spotted dolphins, including a baby, and spend about 30 minutes with that group. These were our first dolphin encounters, so we were extremely excited to be able to spend so much time with them.
The next day we cruised around for a few hours looking for dolphins until we finally found a somewhat large group of about 11, including several babies. They were really playful and hung around for quite some time every time we came close to them. It's really quite an experience being so close to an animal that is obviously very intelligent. They really seemed genuinly interested in what we were doing and again offered us small fish to play with.
We were really sad to leave so soon. Being so close underwater to such powerful predators is an amazing feeling. And the lemon snaps were just so much fun, we couldn't get enough of it. To top it all off, we had several wonderful dolphin encounters. Eight days is just not long enough...