The Bahamas offers world-class shark diving

A great hammerhead shark swims in around 25 feet of water off Bimini in the Bahamas.
A great hammerhead shark swims in around 25 feet of water off Bimini in the Bahamas.

The 12-foot great hammerhead shark wheeled around and speeded up while swimming directly at me as I kneeled in the sand.

I looked through the viewfinder of my underwater camera focusing on the rapidly approaching shark.

I thought of the movies where the leader says “hold your fire” while the enemy hordes charge at the defenders.

I muttered into my scuba regulator’s mouthpiece, “wait, wait, wait, now!” and released the shutter just as the shark rose up and veered away.

Divers travel the world over to see sharks. It turns out one of the best locations to see them is in the Bahamas, just a short trip off south Florida.

Commercial longlining for sharks has been banned since 1993 in the Bahamas helping to make it a great refuge for sharks, which are valued as national assets. One study calculated that up to $80 million a year is earned in revenue from tourists wanting to dive and snorkel with sharks.

In 2011, responding to a plan by a seafood export firm that wanted to catch sharks to meet the global demand for shark’s fin soup, the Bahamas permanently protected more than 40 shark species in its waters, joining other nations such Palau, the Maldives and Honduras that have shark conservation laws. (See http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-14040902 .) With the growing awareness of the importance of sharks to the ecosystem, shark conservation efforts are becoming more common across the world.

The Bahamian island of Bimini, which is only 50 miles off southern Florida, is composed of two main islands — North Bimini Island and South Bimini Island — and numerous cays.

It was a favorite place for rumrunners to store their stash during prohibition. Ernest Hemingway called Bimini his summer home; Jimmy Buffett spent time on Bimini while writing a book, and Martin Luther King, Jr. composed parts of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech there.

Bimini is the location of the ruins of the road that some scientists believe may reveal evidence of the fabled ancient Atlantis.

Uncrowded, Bimini has easily accessible dive locations, friendly people and, best of all — great shark diving, especially for great hammerhead sharks during December through mid-April.

Divers also have excellent opportunities to see bull, tiger, reef, lemon and nurse sharks.

This was my second visit to Bimini diving with Neal Watson's Bimini Scuba Center, which is a short 5-10 minutes from the hammerhead dive sites that average about 25 feet deep.

The location was discovered by three former Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation (Sharklab) managers, Grant Johnson, Katie Grudecki and Sean Williams. On a day off from work, they decided to bait the site knowing that several species of sharks frequented the area surrounding the marina to snap up fish entrails tossed into the water by fishermen cleaning fish.  The hammerheads showed up and have been visiting for a quick bite to eat ever since

Neal (35) learned the secrets of a providing a safe hammerhead encounter experience for both the divers and sharks and began his hammerhead diving excursions in 2012. Sean (41) now works for the park service in Canada and on the dive boat during the winter.

On my first day of diving, I showed up at 11 a.m. for the two-tank, three-hour afternoon dives.  Everyone was mellow. The crew was relaxed; no divers were frantically setting up dive gear or complaining about real or imagined tank “O” ring leaks.

The usual lengthy pre-departure dive briefing was omitted. It was apparent that this was not the first shark rodeo for many of the clientele. There was enough camera gear on the boat to open a decent size underwater camera shop.

It seemed like we just left the harbor when we arrived at the dive site. Now things started to get a bit more serious.

“Does everyone have about 8-10 pounds of extra lead weight to be able to stay stationary on the bottom?” Neal asked.

Next, he showed us a two-and-a-half-foot-long white PVC pipe with a short “T” piece on the top. “These will be lined up vertically in a row on the bottom. Go down the anchor line to a vacant one, kneel or lie down and face forward,” he said.

“If the diver next to you leaves, move closer to the center to discourage the sharks from swimming through the opening,” he continued.

“The PVC pipe serves two functions; it helps prevent divers from rocking back and forth in the surge; it also keeps the sharks away from you if you hold it vertically — like this,” Neal added.

The dance began.

A dozen or so nurse sharks and all manner of other fish were swimming around or lying on the sand facing the line of divers.

Then, several large great hammerheads showed up, swooping in from the distance and swimming up to Jack Levarity (25), the shark feeder, who opened the lid on a metal box and flung pieces of bait at the sharks. The hammerheads, who waited their turn and went single file,  snapped up the bait, spun around and cruised along the length of the kneeling divers on a circuit to return again.

Not all the hammerheads had read the memo; some charged through open spaces like a NFL running back, bumping some of the divers (like me) or gliding closely over the top of the divers’ heads.

After a while Jack traded off his feeding job to Neal or Sean and one of them would stand behind the group as a lookout — safety diver.

The second afternoon of diving was even mellower than the first. There were only six passengers - all avid shark divers.

The straight line gave way to a loose diamond shaped infantry platoon patrol formation. These divers, including a professional videographer, were intent on getting the best images they could.

The hammerhead shark diving experience may sound scary, but Neal said the sharks are well versed in the feeding routine and there have been no incidents.

Sharks have been swimming in the oceans for about 450 million years, way before dinosaurs showed up 230 million years ago, modern humans 60,000 years ago, and recorded civilization 5,000 years ago.

Over the eons sharks, have developed remarkable capabilities to locate and catch prey.

Sharks have receptors sensitive to electric fields that are every bit as developed and important to the shark as sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. All shark species use electroreception ability to locate prey. Sharks also use their electro-sensors to help navigate across the oceans electromagnetic fields

A shark’s skeleton is made entirely of cartilage (like human noses and ears). Cartilage is lighter and more flexible than bone and helps the shark maintain neutral buoyancy and flexible swimming ability. The shark’s jaws and backbone contain calcium salts to add strength.

Hammerhead sharks can grow to 20 feet long and weigh from 500 to 1,000 pounds. Their teeth are extremely sharp and have a triangle shape. Their heads are wide and very thick, resembling a hammer at both ends.

Their eyes are located at the ends giving them a better visual range than most other sharks. The highly specialized sensory organs on their wide, mallet-shaped heads give them the ability to scan the ocean for food. One of the sensory organs is the ampullae of Lorenzini, which enables sharks to detect prey including its favorite meal, stingrays that usually bury themselves under the sand.

There is all manner of lodging available in Bimini. I stayed in a quaint European style bed and breakfast (dinner included) called Hog Haven run by a long time Keys resident Doug Norris. It was a very unique experience (worthy of a one-act play) that involved a beautiful Bahamian girl of 12, a young woman from Las Vegas, whose boyfriend is a male super model, and a shark enthusiast from Australia who writes a shark blog. Doug’s friendly charm made the stay feel like I was visiting family.

I always am glad to return to the Florida Keys after a trip. But, a short jaunt over to Bimini is a treat, especially if you want to experience easy, laid back, world class shark diving that is just a hop, skip and jump away from home.

For more on Great Hammerhead sharks see: http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/gallery/descript/greathammerhead/ghammerhead.html   

Tourist information about Bimini can be found at: http://www.bahamas.com/islands/bimini

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 29 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier four years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers .