Professional shark divers, like everyone, have good days and bad days. The good days are when the sharks are hungry and happy and the divers are satisfied and come back in one piece. The bad days are when either the opposite happens or the wrong shark arrives at the dinner table. All of my days as a shark feeder were exciting and MOST of them were good.
For two years, each Thursday and Friday at 8:30 and 10:30, I’d motor my 17′ inflatable boat out of Opunohu bay in Moorea, French Polynesia and declare lunch to be served. As I pulled up at the mooring, the sharks, hearing the engine would come to the surface, their fins rippling the water and their sleek bodies constantly on the move. The divers would give me the “you’ve got to be kidding” look and then use nervous laughter to diffuse their fear. Shark jokes would roll off my tongue as I would wink at them reassuringly or quip, “Hey, who’s first cause I’m sure not jumping in the water with a bunch of hungry sharks!
A Newbie Becomes the Pro Shark Diver
Just eight months earlier I had done my first “shark dive” on my honeymoon in the paradise of Tahitian waters and I could completely understand my divers anxiety. I was terrified on that first dive that I jumped into the water with the shark feeder. I knew we would soon be surrounded. I knew I was re-entering the food chain, and not necessarily at the top!
And then, as adventure would have it, only 24 hours after returning from our honeymoon in Tahiti, we applied to run the scuba program for a small luxury cruise ship in the area. So now, here I was, the professional shark feeder on my way to the office.
What the hell, Adventure was calling….who was I not to answer.
Meanwhile….. Back at the Shark Dive
Diver logic often goes out the window in the presence of sharks. I have watched, unbelieving, as men would convince their wives to jump in the water before them on a shark dive. Others would declare that they were going in on the “other” side of the 3 foot wide rubber boat because the “sharks weren’t on that side”.
One female diver who spent a week diving with us and conquered her fear of sharks declared that she had been, “So afraid of sharks that for years she refused to fly over water in case the plane crashed because she knew the sharks would eat her.”
No, seriously…..I couldn’t make these stories up IF I TRIED!
Here’s How The Shark Diving Worked
Sharkman (Ridlon) would get in the water with his boatload of divers and then I would send my divers down to him to be “arranged” on the bottom in a semi circle. I would then slide in the water with with a four foot fish carcass at the end of a 15 foot line We always used frozen Mahi Mahi. As soon as the dead fish hit the water, up the sharks came to me. In fine “pied piper” style I led the entourage. First me with the dead fish, then the snapper and other piscavores (fish eating fish) and the sharks bringing up the rear. I brought them all into an underwater amphitheater with the sharks down on the “stage” and divers up in the “seats.” The sharks set up a circular swimming pattern around me and a young male usually was the first to move in for the bait.
Then high voltage action would follow for the next 20 minutes as the sharks vied for position and a scrap of food. While the divers eyes were riveted to the action, Ridlon snapped photos of the sharks circling behind the divers. This always amazed the divers upon seeing the images and realizing they had been in fact surrounded!
And Here’s How The Shark Diving DIDN’T Work…Enter Big Mama
One day in the midst of a feeding, all the sharks suddenly disappeared. It was eerie. There was still food to be fought for and divers to amaze. Sharkman and I looked at each other in wonder. The sharks weren’t holding up their end of the bargain. We had a show to perform! But that day, the fifty reef sharks were just the first act of a much larger main event.
An eleven foot lemon shark circled up over the reef and came onto the stage. She was GIGANTIC and menacing. We all froze. I, of course, was sitting there holding the dead fish dinner bell. I simply dropped the line, no time to unhook it, as she was coming in! I finned slowly backward as she swam to the bottom where the Mahi had drifted.
Then she opened her mouth. No, that’s not right…I would say she unhinged her maw and took the entire fish in her mouth in one seemingly endless scoop. I looked over at the divers. Not one single bubble emerged from the line of apparently incapacitated divers. The lemon shark, aptly named for the yellowish tint to her body, simply swam across the row of divers, just as if to say, “oh, excuse me, pardon me, this is mine …..” and disappeared over the reef. In the moment after she passed, every single diver explosively exhaled as we had all been holding our collective breaths.
Big Mama, as she came to be affectionately called, became a frequent visitor at our shark feeds after that day. We learned her predictable pattern of swimming up the same channel we began to call lemon channel. We became accustomed to her ways and after that first day, I used a releasable clip on the fish so I could give it up at a moment’s notice. I wasn’t about to fight her for the fish. Lemon sharks are really mellow….unless you piss them off. They have been known to swim after boats when agitated and become unpredictable when annoyed.
And Here’s How it DIDN’T Work, AGAIN…
Mahi Mahi (or dolphin fish) satisfies the sharks. When it’s frozen, they are more mellow in their eating behavior, perhaps the fish carcass sends out less of an oder. The day we ran out of Mahi was one of those days you are reminded that you are not at the top of the food chain. We had run out of Mahi and substituted salmon for our feeding day. After all, fish was just fish, right? So, I loaded up the salmon carcass and we went out to feed.
I didn’t even make it down to the divers. The much oilier fish sent the sharks into a frenzy right at the surface with me in the middle of it all. The sharks attacked and polished off the salmon before I was 10 feet below the surface. I double checked to make sure all of my fingers were still intact and tried to still my heart. This day gave me pause!
And…Don’t EVER Become Complacent about Feeding Sharks
Yet in time, it’s easy to become complacent about things such as feeding sharks and eleven foot lemons swimming up to you for a handout. No…really. You do the same thing day in and day out and you have to always remind yourself they are wild animals, anything can happen and you must always be on your fins so to speak. The day the Polish divers came out to the reef with us was one of those days.
There were three friends who wanted to learn to dive. We put them through the paces in the classroom and in the swimming pool and a couple of easy reef dives and they were ready and excited to see some sharks. These fun loving guys had even shaved their mustaches so they wouldn’t leak water into their masks. We descended into the feeding area as usual and I swam down with the Mahi. (We never used salmon again). We had told our European friends that if they see a large shark, it’s Big Mama and if they wanted to take pictures of her it was alright. Complacency……ahhhhh.
So we were happily feeding away when just behind the divers I spotted something so large I thought it must be the Atlantis Submarine. But no, it wasn’t a man made contraption, it was a 15 foot shark! This was NOT Big Mama. Big Mama was child’s play compared to this Leviathan. My brain, in a microsecond, flipped through my virtual shark identification manual and then suddenly it registered. The large horizontal bars on that ENORMOUS fish could only be that of a TIGER SHARK. I had never seen one in the wild but I knew them to be one of the most unpredictable sharks and definitely one of the man biters (good thing I’m female!). Once again, here I was, stupidly holding the dead fish.
Now, of course, underwater you communicate by hand signals. However, we didn’t have a signal for tiger shark because we had never NEEDED one! I tried to communicate to my husband that this behemoth was behind him by yelling through my regulator. Believe it or not, Sharkman and I are fairly fluent in “regulator” but I don’t think he got it that time until he turned around!
Not really sure what to do I had sense enough to drop the fish, which of course, was what the shark really wanted…and could certainly have! One of the divers, seeing a large shark, of course assumed it was Big Mama and remembered that it was ok to get a photo. He began to swim after the shark. Sharkman, grabbed the diver’s fin signaling, “No, not that one!”. We gathered our small group of divers and slowly headed to the surface. Even after hundreds of shark dives, my heart was racing as we made our way up to safety. We all surfaced in a group and clamored back into the boat. The tiger, after chowing down our little snack, ascended to within 5 feet of the surface directly behind our boat and just stared at us. That day my ranking on the food chain became crystal clear.
We now have an underwater signal for “shark whose mouth is bigger than your head”.
And that was the day….
I fell in love with manta rays.
Who wants to go shark diving???
Shark diving has changed a little since the days I hand fed with the line. Here is a short video I shot in the Bahamas. It’s pretty cool, check it out! Then tell us what you think!