Freediving with the Tigers of the Sea
Words Lesley Rochat, Pics Scott Smith
“You have to use your snorkel Lesley, you need to be looking behind you when floating on the surface all the time,” says Scott Smith persistently when I question why he doesn’t think my free diving with the tiger sharks without a snorkel is a good idea.
Scott elaborates: “I’ve watched a freediver being bitten by a tiger shark. We were standing on the stern watching him floating on the surface when the shark snuck up behind him and bit down on his body. We thought: that’s it for this guy, he’s about to be bitten in half, he’s a goner! But the shark only mouthed him gently, a few puncture holes in his wetsuit and not a single bit of his skin was broken.”
Scott’s story highlights the misconceptions people have about sharks being monster man-eaters with insatiable appetites. Clearly the tiger shark was curious and not having hands to investigate the freediver, it gently mouthed him instead, before deciding he wasn’t on the menu. Quite simply, if it wanted to eat him, it would have.
I’ve returned to a shark lover’s paradise, Tiger Beach in the Bahamas on a photographic expedition on board the Dolphin Dream owned by Scott. I’m here for two weeks, working on productions for the AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, the organisation I founded and now run. Last year, when I first free dived with the tiger sharks I felt nervous before I got in. If you put a tank on my back and throw me into shark-infested waters I’m in heaven. I’d done a bit of freediving with blacktip sharks, but free diving with 40 big lemon sharks, and with what is supposed to be the second most dangerous shark in the world, the tiger shark, made me feel vulnerable. My fear dissolved into the infinite turquoise surrounds the second I descended to experience the simple joy of being free with the animals I love so much. I caught the freediving bug then and was determined to return with better skills one day. Eighteen months later and the day had arrived, I felt confident, and fear is alien now. I’ve trained with my partner Trevor Hutton, one of South Africa’s most accomplished free divers, I’m enjoying more bottom time with the sharks and loving the freedom this form of diving brings.
The sneaky behaviour of a tiger shark is familiar to me: I recall that eye contact with a shark sneaking up from behind caused it to turn away. I quickly mastered the art of getting the best shot by hiding behind my camera until the shark was within reach. After my years spent diving with sharks, I know it’s safer than sleeping in my own bed, considering the high crime rate in South Africa. I’m aware, however, that tiger sharks are often surface feeders, and are very curious animals. The chance of a close encounter of the least preferred kind, is therefore higher when freediving than when on SCUBA. After missing a tiger shark’s close inspection at the surface, she made it past my shoulder unseen, I decide to pay heed to Scott’s advice. I put my irritating snorkel back on.
I take in a breath and dive into the ocean’s familiar silence, down past some lemon sharks to greet a beautiful big tiger shark below. I’m concerned to see that she has a hook in her pectoral fin and while another has a hook in her mouth. Man’s destructive mark. It saddens me to know that although sharks are protected from commercial fishing in the Bahamas, recreational anglers may still catch them.
Swimming alongside this fine looking animal, I find the temptation too great, and slate me as a shark conservationist, but I reach out and gently touch her. I must remember the rules: remember my place, I’m a visitor in their domain, which they graciously accept; I must respect this and never get too bold or overconfident. They’re supreme predators after all.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that if people spent as much time with other predators such as lions or crocodiles, for example, as we shark lovers spend diving with sharks, there would be far more fatal encounters. I can almost guarantee that if you reached your hand out to a crocodile, it would become a tasty snack!
I don’t handle bait or feed sharks and I do try to remember not to swim in the chum slick or down current. But it’s hard to always remember the supreme predator bit; after my hours in the water with all kinds of shark species, who have all been so gentle, it’s easy to forget that they have teeth, and big ones at that.
Free diving with the majestic tigers of the sea is a true privilege. The warm water on my skin, with just the air in my lungs, we swim side by side, surrounded by lemons sharks. I know I will do this till the day I die. And if God wills that a shark takes me, I’d consider that the perfect way to go.
Lesley thanks Scott Smith of the Dolphin Dream Team for this amazing trip (www.dolphindreamteam.com). Lesley will be leading a photographic expedition to the Bahamas in 2013. To find out more about Lesley’s shark conservation work and to book your spot on a shark diving trip of a lifetime, go to www.lesleyrochat.com
Source: The Dive Site