By Jill Smith
It is the "Year of the Shark" at Adventure Sports Newmarket Inc. Sharks are so important to the health of our ocean's eco-system, but their numbers are dropping radically as they are hunted and culled - sometimes for their fins (shark fin soup is very popular in Asia), and sometimes just for hate.
These beautiful animals are misunderstood, so we will be raising awareness for saving our sharks and improving the health of the ocean. Follow us as we do!
I gripped the bars of the cage as it was lowered into the ocean. Sharks swam in jerky, violent movements all around me, circling, and sometimes charging the fully enclosed cage, jarring it with the impact of the collision, causing me to stagger and tighten my hold.
And they continued their incessant circling.
Looking down past my fins through the bottom of the cage, all I could see was darkness that spanned forever and a day. As I looked fearfully into that dark abyss, the most horrifying thing happened; the cable snapped. I heard the crack of the breaking chain, and the screeching of the equipment resettling above, adjusting to the sudden absence of the weight of the cage. Looking up, I could only watch helplessly as the bottom of the boat became smaller and smaller - the cage was sinking slowly into the dark. Engulfing me. Swallowing me alive.
The realization that I would die alone, in the dark, at the bottom of the ocean, suddenly dawned on me - and then I awoke, sweating profusely, my heart beating wildly.
I never, ever forgot that scary dream.
Many years and three kids later, life was for me as it is for hundreds of thousands of other mothers – busy and hectic. I fretted over the nutrient content of my picky-eaters’ meals, lacing their chocolate cake with pureed spinach (truly). I worried over their social development and scheduled more and more play-dates to secure mental health. I meanly sat them down to their homework every night while dinner cooked on the stove, in order to ensure they may grow up to be anything they wanted to be.
And I tried to keep them safe. I baby-proofed the house, and found myself shouting things like, “Get that out of your (Insert: ear, mouth, nostril or, gulp, other)!”, or, “Don’t stick that fork in the electrical socket!”, and as they got a little older, “Put the stick down and get off the roof!” Sometimes I wondered how they would ever reach adulthood alive; their chances seemed slim – they were determined to try every dumb whacky stunt they could think of – and for my part, well, all the plants in my house were dead (my track record for the care of living things wasn’t the greatest).
But families grow older and things change over time. Nowadays, my shouted refrains sound more like, “If I catch you riding your bike without a helmet again, you are grounded, Mister! Now, go pack. We leave for shark diving in the morning.”
And the girl who had shark nightmares as a teenager? Now dreams while wide awake of cage diving with great white sharks, camera in hand, manic look in her eye.
What happened, and who am I?
Well, simply put, my husband Jody opened a scuba diving shop. And that changed everything.
As I helped my husband work on building his business, the kids and I started scuba diving (two of them are grown and left home now), and I became interested in underwater photography.
Then, in the second year of business, Jody invited me to join him on a "business trip" - a scuba diving trip in the Bahamas aboard the Aqua Cat, a luxury live-aboard scuba cruise. This trip included many interesting opportunities to take pictures: colourful reef systems teeming with marine life, deep wall dives, and a drift dive called the “Washing Machine”, where you drift effortlessly without swimming - the current carries and tumbles you along the way. But the highlight of the week? …the coveted shark dive.
I was torn and scared. I still remembered my dream vividly and wondered if it was a sign to stay away from the ocean. I was a relatively new diver, but as the designer that created my husband’s brochures, managed his social media and website, I needed pictures, and we had not been in the scuba business long enough to have collected very many. I wanted them badly. Plus, we had decided I would begin studying and diving to earn my PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification. I would be able to accomplish a lot on this trip.
I lay awake long into the nights, stressing about being torn apart by hungry sharks. Visions of them swimming out of the blue, with their mouths open to chew on my limbs haunted me. I couldn’t believe I agreed to this trip.
I was terrified.
I was excited.
My friends told me I was crazy.
Finally we are in Bahamas, and the waiting is over. We had all enjoyed a morning snack, and were relaxing on the sundeck, when Diego the Divemaster’s voice came over the PA system, “Da Na. Da Na. Danadanadana…” (Read: Jaws shark theme of terror right before the great white ate some unsuspecting soul), and then instructing us to head to the Alfresco deck for the dive briefing. I had almost forgotten I was soon to jump into the water with sharks. Almost.
We gathered for the briefing, signed waivers, and Diego made bad jokes while he explained the rules of the dive, and what we could expect. It was pretty simple. We would enter the water, descend together, and find a place to float around the outside of the Austin shipwreck at the bottom. Once the divers were all in place, Diego would come in, pulling the chum ball (a ball of frozen fish on a line), and anchor it to the centre of the wreck’s deck. Then we would watch the sharks swim in to feed on their Popsicle.
Diego also advised us to be on the lookout for a shark they call Finnigan. Finnigan was a shark presumed to have been captured as a juvenile; his captors had carelessly tossed him back into the ocean to die after hacking off the dorsal fin (prized for making soup broth, especially in Asia). However, he had miraculously survived and grown to be a large healthy male frequenting these waters, and showing up for the feed often.
“Let’s go diving!” Diego called, ending the briefing, and I took some meditative breaths as we headed down to the dive deck. The energy was high - nervous energy amongst those of us that were relatively new to the sport. I was glad I had spent some extra time in the pool before the trip to become familiar with my gear. I had practiced taking my mask off, swimming around without it, putting it back on, clearing it, and taking it off again. I wanted no distractions with my gear, while I was swimming with the sharks.
And now it was time to jump in. My husband laughed as I insisted he get in first, and I followed right behind. I immediately put my face in the water to see what was there - couple of sharks swimming far below, and a shipwreck. They were swimming slowly, and everybody (sharks included) seemed relaxed. I took a couple more calming breaths as my husband asked if I was ready to go down.
Hoo. “Yes. Let’s hope I don’t get eaten and I can join you for lunch.”
I was freaking serious.
We descended slowly, equalizing on the way down. I turned slow circles, looking around me, when Jody tapped my arm. I turned to look where he was pointing, and there was a large shark (well, this is no fish tale, lol - to me it was large, but probably it was only 6-7 feet in length), lazily swimming in our direction. He passed within a few feet, but did not seem threatening; on the contrary, he seemed rather uninterested in us. I floated very still, watching him go by. He looked beautiful, sleek, and graceful. I was in awe.
We finned over to the shipwreck and found our spots on the outside of the railing. We were all in place, and watched as Diego pulled the line toward us with the chum ball suspended from it. Sharks and fishes were swirling around the ball like a slow tornado, coming in for a bite, gliding out to chew, and turning around for another go.
Diego tied the line to the anchor, and I remember being mesmerized by the sight. It was beautiful. Their bodies so perfect. Their movements so graceful. I had tears in my eyes watching this special event - I just couldn’t believe I was there watching them right in front of me. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
A large grouper drifted up from a hole in the deck to eat bits of fish that were falling from the chum line, and there were many different kinds of fish swimming around the surface of the deck.
I turned to my left to follow a large shark with my camera as it swam out of the inner circle, and a fellow diver, Grant, started tapping my shoulder and gesticulating madly. As I turned back, another shark was passing directly over my right shoulder. I wasn’t sure what I missed, but it had been very close to me.
I was delighted to see that Finnigan made an appearance for the free lunch, and was even able to snap a picture of him as he came in for the feed.
Once the chum ball was gone, the sharks dispersed somewhat, and many divers swam across the deck looking for shark teeth; they often lose them when they feed. I was lingering at the ship’s railing, when I spotted a large female with a hook stuck in her mouth swimming toward me. I turned to face her, and lifted my camera to take her picture, but as she approached closer and closer, I leaned back and pushed my camera forward, bumping her in the nose with my camera light, and she quickly shot off in another direction. I wondered if I smelled like dinner to her. She was curious.
It was time to ascend, so we slowly made our way up, not without a little regret, and enjoyed watching these animals as we waited our three minute safety stop at 15 feet. We could see the legs of the sous chef and one of the crew, who had jumped in with their masks and snorkels to watch the shark feed from above. As we watched, one of the sharks passed between the swimming girls’ legs. I snapped a shot with my camera, and he cruised peacefully past us, seeming to keep an eye on us as much as we were keeping an eye on him. It is a strange feeling to be seen by an animal that I grew up fearing.
Over lunch, Grant asked me excitedly, “Did you get that shot? That was amazing!” I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“There was a piece of dead fish floating over your shoulder, and a shark came straight toward you with his mouth open to eat it - I thought you would have shot a photo straight down his gullet!”
My heart jumped into my mouth at hearing this, but at the same time, I felt ripped off. “Really? My one shot at National Geographic, and I’m looking the other way!” I wailed.
I saved my picture of the shark with the swimming girls for the slide show on the last night at the Captain’s dinner. One of the girls had not seen the shark swimming so close to her and did not believe it when we told her - until she saw the proof.
And as all adventures do, our wonderful week on this scuba cruise quickly came to a close. I was a little changed. I had accomplished 18 dives (out of 25) over the week and become much more confident in my diving abilities. I had swum with rays, turtles, eels, groupers, and Caribbean reef sharks, and did not get eaten. It had been simply amazing, and as we packed our bags to leave the boat, it felt like I was leaving home.
It has become my favourite dive trip, only now, I am the first to jump in the water with the sharks. Strangely, I can’t seem to get enough. It’s funny where life takes you sometimes, but I count my blessings and adventures every day. All our children are now certified open water divers. Our youngest, Sam, is working on his PADI Advanced Open Water certification. And he LOVES diving with sharks.