Photos and Story by Tom Demerly with Jan Mack.
I’m going to puke.
The waves just won’t let up. My equipment is too tight. It is digging into my guts. I pissed inside my wetsuit and another guy’s fins keep whacking my ankle hard enough to make my legs scream. I’m drenched with cold salt spray. The wind coming over the bow is freezing. I can’t see a thing except some vague notion that we are getting farther and farther from land and the ocean keeps getting rougher and rougher.
I’m headed south from Roatan Island, Honduras in a very crowded, open skiff that more closely resembles a Somali refugee boat than a dive yacht. My girlfriend is sitting next to me.
At least she was my girlfriend when we got on the boat.
She might not be if we make it back to shore. This week she earned her Advanced Open Water SCUBA Diver certification, often diving in silty, dark brown water with the same visibility as day-old coffee. Now we’re about to dive in heavy seas far offshore at significant depth in a school of sharks. Big sharks.
And we’re not using a shark cage.
Speaking of refugees, some of our boat crew looks more like… well; this isn’t Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso. They find some seemingly random point in the tossing ocean marked by a soccer ball-sized red buoy almost too small to see. It’s too deep to anchor. We tie off to the buoy line.
The incessant, nauseating roll of the ocean is worse once the boat stops. At least I’m not getting pelted by freezing salt spray and having my rapidly contracting nuts crushed on the fiberglass benches of the gunwales anymore.
The idea is, “Get out of the boat as fast as you can” because being in the boat sucks. Divers are doing back rolls into the waves immediately, like there is a fire on board. I think everybody is ready to barf, and SCUBA divers know it is always calmer underwater.
I glance at my girlfriend. She isn’t smiling.
I roll off the rail and fall a long way into a wave trough before I hit the water tank-first with a commanding splat. The boat slides down the same wave and crushes me underwater. I’m glad I forgot to inflate my buoyancy compensator vest since I really would have gotten clobbered if I had, but now I’m hurrying to get compressed air into my vest since the weight of my gear is dragging me under fast.
I roll over and look down. There is a shark. About the size of a Toyota. Its pectoral fins are gracefully splayed outward; I have a perfect plan-view of it 60-feet below. There is another. And another… They circle slowly in silence down there.
The sharks know we are coming. They swim up from the depths and wait. Wait for something to eat. Wait for us. Wait for the black-rubber bubble monkeys to come see them.
This is the Cara a’ Cara dive site. In Spanish, “Face to Face”. It’s named that because it is world famous for having a face-to-face encounter with big sharks at depth without protective cages.
There are a few species at Cara a’ Cara but the most common are Carcharhinus Perezi, the Caribbean Reef Shark.
Caribbean Reef Sharks are large, about 10-feet at full size. They share the top of the food chain with other large sharks in the Caribbean reefs, especially in shallow water above 200 feet depth.
These sharks are not dangerous or aggressive. If they feel threatened, which is rare, they exhibit a “threat behavior” posture akin to a cat arching its back. They eat fish, and because there are a lot of fish around them in the Caribbean, they are seldom hungry. These facts make them a rather threatening looking, but actually agreeable shark species.
We’ve brought fish with us, and a load of camera toting “adventure” tourists looking for a thrill, a good story, a good Facebook post. And I am one of them.
We brought our dive master with us. His name is Russell Nicholson. Nicholson would fit easily into the crew of the Calypso as one of the divers in a Jacques Cousteau documentary. Bearded, slim, handsome, fit, 26. He speaks with a British accent that seems like narration in every Discovery Channel wildlife documentary you’ve seen. Nicholson has dove everywhere. He is calm and relaxed underwater. During our dives earlier this week I studied his technique, fanning his fins in a motion more like an aquatic animal than a SCUBA diver to move slowly along underwater.
I don’t know it now, but Jan is still on the surface, tossing over the waves and expressing concern about the safety of this dive to Russell.
Me? I’m a tourist who just wants to pet sharks.
As usual it is decidedly less chaotic underwater. Visibility is good, maybe a couple hundred feet, the water is warmer than the air and there are, thank God, no waves churning my stomach down here.
A queue of divers who speak five different languages hangs onto the mooring line beneath the buoy. Our languages don’t matter underwater. We descend the mooring line as a group, as though we are rappelling into the steel blue depth.
There is a reef at our back forming a natural theater. We keep the theater wall to our back, presumably to limit the approach of sharks from behind us but more realistically to keep a bunch of tourist divers from swimming off willy-nilly chasing sharks and getting lost a couple miles off shore.
We pack in, divers next to one another against the reef at 70-feet depth. A moray eel who makes his home here sticks his large, green head out inches from my right elbow in greeting or in grumpy warning to “stay off my lawn”.
The dive master on this dive brings a bait box to feed the sharks. And this is why they always come. And also why what we are doing may be considered wrong.
According to the late R. Aidan Martin the former Director of the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research, a Research Associate of the Zoology Department of the University of British Columbia, and an Adjunct Professor of the Oceanographic Center of Nova Southeastern University:
“In recent years, organized shark feeds have provoked considerable controversy. Critics claim that this activity changes the behavior of sharks and the structure of reef ecosystems. There is concern that sharks become dependent on these ‘hand outs’ and may associate all humans with food, increasing the likelihood of attack. Proponents argue that sharks are simply opportunistic, if the feedings stopped, the sharks would simply disperse and go back to feeding upon whatever they fed on before. Although accidental nips have occurred (mostly received by ‘shark wranglers’ conducting the feed underwater), there is no good evidence that shark feedings increase the likelihood of attack away from the feeding site. The issue of modifying reef ecosystems is more difficult to assess. Yes, shark feeds may concentrate predators artificially and the intensified removal of fishes from the environment for use as shark bait is a concern. But populations of sharks and other reef predators have been seriously depleted by overfishing and habitat erosion and many operators use left-over scraps from local restaurants, using fish remains that otherwise would have gone to waste. Clearly, this is a complex issue and a quick or easy resolution is not on the horizon.”
My guilty concerns about reckless “eco-tourism” are somewhat assuaged by Martin’s remarks. If we leave, the sharks won’t flop around on the bottom waiting for handouts from tourists. They’ll just keep being sharks, like they’ve done for millions of years as one of the oldest surviving species on earth.
The sharks are close now; there are about 20 of them. And they are breathtakingly beautiful.
I’ve loved sharks- or the idea of sharks- all my life. When I was a kid I read Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” and saw the movie over and over. I’m not sure why I liked it so much. It just seemed… adventurous.
But as we grow up our perspective changes. And hopefully we learn. Between my years as a zitty teenager reading Peter Benchley books and sitting in the dollar theater and now I had traveled the world. I remembered my fascination with sharks. After nearly 200 triathlons, quite a few of those in the ocean, I had never seen one- a big one, up close. I was a SCUBA diver, but all I saw were nurse sharks. One time a big bull shark followed me while snorkeling in Belize. Another time I found a school of sickle fin lemon sharks in the Virgin Islands and waded in to swim with them while they dined on a school of panicked baitfish.
But I never had that moment with sharks, big sharks. Until now.
Operating my camera took work as the sharks circled in front of us at 70 feet. I tried to stay relaxed so I got decent photos. Prayed my camera would work down here.
Then I looked up. She was four feet from me, swimming right into my mask. A big 8-footer. A shark bigger than me. I shot one photo of her coming head-on, then gently kicked my fins once to scoot over, to let her pass.
She was only inches from me, so I touched her. You aren’t supposed to touch the sharks on a shark dive, but I will die someday and this may be my only chance. It was selfish, but I wanted to know what it felt like to touch her, and I wanted her to know I did.
I gently laid my hand on top of her right pectoral fin. It remained motionless as she glided forward slowly. I was struck by her… firmness. Her pectoral fin was hard. The sharkskin, just as you read, was rough and like sandpaper. Fine sandpaper.
She did not react, flinch, dart away, rear around and bite. She just swam- glided rather- straight ahead. I watched, her tail barely undulating slowly side to side in an elegant kind of Hula.
The divemaster opened the bait can and the sharks went berserk, a wild spinning mass of 8-foot rifle bullet bodies darting into the same space. The clear water was stirred into a silty mess, and I was surrounded by sharks ripping a small bait bucket to pieces.
I don’t know where my girlfriend was.
The silt settled quickly as it does at depth, and the sharks regained their composure. Now the divers left the rock amphitheater and swam amongst them. We swam with them, alongside them.
It seemed so incredibly good, so beautiful and safe and wild and good. The gentle sharks, retired from their feeding frenzy, glided amongst us, cameras going off, divers marveling at their size and shape and girth and elegant power.
And then divers began to ascend the rope. But I wanted to stay. As divers left I was on the bottom with more and more sharks- there were more of them and less of us. Finally, the last diver and myself started toward the buoy line to begin our sad ascent to the world of air and problems. I did look down one more time at them, and they were leaving.
I fear that we are losing the world. Nature. Animals. The sea. That it is already damaged beyond repair and despite our quaint efforts to save it, it is too late. And I am old. 54. So this may have been my last chance. And I did, quite selfishly, take it.
One day I will die.
If I am lying in a bed, doped by drugs and drifting in and out of life, I hope I remember them still- the beautiful sharks- and how I felt with them. How perfect and majestic and regal they were. I hope I remember them as I die of old age.
Author Tom Demerly likes cats as well sharks, can’t help petting them both and has been all over the world.