One of the things I miss most about working at 7Seas Dive Center in Indonesia is the fact of the day. Each morning, during the staff briefing, a member of the team shares an ocean related fact and then selects the person to present the next day. Over dinner last night I had the sudden idea to carry on the tradition of a fact a day on my own. A lot of my diving in the Bahamas is centered around sharks, so I’ve decided to learn a fact a day about sharks for the next little while. I want to expand my knowledge of sharks for personal improvement, but also so that I can share.
I’m not sure if anyone besides my family reads this blog, but I think they will at least be interested and a little comforted to learn more about sharks. My family is awesome, they are supportive, loving, and intelligent people. My dad and brother are scuba divers and have been in the water with sharks. My mom avidly reads books I suggest to her about the ocean and joins in my efforts to go plastic free. My sister and her husband rock the Sea Shepherd shirts I’ve given them, think giving a voice to the voiceless is a noble cause, and believe in radical action when necessary. All things considered I’m really fortunate to have my family and grateful that they are proud that I’m following my passions. At the same time, I know they are a little uneasy that their youngest daughter is living in a foreign country diving with sharks on a regular basis. It’s only natural that they worry because my day to day life in the Bahamas and the sharks that I love here are unfamiliar to them.
So that they know what I do, I’ve been sending photos of me with the Caribbean reef sharks to my family and their reaction is usually, “Wow, they are HUGE!” It’s true, the sharks we have here are pretty big and can be seen as a little scary. The average adult Caribbean reef shark is between 6-8 feet long (2 – 2.5 meters). The largest recorded Caribbean reef shark was 9.8 feet (3 meters). Though I’m tall, I’m only 5 foot 8 inches.
Sharks are the ocean’s apex predators and they do have sharp teeth. We almost always find shark teeth in the sand after a shark feed dive. Sharks regularly lose their teeth and can regrow a lost tooth in 24 hours. To be honest though, you rarely see the teeth in a shark’s mouth when diving. Despite nightmares of sharks swarming ready to devour a swimmer with an open mouth, the sharks in the Bahamas usually look like they are smiling with a closed mouth as they gracefully swim around the divers. Capturing a good “bite shot” where you can see a toothy grin is a skill I’m working on as a photographer. Its harder to catch their teeth in a still frame than you might think. It reminds me a lot of my elementary school photos and my mom making me do a retake because I didn’t smile with my teeth.
This picture is a Caribbean reef shark at a shark feed dive at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas by Pia Venegas.
Like myself, the sharks I photograph also appear to blink in some of my captures. Unlike myself, it isn’t the flash or being unphotogenic that makes a shark blink. Caribbean reef sharks, and many other species of sharks, have a protective nictitating membrane on their eyes. When they go in for a bite a white eye-lid like sheet covers their eyeballs.
Though the white membrane looks creepy, blindness, not a desire to eat human, is why the feeder is sometimes bitten during a feed. But don’t worry, the feeder and myself, the photographer, wear protective chainmail and helmets. With this precaution the most damage that would happen from a bite is a scratch or small cut. The sharks are powerful and the bites can hurt, but I’ve seen worse casualties from cats than from the Caribbean reef sharks.
Myth, media, and sensationalism have created and perpetuated an irrational and inaccurate fear of sharks as ruthless killing machines. Yet the statistical reality is that sharks don’t want to eat people. Shark incidents are extremely rare and the few incidents that do occur almost never result in death. Although the Caribbean reef sharks get excited when we feed them, they are normally shy or indifferent to divers. As of 2008, the International Shark Attack File lists 27 attacks attributable to the Caribbean reef shark. Most of the attacks occur due to fishermen putting themselves in the shark’s way in a net. Only 4 are categorized as unprovoked. None have been fatal.
To put things in perspective, your chances of drowning when entering the water in the US are 1 in 3.5 million. Your chances of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million. Your chances of dying from a shark attack are 0 in 264.1 million. Considering the hundreds of millions of people that live near and visit the shore every year, these numbers are infinitesimal.
The risk of injury, let alone death, while diving with sharks is incredibly low. For me, the margin of risk is far outweighed by the reward. Sharks are majestic, graceful, and inspiring. Swimming with sharks and other large underwater creatures makes me believe in god. My connection to the yogic philosophy of oneness of all life has been dramatically enhanced by my time underwater in the presence of sharks. In a weird way the sharks actually make me a more moral person and encourage me to follow an elevated ethical code. I’m more thoughtful of my actions because I consider all the lifeforms on earth and how my actions play a part in their existence.
Just as I love teaching yoga, I love sharing the experience of diving with sharks. I believe seeing sharks face to face enables people to develop a healthy respect and passion for these beautiful and important animals. Lack of awareness, ignorance, and misunderstanding are the dominant reasons shark protection laws are weak. The experience of diving with sharks builds awareness by allowing people to become personally acquainted. It’s my goal to be a shark ambassador and to inspire others to be shark ambassadors as well by providing divers with a meaningful, thought provoking, and perspective-shifting interaction with these amazing animals.
Shark ecotourism not only offers the chance to change opinions, it is also a strong economic alternative to shark fishing. Indeed it might be the most powerful conservation tools we have to protect the sharks. Though shark feeding is controversial, the unfortunate truth is that without shark feeding dives and the divers that they attract many places would not have sharks.
Caribbean reef sharks are listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Overfishing and reef destruction have nearly wiped out the Caribbean reef shark population in Belize, Mexico, Columbia, and Cuba. The species is valued for meat, leather, liver oil, fishmeal, and especially the fins which are sold at high markups in Asian markets.
Fortunately, Caribbean reef sharks are protected in the Bahamas. It is estimated that more than 6 million US dollars is spent annually on shark viewing in the Bahamas. That means a single living Caribbean reef shark has a value between $13,000 and $40,000 US dollars alive (compared to a one time value of US $50-60 for a dead shark).
It is my belief that shark encounters can fuel the movement to protect our seas. If you’d like to learn more about sharks or come diving with me and the sharks send me a message. I’d love to hear from you.