Join USA TODAY’s Sarah Sekula as she swims with apex predators in the Bahamas. Footage by Joe Romeiro.
If you’ve ever watched Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, you’ve seen Joe Romeiro. He’s the tattooed cinematographer who films mako sharks, great whites and everything in between. From Fiji to New Zealand to the Galapagos Islands, he consistently comes home with epic footage.
It’s the Bahamas, though, that has earned a special place in his shark-loving heart. For a very good reason: This lovely chain of islands is home to Tiger Beach, one of the world’s most unusual shark dives. It’s so special, in fact, that it attracts divers from around the globe.
Likewise, it’s exactly what brings me to Old Bahama Bay Resort and Marina on a balmy November day. Tucked away on the West End of Grand Bahama Island, this cozy hideaway is the perfect jumping-off point for adventure.
Lucky for us, conditions are perfect: glassy water, nonstop sunshine and next to no wind. If we’re able find tiger sharks, it could be the perfect day. That is, if you are a fan of marine life with dagger-like teeth. Known for their beautiful stripes and broad, flat heads, tiger sharks are the second most-dangerous shark in the ocean, with great whites coming in at No. 1.
Needless to say, I’m equally nervous and excited as we pull away from the mega-yacht-filled marina.
With a two-hour boat ride ahead, there’s plenty of time to think about what I’m getting myself into. I will soon plunge directly into shark territory sans cage. A lot could go wrong.
Take, for example, the time a female tiger shark tried to chomp down on Romeiro’s head. Thankfully, he noticed in time and was able to gently push her away. But what if he didn’t have cat-like reflexes in that situation? Or what about the time a tiger shark swam between a diver’s legs and attempted to bite the diver’s foot?
Even more worrisome, in 2014 a diver disappeared during a night dive here. Not to mention, sharks have attempted to steal Romeiro’s fancy underwater camera more than once. Would my GoPro (and my hand, for that matter) even stand a chance? There’s no doubt these massive fish are highly curious, so it will be up to us to stay on guard.
I take comfort in something Romeiro explained earlier: “We’ve coexisted with these sharks for years [at Tiger Beach], and there’s never been an occasion that I’ve seen a shark turn and hurt anyone,” he says. “If anything, I’ve seen them be more afraid of us.”
As the boat starts to slow down, Romeiro repeats something his mentor told him on his first dive here: “You are about to enter the water with some of the largest predatory animals in the world,” he says. “They are dangerous, they are unpredictable and they are huge. Try not to fall in love.”
It’s go time
That puts a smile on my face as we arrive at the dive site. Then, the chatter stops, the island music is turned off. It’s time to get serious.
“When we’re down there, keep your head on the swivel,” says Jamie Ferguson, dive master with West End Watersports, Old Bahama Bay’s dive shop. “Don’t get TV head.”
In other words, don’t ever let a tiger shark (or any shark, for that matter) sneak up on you. Easier said than done, I soon find out. And always maintain eye contact. That way, you seem less like prey and more like something that could put up a fight.
Within just a few minutes, dozens of reef sharks, lemon sharks and one tiger shark are thrashing around the surface. I suit up, scoot my butt off the platform as quietly as possible and grab the dive line. It leads me down about 40 feet to the sandy bottom.
To my left, Romeiro films while simultaneously warding off the sharks that come too close. Behind me, Ferguson stands watch. Within 15 minutes, three tiger sharks do several swim-bys. Soon enough, two more tiger sharks join us for a grand total of five. They cruise along stealthily, eyeballing us the whole way.
Let’s just say, you haven’t really lived until you know the feeling of a hefty apex predator checking you out.
It’s not long before the intensity builds. A 12-foot tiger shark’s square snout points directly at me. Fortunately, the visibility is about 100 feet, so I spot it easily as it glides just inches above the sandy bottom. Its slow approach leaves me time to grab a 3-foot PVC pipe to extend as a barrier.
No need to poke the animal, just let it approach you, Romeiro explained to me topside before the dive. Romeiro and Ferguson each gently put a hand on the shark’s snout. It quickly retreats and goes back to the usual pattern of large circles. Believe it or not, it was not scary at all. It was exhilarating being so close to such a misunderstood creature.
Plus, it does not think I’m a snack. Tiger sharks would much rather fill their bellies with sea turtles, fish, smaller sharks, birds, seals and squid.
If you keep your wits about you, this experience is utterly amazing. I’m so mesmerized by these mammoths (that can weigh more than 1,900 pounds), I often forget about filming the 15 or so lemon sharks, 30 reef sharks and one nurse shark that dart to and fro.
Being in their habitat allows for an up-close view of their gills pumping gracefully and their tails whipping back and forth efficiently. The beauty of it all is overwhelming. And a big bonus: Not once do I see a shark flash its pearly whites.
When I notice a hook lodged in the jaw of one of the tigers, I realize this must be one of the “supermodel” sharks Romeiro mentioned earlier. Close-talkers, he calls them. They aren’t shy and allow you to snap some amazing photos.
Because Romeiro has frequented Tiger Beach for the past decade, he actually recognizes certain sharks. And this one is known as Hook, or Princess Hook. These creatures travel thousands of miles each year and end up back in the same spot to greet Romeiro over and over again.
“We’ve been celebrating this animal for so many years,” Romeiro says. “Shark Week has been going on for 30 years. There has never been a week of programming that has run that long. It’s the highest-rated cable television week in the world.”
“Shark Week has been able to dominate that market because of the charisma of sharks,” he adds.
I can attest to that. We are hardwired to think of these animals as scary, but once you get up close to them, you notice that charm he’s talking about. Plus, when you spend enough time with them, Romeiro explains, you realize the sharks are actually afraid of you.
Soon enough, it’s time to surface. As I make my way back onto the boat I’m totally geeking out. And I can’t wipe the goofy grin off of my salty face for quite some time.
“Look at Sarah crushing Tiger Beach,” Romeiro says. “I can’t remember ever having five tigers show up on a first dive.”
If you go
A shark dive with West End Watersports is $425 per person and includes tanks, weights and lunch. Purchasing dive insurance is highly recommended. Divers Alert Network rates range from $40 to $125 for a year of coverage.
The typical tourist visiting the Bahamas is likely not going to have a shark encounter at local beaches. You’d have to head way offshore (we went two hours offshore) and be specifically looking for sharks.
Sarah Sekula is a journalist and video host who tells stories about travel, health, wellness, fitness and extraordinary people. Follow her adventures on all seven continents @sarahsomewhere.
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