Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#525: The Shark Whisperer

Last week I wrote about my trip to the Bahamas to dive for a week on board Blackbeard's dive boat and said I'd continue that adventure story. I keep my promises, but you'll have to wait 'til next week because today I'm going to write about the main reason I went to Nassau in the first place... to film sharks! Since it is the weekend of the annual Avalon Harbor Clean-Up, I thought this would be an interesting topic for our SCUBA diving visitors to read... and even you landlubbers here on Catalina.

Sharks? Weren't you scared, Dr. Bill? Well, if we were back in June of 1975 when I first saw Spielberg's "Jaws," I would undoubtedly answer "YES!" Back then I worked with Jean-Michel Cousteau on Project Ocean Search... but I was doing land-based ecology since I stopped diving after seeing the movie. While waiting in front of the theater, a former student of mine introduced me to a surfer who had been bitten by a great white off Pt. Conception and had extensive scars on his torso. Of course a few years later, Jean-Michel saw me suiting up for a dive at Toyon Bay and said "I thought you stopped diving? What got you back in the water?" I told him I had recently seen "Jaws 2." He smiled.

Since then I've dived caged and uncaged with great whites here and at Guadalupe Island, enjoyed the incredible density and diversity of sharks in Tahitian waters, giant strided on top of a poor leopard shark on the Great Barrier Reef and filmed a host of shark species in our waters including blues, makos, soupfins, horn and swell sharks. I no longer carry the big "Jim Bowie" dive knife I had back in the 60s and 70s, and don't keep looking behind me to see if anything is approaching from my blind side. I made my peace with sharks long ago... I promised I would no longer eat them if they agreed to do the same! They've kept that bargain... so far.

As for my landlubber friends, I have to ask the following questions. Do you pet dogs you don't know? Do you sit under coconut trees with a Mai Tai while vacationing on beaches in the tropics? Do you put coins in a vending machine to get a cold soft drink? Do you have an often irrational fear of honey bees? Do you drive the "Lost Angeles" freeways? All of these kill more people each year than sharks! You who stay on land should be the ones that are scared... and the sharks should be very scared of us since humans kill tens of millions of them each year, often just for their fins with the carcasses discarded at sea.

So, yes... the good doctor was thrilled to be able to dive with and film sharks in the Bahamas. We saw them on at least seven dives, but four of the dives were spectacular experiences. These were at the feeding sites used by the Blackbeard's boat (Split Coral Head) and Stuart Cove (Runway Wall, Shark Arena). After returning from the week on board Blackbeard's I decided I needed to experience Stuart Cove's world renowned Shark Adventure Dive and spent an afternoon out on their boat (a Newton 46 just like Catalina Diver's Supply has here).

I doubt even this wordsmith can adequately describe the experience of filming such incredible sights as the shark feeding dives. Anywhere from 16 to perhaps 40 sharks swam around us and over to the bait that attracted them (it certainly was not my pleasingly plump body that drew them in). The Blackbeard crew hung a frozen bait ball about 15 feet off the bottom so the sharks were slightly overhead and did not diminish the visibility. The Stuart Cove crew actually "hand fed" the sharks using a short metal rod to spear the fish heads and other body parts (not ours), and offer them to the energetic elasmobranchs. At some point I will have my hours of footage (80 gigabytes) edited down to a few HD episodes of my cable TV show for the audience here on the island to watch.

I haven't reviewed all the video, but I believe most of the sharks I filmed were Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi). They are found in the western Atlantic from Florida to Brazil. These sharks are coastal in nature and are usually found near coral reefs in depths to 100 ft (30 m). Most are in the six to eight foot range although they may reach a length of 10 feet. Based on my experience humans are far from their preferred diet which includes smaller sharks, rays, bony fish and octopus or squid. Apparently, despite being common in the Bahamas, relatively little is known about their reproductive behavior. Females deliver 4-6 young between 23-27" (60-70 cm) long which are born live.

Another species regularly seen on such shark dives is the blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus). I'm not an expert on Caribbean sharks, and viewing them through my tiny viewfinder as I film makes identification difficult until I actually review the footage on my HDTV. Blacktips are normally up to 5 ft (1.5 m) although some reach 6 ft (2 m). These sharks are found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters. They feed largely on schooling fish such as sardine or anchovy. The 1-10 young are carried for about a year before being born live at 16-27" (40-70 cm).

Before writing this I spent about 60 hours editing all the footage from my trip to the Bahamas. Since video editing requires extreme manual dexterity on my computer keyboard, I am quite sure that I still have all 10 fingers (not to mention the hands to which they are attached) and my toes appear to be all present and accounted for as well despite the potential for frostbite now that I am back in chilly southern California. I can hardly wait for my trip to the Philippines in April to defrost!

© 2013 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Shark approaching while backflushing its fills, and one coming in from above; Stuart Cove
"shark whisperer" tickling and feeding shark

Shark whisperer surrounded by 30-40 reef sharks

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2013 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia