The shark dive a few minutes boat ride from Coxen Hole (the capital city of the Bay Island of Roatan some forty miles off the northern coast of Honduras) is one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It begins prosaically, like any other dive briefing, going over times, distances, depths, however unlike most recreational dives, this experience guarantees shark encounters. They do so with bait, a whole bucket worth of fish for the sharks, sixteen female black tipped reef sharks that come out to play with the white bucket of fish. To be honest, they seem to ignore the great apes swimming around them, they are waiting patiently for the lid of the bucket to get pried off and nothing more.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m not scared of sharks, there is much easier prey in the ocean. But saying that and seeing these gliding, elegant killing machines cruising around you is something else. Seeing them lay into the fish in the bucket is something else indeed. I’m fine with sixteen foot black tipped reef sharks but put me into the same square footage as a couple of great whites and I doubt I’d have the same nuanced rational reaction. But these were decidedly not Great Whites, only black tipped reef sharks, but they had eyes that burrowed into you with an uneasy intelligence not easy to dismiss.
It’s only about 35 feet down, nothing too deep at all but there is a distinct acknowledgement that this is very much the territory of the sharks. We were clearly out of our element, Andrea and I with our backs up against the wall of the reef, keeping the constantly moving, roving, questing heads of the apex predators of the ocean forever in front, in our frame of view, so they were unable to sneak up behind us. At first I was having trouble staying down, so Andrea made sure to keep me from floating away. My mask was also fogging up a bit and I was sucking my air at first in huge gulps, feeling a heartbeat hammering in my chest as these majestic, fluid creatures glided past, completely at ease in their natural habitat.
Eventually they gave us the all clear to go out and free with swim with the sharks. Moving past these creatures like a fish is an insane experience. Utterly surreal and completely invigorating! Eventually the guides called us back to the wall, where we resumed our previous positions prior to the feeding. One of them tried to make off with the bucket early but the lid was secured tightly in place and the other sharks swarmed around him so one of our guides was able to recover the bucket.
When the bucket lid came off the destruction was instantaneous, the chaos of the sixteen black tipped reef sharks fighting with every ounce of powerful muscle in their bodies to secure food was intense. The picture doesn't do it justice, but it does highlight a very tough grouper mixing it up getting right in there with the big boys!
It’s terrifying and yet ultimately as the bad ass grouper proves, these sharks are here for the easy food and nothing else. I'm not entirely sure I would feel the same way swimming around great whites as I did around the black-tipped reef sharks, but there is an undeniable, fluid beauty and intelligence behind their black eyes. These are not the demons that I have feared since watching Jaws as a child; they are so much more complex and curious, so much more majestic than Spielberg portrayed. Swimming with them, feeling the displacement of water, the wake of their smooth bodies through the water is something akin to flying with eagles, something even the most accomplished of wing suit skydivers can't claim to have experienced.
I smiled in the face of predators from another age of existence, I laughed in their collective maws and I made sure to keep one eye on Andrea the entire time. Even during the free swim time, I didn't let her get too far away from me. And we got some pretty sweet teeth from the ocean floor. Not too shabby. That's what happens when you try to grab the bucket before they take off the lid. We found a local craftsman who made the teeth into necklaces. I haven't taken mine off yet.