Hand-Feeding Giant Sharks!
Can’t you feel ’em circlin’ (closin’ in) honey?
Can’t you feel ’em swimmin’ around?
You got fins to the left, fins to the right,
and you’re the only bait in town.
—“Fins” performed by Jimmy Buffett; written by Buffett,
Deborah McColl, Barry Chance and Tom Corcoran
Each year, large numbers of nomadic hammerhead sharks congregate in Bimini’s warm waters, providing an opportunity for close encounters for those willing. While getting up close to big sharks isn’t for everyone—in fact, it’s often the stuff of nightmares—for certified divers who seek a unique experience, local businesses stage shark feedings in which trained divemasters hand-feed fish to the large predators.
The encounter on Bimini, which is the closest Bahamian island to the United States, begins as divers are ferried to a secluded offshore dive site where the boat drops anchor on the sandy bottom. Divemasters then set up the underwater feeding area by carrying down buckets of fish and drawing a line in the sand, behind which participants kneel to take pictures of the action or simply gawk in wonder.
Once all divers are settled, the sharks begin to arrive. At first there are mostly large nurse sharks looking for a quick handout. But soon, the main players appear in the form of 12-foot to 14-foot giant hammerheads. Swimming slowly and swaying their heads left and right, they explore every aspect of the gathering using eyes located on opposing ends of their flat heads. This odd design gives them an echolocation ability to track and find small prey. Divemasters then begin to coax the hammerheads closer by dangling foot-long fish kept in a closed bucket.
During our dive with Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center, located at Bimini Big Game Club Resort & Marina, we were delighted to see a few large tiger sharks join the feeding. It was unusual to see two apex predator species behaving civilly with one other as they lined up for the food. But sharks live a long time, so they try not to get hurt while feeding. (A typical lifespan for a hammerhead is 20 to 30 years.) As a result, the process appears quite leisurely as the animals take care not to compete with each other and smaller sharks defer to larger ones.
Although the divers in our group remained behind the line in the sand, the large sharks would often swim beyond the feeder and pass within just a few feet of us, which was a heart-pumping experience.
Back at the marina, the dive shop had found a novel way to extend the shark encounter: A narrow cage attached to the side of the dock allowed divers, breathing off a surface-supplied air system, to watch huge bull sharks as they patrolled among the boats in the marina.
SHARKS IN LOCAL WATERS
Bimini is just 60 miles off the Florida coast. And as sharks, by nature, are solitary nomads of the sea that travel widely to feed and breed, the same shark species found in the Bahamas can also be found in waters closer to home. This has naturally created controversy regarding shark feeding and diving.
People who oppose the concept believe that the practice is unsafe and that it can change behavior and cause sharks to start associating people with food. Supporters, on the other hand, believe that allowing people to view sharks often results in a better understanding of the species and a way to see sharks less as the stuff of horror films and more as the victims of overfishing and wanton destruction.
A University of Miami study in 2012 found that showing sharks in a positive, non-aggressive light may bolster shark conservation. Goodness knows, sharks need protection—more than 100 million are killed each year, mostly for their fins, which bring a high price in many Asian cultures.
In the U.S., a number of states, such as Florida and Hawaii, have banned shark feeding in state waters. And in 2016, a bill was proposed in the Congress to ban shark feeding in federal waters as well. However, if the federal ban is ever put into place, divers would have to travel no farther than the Bahamas to join a shark feed such as the one in Bimini—which has been done there safely for years.
For more information on shark feedings contact: Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center at the Bimini Big Game Club Resort & Marina in Alice Town, North Bimini, Bahamas; 800-867-4764; biminiscubacenter.com.