Septuagenarian shark divers*
*…plus one octogenarian
What’s the secret of a long, happy life? Diving with enormous sharks is the unlikely answer, provided by three of the diving world’s all-time greats who are most certainly not ready to hang up their fins.
In January 2012, three long-time friends, film-makers and true diving pioneers reunited for one more dive expedition in search of sharks and adventure. The fact that their combined ages totalled 235 years and their aggregate number of dives – at a conservative estimate – exceeds 60,000 does not mean they had nothing to learn from the experience. Far from it. For Stan Waterman and husband-and-wife Ron and Valerie Taylor, every single shark dive they have made over the past 50 years has been a learning experience.
For those unfamiliar with the history of diving, and of shark diving in particular, the trio of Waterman, Taylor and Taylor is synonymous with shark film-making, most notably for the 1969 documentary Blue Water, White Death. The film is an account of an arduous nine-month expedition to find and photograph underwater the near-mythic man-eater, the great white shark. Stan went on to become an acclaimed underwater film-maker and writer, while the Taylors established themselves as a force in marine documentaries. Today, they are fêted grandees in the world of diving, their influence stretching across many areas of our sport, not least in the arena of shark diving.
Indeed, much of today’s shark-diving protocols came as a direct result of the pioneering work these three have done – experimenting, testing theories, discovering the true nature of sharks and how to dive safely with them. Their contribution to diving has been incalculable, but rather than entertain any notion of retirement, the trio are always up for a new adventure, especially if it involves sharks. Of all the large, predatory, potentially dangerous shark species, they have spent the most time with great white sharks, so it was only natural to seek out its equally fascinating cousin: the tiger shark.
The tiger shark does have a reputation for being dangerous to man, and deservedly so. It is a large shark – its maximum length is said to exceed that of the great white – and it has a wide, broad mouth filled with flat, curved teeth with serrated edges that function like a ripsaw blade when the shark grabs onto an object and thrashes it from side to side.
I chartered Jim Abernethy’s liveaboard, Shear Water, which has taken hundreds of divers to visit the tiger sharks of the northern Bahamas. On our way, the trio reminisced about their previous tiger shark experiences. It seems you never forget your first tiger shark.
Stan Waterman says: ‘Many years ago at Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas, a small tiger shark, probably no more than six feet, attacked me when I was spearfishing. I was diving without scuba and ascending with a struggling hogfish on my spear. The small tiger came in fast, of course, attracted by the wounded fish. I was using one of the old Arbalete spearguns with a long metal stock. The tiger came at my legs with his mouth open. I jammed the stock onto his head. He seized it in his mouth and I could hear his teeth grate on the metal. That turned him away. When he returned, I was already into the boat. It was a classic attack of the kind that accounted for many accidents during the heyday of spearfishing.’
In Australia, Ron Taylor had a similar experience: ‘I spent 20 years as a spearfisher, and the first potentially dangerous shark that was attracted to my wounded fish was a tiger shark. I was surprised to see that the shark was not interested in me, only my bleeding fish.’
For Valerie, it is different: ‘In all my years of working in the ocean – during which time I have met many tiger sharks – not one has been threatening in any way. Neither has one been afraid of us, though they should be the ones who are afraid. I have seen two tiger sharks killed not in defence or for science, but for the fun of killing a large creature. Sharks do not kill for pleasure; only man and his dog kill for the fun of killing. Most shark attacks on humans take place because the shark has made a mistake, or simply out of curiosity. We are not their natural prey. If we were, no person could enter the ocean with safety.’
Eventually, the boat reached Tiger Beach, a seemingly unremarkable shallow-water sandbank a few miles from Grand Bahama Island. The anchor took hold and Abernethy’s crew deployed half a dozen large plastic crates full of filleted frozen fish carcasses and heads, compliments of the fish cleaners at a local seafood market. The scent of all that fish carried over the bank and along with the current flow, drawing in all manner of investigative sharks, though the first and most numerous to arrive were the lemon sharks.
Within a few hours, 25 or more lemon sharks – each a couple of metres long – swirled and cruised beneath the Shear Water, nuzzling the bait crates but unable to get a taste at the attractant fish bits inside. Divers went in to watch the swirling mass of yellow-brown lemon sharks. Every now and then, a larger piece of fish fillet or skin would work its way out of one of the plastic crates and float free of its enclosure. The shark nearest that could detect the sudden presence of something edible, would come alive as if charged with electricity, and quickly snap the bit up, sending nearby sharks into a briefly frenetic hustle.
The septuagenarians and octogenarian joined the other divers on the bottom. All the participants were under orders to wear all-black covering on every part of their bodies, from hoods and gloves to wetsuits and dive gear, yet individual personalities were easy to discern by their individual still and video cameras and the irregularities of diving fin manufacturers. All divers had been generously weighted so they could stay on the sandy bottom with ease: when diving with predatory sharks, being in mid-water or the surface is generally seen as ‘unsafe’, making you more of a stand-out object for curious sharks.
Stan settled to the bottom, hefted a large black Gates video housing and pressed it to his facemask and one good eye. (A true pirate, Stan lost one of his eyes to cancer the previous year, and has been terrorising people since with pirate’s eye patches customised by his artist daughter Susy, who paints sea creatures or unmentionable things onto them.) Jim stayed with Stan as a guardian angel/shark wrangler/Stan wrangler, moving him into position to film the sharks, and moving him out of the way to avoid being accidentally bitten by the sharks.
Though the sharks were focusing on the bait crate, there was something about Stan’s fluttering, octogenarian finning style that really attracted their attention. After witnessing several close ‘investigations’, Jim was close to having heart failure: no-one wants the famous Stan Waterman to get bitten by a shark on their watch. It was the first time in ten years that Jimmy did not get a chance to
make images or film sequences, so busy was he watching Stan’s back (and legs).
The Taylors were easy to recognise underwater, as both Valerie’s still and Ron’s video housings were bright silver, built by Ron in his machine shop. Also, they wear blue Cressi Rondine fins from the 1970s and move about the water with the same grace as the sharks they film.
A favoured tiger shark – named Emma after a Shear Water client – appeared from the distance and approached, attracted by the scent of the bait (and, no doubt, conditioned by the hundreds of baited dives carried out by the Shear Water over the past decade). Emma, who is more than 4m in length, approached slowly and was concerned only with the aromas of the bait crate. She tolerated the hyperkinetic swirl of the lemon sharks; she was oblivious to the flashes of light from photographers flash guns. Her eyes looked over the divers as she passed, but her teeth remained hidden beneath her large but tightly closed mouth.
Again and again, Emma approached the divers and bait crates. She was photographed and filmed and photographed and filmed again and again. Not once was there an anxious moment for a diver or for a shark.
The three old friends, who have made a life of experiencing sharks, had another adventure that was as fulfilling as their first shark encounters. That raised another point: that their memories of shark encounters past were still so vivid. The ocean and its inhabitants have a remarkable power to alter our perception of time and to experience beauty in a way that is, for some reason, impossible on land. I’ll let my friends explain, in their own words.
Valerie says: ‘Sharks fascinate me because they are nature’s perfect creation. To know one in the wild is a privilege that I wish more people could experience. My fear is that we will have hunted them into extinction before their importance in the balance of life is realised. The tiger shark experiences in the Bahamas trip are absolutely delightful, especially Emma, who is a sweet-natured fish with incredible charm and knows exactly how to perform for the cameras. Our host, Jimmy Abernethy, has known Emma for a long time and, I feel, loves her very much, probably in the same way that dog owners love their dogs.’
As for Stan Waterman, the presence of large sharks in the Bahamas was especially pleasing. ‘In my half-century of diving, Jim Abernethy’s roundup was the most gratifying. Nonetheless, the number of sharks in our encounters on the Bahama Banks was stunning. The biggest lemon sharks I have ever seen were uncountable. Three tiger sharks on one dive all cruised about at an easy, comfortable pace, absent of any threatening behaviour. All those encounters have been learning experiences in a growing awareness of how we may encounter some of these once mindlessly feared great predators with a degree of rapport never dreamed of years ago.’
Underlying all such human–shark encounters by careful divers is a sense of respect for the ancient predators, an understanding that we are visitors in their world. Ron explains: ‘I have been diving with sharks for over 50 years. It has been a life of adventure and education. I am still fascinated, learning something new on every dive. It has been quite distressing for me to see first-hand the tremendous slaughter of sharks that has taken place in recent years. I am happy to see that there are still a lot of large predatory sharks still left in the Bahamas.’ •