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 ch19p140© John Bantin

In his latest book Shark Bytes John Bantin has compiled 32 gripping, inspiring and fascinating stories of his  encounters with sharks

JohnBantinShark Bytes is a wonderful collection of first-hand encounters with sharks by diving veteran John Bantin, accompanied by compelling imagery. Throughout his 21-year diving career, John Bantin has visited the world's top shark diving destinations, including The Bahamas, South Africa and Cocos Island. In Shark Bytes, he looks back on his encounters with dozens of shark species, some of which were more precarious than others, and other marine life. 

The excerpt below is a section on a riveting encounter with tiger sharks in The Bahamas.  

 

Chapter 19 - Tiger Tiger

[...]

“Thump!”

I felt the impact on my back but I wasn’t sure which part of me was hit as I was accelerated away. I felt myself being carried through the water like a helpless ragdoll, the water rushing past my mask. I remember hoping that I wasn’t losing too much blood although, after the initial impact, I felt no pain. It turned into a dreamlike sequence, an out-of-body experience. I became strangely passive, almost resigned to my fate. I was like a wildebeest in the helpless grip of an attacking lion, only I was underwater. Was I going to die peacefully? It certainly felt like it. I didn’t panic. Panicking underwater is a precursor to drowning.

My breathing remained normal. My heart rate probably too. I couldn’t see my attacker. I’d been expertly taken from behind. Luckily the enormous beast had grabbed me by my equipment and not my body. Doing nothing had turned out to be the right thing to do on my part.

One feels strangely detached when a huge tiger shark grabs you by your scuba tank and swims off with you but that was what had happened. It soon decided the metal was not tasty enough and discarded me. The whole sequence had probably lasted only sixty seconds but that’s sixty seconds too much in my book. Beto Barbosa, the Brazilian master-baiter, chased it off and thankfully it dropped me from its grip.

I returned still holding my camera rig to where Beto had originally been with the box of bait, dangling as it was on a line from our boat at the surface. The problem had been that it was becoming very breezy up above and our boat was now swinging wildly at anchor. The effect was to send the bait box in a wide arc so that it became impossible not to find yourself underneath it from time to time unless you stayed far away – and that’s not what it takes to get good pictures of the sharks that are drawn to the smell of the dead fish within it like flies to a honeypot.

 ch19p142© John Bantin

Then I got grabbed again. The same thumping impact and the same feeling of being carried off by an invisible force. The helplessness as the water rushed past was followed by the same feeling of relief as I was eventually released from that dreadful grip.

After it happened to me twice on the same dive and I had started to think my luck was running out, I was only grateful that it hadn’t grabbed me by a more vulnerable part of my body. Stuart Cove, shark-wrangler to the stars, obliged by chasing it off the second time. Under such circumstances you know who your friends are.

One of the tigers, ‘Emma’, as the American operators call her, has now made a habit of grabbing cameras and swimming off with them. If it’s a tiger shark’s idea of a jolly jape, she’s probably got a tie-up with a regular eBay advertiser. My problem was that this tiger took my tank while I was still wearing it. What do you do when a big five-metre-long stripy fish with teeth grabs you? Well, there’s not much you can do.

These are big striped animals with huge unemotional black eyes and a stealthy approach to eating. Their mouths are so capacious that they occasionally tried to swallow the galvanised iron bait box as it dangled from its chain. You don’t want to turn your back on one of these animals or disaster might ensue. When there are several tiger sharks circling round, this requirement becomes more difficult to achieve. You find yourself focussing on one while another sneaks up from behind.

Normally, smaller sharks defer to larger ones but the lemon sharks were not impressed and continued to mob the water immediately round the bait box like lot of angry teenagers. The huge tigers came in slowly and determinedly like their grannies.

If I wanted close-up pictures, I needed to be close to that bait box. Several times I had to push an impressive yet persistent tiger shark away from me because it was simply getting too close. I was surprised to find that they felt quite squidgy in places, especially behind the gill slits. Stuart and Beto constantly needed to push them away too but the tigers were compassionless in a timeless and cold-blooded way.

The tiger sharks would swim around the periphery of the feeding lemon sharks, before heading in to the crowd and doing something unspeakable with those massive and unforgiving maws. They did this repeatedly. It was always necessary to keep an eye on where they were and twice I had failed in this. I don’t know what the other guest divers thought when they witnessed my two predicaments with the tiger sharks, but they chose to abandon the idea of making a second dive that day and sat it out rather grumpily on the boat. However, just over one year later in July 2014, John Petty, American chiropractor and underwater photographer aged 63 years, went missing during such a shark dive at dusk. He was diving under the auspices of Jim Abernethy, an American operator from Fort Lauderdale, from the vessel Shear Water. At the time of writing, only the diver’s mask and BC had been found. When divers go missing, many theories abound as to what happened. Maybe this man was also grabbed by a tiger which swam off with him, but unnoticed by the others in the dark. The result is that he might have panicked and drowned in the process, was unable to find his way back to the group of divers and was lost at sea or even sustained a fatal bite and died from loss of blood.

The buckles of his BC were found to have been released. Sharks can’t undo such clips but if, like me, he was being carried by his tank, he might have climbed out of his kit to let the shark swim off with it. No longer with any air supply he would have struck out for the surface, but even had he got there, alone in the dark, on a current and probably no longer with any light, his predicament even then might have been hopeless.

On the other hand the shark might have grabbed his camera and pursuing it, he got separated from the other divers and was unable to find his way back. He may have simply been disorientated in the dark, swum off alone and got lost without a shark being involved at all. The ocean is a big place to look for a missing diver in, especially at night, and we will probably never know the truth.

Jim Abernethy himself has been accidentally injured by a shark during one such shark-feeding dive, resulting in him being hospitalised, and lost another client diver in 2008, 49-year-old Austrian lawyer Markus Groh, who was bitten on the calf probably by one of the competing lemon sharks or maybe a bull shark that was present at such a feed. Despite efforts to save him, he died on board the boat due to loss of blood caused by the injury. At the time of Markus Groh’s fatality, Abernethy was reported as saying that in twenty-five years of running shark dives, he never thought this would happen. It was interesting to see the polarisation of opinion. The regular shark-diving community closed ranks behind the Shear Water operation while the mainstream press had a field day with shark attack stories.

Copyright © 2015 John Bantin. All rights reserved.

 

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