Tiger Beach

archive – Sharks

Tiger Beach

Photographer DAMIEN MAURIC finds inspiration in the way that divemasters interact with sharks at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas. Words by JAMIE WATTS

THE CLIENTS, OF COURSE, want to see those teeth. It’s the obvious photo, it’s what the outside world expects – demands, really. A dozen rows of jagged teeth, mouth open, coming towards our brave photographer.
Once in a while a video does the rounds on Facebook of one of the big tiger sharks grabbing and swimming off with 10 grand’s worth of camera gear.
The body language of the anxious diver is at odds with the slow, languid drift of the shark. But the diver doesn’t look to be in fear for his life – the panic is over his expensive property, and the precious photos on that memory card, not any imagined impending injury.
The big tiger shark, despite having been enticed here by chum, isn’t thrashing and tearing. If you’re a shark you don’t have hands, so your mouth and snout is how you investigate new things. The camera simply feels interesting.
And just maybe it’s fun to see the twitching reaction of these odd little creatures when you swim off with one of their two-armed, chunky metal flashing devices.
A couple of dozen large predators cruise around 10m below us.
Our media persists in training us to fear them; that they are killers. Somehow the slow, graceful scene playing out beneath us as we settle onto the sand doesn’t match this picture.
Even though this mass of large sharks has been brought here by fish-oil and blood in the water (they’d tend to steer clear of ungainly, noisy, bubble-blowing divers otherwise) it’s a slow and remarkably non-threatening scene.
This is no accident; the pair managing this encounter have spent years perfecting the art of slow, relaxed and easy.
From a distance sharks perceive their world largely through their keen sense of smell, following scent-trails upstream to their source. This is what the crates of aromatic blood, oil and other fish remains are for.
When the sharks are within a few metres they can use their excellent vision. Closer still, their unique electromagnetic sense takes over. They can feel the electrical fields of muscle and nerve impulses of prey or other interesting animals within a metre or so.
Humans, however, are probably a bit overwhelming to this sense – a high-tension, buzzing mass of electricity. Because of our warm-blooded mammalian metabolism, we are pound for pound more powerful and active than sharks are.
Our lumpy shapes and clumsy, erratic movements are so obviously alien and unsuited to efficient movement through the water. Our tense muscle tone and hyperactive nervous systems must be rather stressful for sharks to encounter.
Jamin and Mike are the buddy-team running this meeting of the worlds at Tiger Beach, Grand Bahama, one at the surface, one down with the bait-crate.
A couple of hours after the surface slick has been laid, the sharks are gathered.
Jamin is slender and quietly-spoken on the surface, and under water she has a graceful economy of movement.
No motion is wasted, her poise is relaxed, her movements slow and fluid.
Managing the sharks around the bait and the divers, she’ll occasionally lift an arm to caress one of the sharks over the gill-covers, softly guiding it.
Six years ago, when she started as a boat’s captain, just getting into the shark-handling, she was different: “I thought I needed to be strong, to push and pull. I moved faster.”
Hundreds of hours in the water with the sharks, and she moves in a language they seem to understand, a language that gently controls the ambience of this encounter.
Yet she’s still learning: “I do not claim to be a shark expert.” She’s comfortable with a general idea of these sharks’ behaviour.
It’s not really about the food. Yes, the scent of the bait attracts them, but there’s little if any feeding here. These animals are more than capable of feeding themselves, and by now most of them know what to expect when they get here.
Mike has a more masculine, active energy in the water than Jamin, and interestingly the sharks respond differently to each diver. Hook, a 3m tiger shark and one of the regular girls, seems “bold” to Mike, and photographer Damien finds her a little intimidating.
Hook has a cleft, scarred mouth, probably from a fishing-hook, leaving the teeth on her right side exposed and infected, so they’re orange.
Jamin describes her as “gentle” or “timid”, and is very aware of the regular sharks’ changing moods from day to day when they come in to the bait.

ALL THE TIGERS HAVE their individual markings; a lobster-like shape on one, a butterfly-like birthmark among the stripes on another. Many also have permanent scars from fishing gear. But they also have their individual body language.
One star, perhaps the most famous shark in the world, is Emma. She’s huge, maybe 5m long and well over a tonne, and has been coming here, delighting photographers for more than a decade.
The hand signal for Emma is a curled hand, thumb down, making more of a C than an E. She has a pigment-free white spot near her caudal fin, and a rounded dorsal fin after it was scarred four years ago, probably while mating.
Jamin spots Emma, her eyes smile, she gives the sign then spontaneously brings up her other hand opposite, making a heart-shape.
It’s love – although Jamin finds Emma sometimes a little demanding of attention.
Emma and the other regular sharks here are teaching us about shark behaviour and ecology. Emma used to disappear for a few months, then appear, freshly “beaten-up“ with mating scars, in the spring.
She then got fatter and fatter over the next few months, then headed elsewhere – we’re not sure where – to give birth to her litter late in the year. It looks as if tigers have a 14-month or more breeding cycle.
It turns out that they grow more slowly than we’d guessed, and mature only when they are already considerably bigger than an adult human. Tags implanted just under the skin in the Tiger Beach area have recorded migrations in the tigers, but we have yet to get to grips with the whys and wherefores of these migrations.
In the past few years, however, Emma doesn’t seem to be getting pregnant.
“She’s soo lightly-coloured now, looks like an old lady compared to the younger tigers with prominent stripes.”
Jamin thinks Emma might have gone through menopause – but nobody knows for sure yet if this is something sharks do.
Emma still disappears for a few months each year, but she no longer comes back all beaten up with mating scars.
The overall shape of a tiger shark is remarkably similar in proportion to that of the whale shark. Both have a wide, flat head and a barrel-shaped body with something of a back ridge, tapering into a long, keeled tail-stock.
Both have broad, long pectoral fins and long tails with a straight, wing-like upper lobe. It’s a body shape far more optimised for low-energy, long-distance travel than that of other shark species at Tiger Beach.

FROM THE DATA TAGS it seems that while some of the tigers are in this area year-round, others fan out across the north Atlantic as it warms in the summer, pushing into richer seas as these oceans warm to a tolerable temperature.
A 24°C sea surface temperature seems to be as cool as tiger sharks can take.
The bigger sharks can maintain their body temperature slightly better, perhaps, allowing them to push a little further north. Smaller sharks like to stay tropical, and many move around to the south of Cuba and as far as Aruba. Others head deep into the Gulf of Mexico.
Much of their time on these oceanic migrations seems to be spent in deeper water than divers frequent. The big sharks seem to spend time at several hundred metres, and Pacific tiger sharks have been recorded diving to more than 1100m.
Among all the sharks, adult tigers are the broadest generalists when it comes to their food. As youngsters in the tropics they mainly eat fish, small rays and medium-sized invertebrates. As they age, however, the size and range of prey they will eat broadens.
Their teeth even change as they mature – more pointed and “normal” when they’re young, broadening out to the distinctive wide, serrated “cockscomb” teeth as they grow.
The wide mouth with its broad teeth can take huge chunks out of larger prey, whether that means young albatrosses sitting on the surface, turtles or scavenged whale carcasses.
Or, extremely rarely, considering how often we enter their world, people.

THE TIGERS ARE THE STARS of the show, but the other sharks at Tiger Beach are magnificent animals in their own right. These other species aren’t built to travel as the tigers are, and tend to have more localised home ranges.
The Caribbean reef shark, the Atlantic version of the grey reef shark, is the classic large reef shark. It’s big (adults are about human-sized), sleek and looks exactly how a shark is “supposed” to look.
Though naturally standoffish, these sharks will happily gather – at a slight distance – around chum.
The larger, cigar-shaped lemon shark is named for its yellowish hue. Longer-bodied and slightly chunkier than a reef shark, the big ones can be twice the bulk of a large man. Lemon sharks can be shy – I remember spooking one while snorkelling simply by inadvertently letting a bubble escape into my snorkel.
Jamin describes lemons as having “very little respect for personal space”, which can be a bit nerve-wracking. They seem to like swimming through hoops – Jamin took hula hoops down to test this and, sure enough, the lemons went straight for them. If there are no hoops around they’ll happily swim between divers’ legs.
Often associated with mangroves, the youngsters in particular prefer shallow, warm water. Naturally nocturnal fish-feeders, lemons are social sharks, gathering in groups of a similar age. They grow slowly and can probably live into their 30s.
Both reefs and lemons are pack sharks and will become very competitive and react quickly to bait. Simply slapping the water will draw them in to investigate.
Jamin and Mike use this to separate them from the tigers; tying bait to a line from the back of the boat and slapping it on the surface.

WHILE MIKE at the surface slaps snapper for the lemons and reef sharks, Jamin and the guests on the bottom are enjoying a peaceful dive with tiger sharks.
Tiger sharks elsewhere hunt at the surface, but at Tiger Beach they seem to prefer to be on the bottom. As Jamin describes it: “Here they’re in the scavenger mood, sniffing the bottom like a little puppy looking for a bone.”
The last of the regulars is the nurse shark. More sedentary than reef sharks, its slow metabolism, as well as its large spiracles (the modified first gill openings right behind the eye) can pump water through the gills while they sit on the bottom, allowing them the luxury of not having to swim so much to oxygenate their gills.
They resemble a sock puppet with barbels and fins, but when they do move around they still have the rather elegant shark shape and swimming style.
They may not look like the classic “toothy” shark, with their small, underslung mouths and hidden teeth, but they have powerful jaws and can still be persistent at the bait.
Most nurse sharks are a little smaller than an average reef shark, although they do grow considerably bigger, and the occasional monster almost the size of an adult tiger shark has been photographed.
We’re just starting to know these animals – just at the point, of course, when their populations are plummeting.
Our blossoming understanding of the big sharks is a lovely combination of research – attaching tiny, hi-tec data-loggers to these wanderers – and time in the water getting to know individuals.
When folks like Jamin and Mike dial back our human tendency towards tension and excessive activity, we chill out, everyone relaxes and the sharks can act normally.

Appeared in DIVER May 2016


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