Sharks of the Bahamas

Lying in water only a foot deep, I watched as the juvenile shark meandered lazily through the mangrove, already exuding the confidence innate to a supreme creature in its domain. It was nearly 100ºF in Bimini, and the mosquitoes were thick and relentless, swarming on any bare skin. Yet by slipping my head only inches below the water’s surface, I entered another realm. I was transfixed watching the little sharks, perhaps 12 to 18 inches long, as they swam without effort beneath mangrove roots and over the muddy bottom. It was a shark scene quite unlike any other I had observed before: baby lemon sharks within their mangrove nurseries. It was an experience as fascinating to me as any encounter with mature sharks in open water. As I lay there wearing only a wetsuit, mask and snorkel, I thought about how vital this fragile ecosystem was for sharks and how crucial sharks are to the health of the world’s oceans.

Like many divers, I am under the spell of sharks, wanting to spend time with them whenever possible and never tiring of their special blend of grace and power. Even these tiny lemon pups, only a few months old, possessed that blend. I was utterly content lying in that shallow water for hours on end, just watching them move. I couldn’t help but think back to my first shark encounters, nearly 30 years ago in the waters off New England. Those were exhilarating days of high anticipation as I steamed offshore and spent hours drifting in the chilly water, watching stunning indigo blue sharks nosing through the slick. Experiencing one-on-one encounters with those blues had me hooked, and like an addict, I wanted more. As the voyage of my career got underway, I steered it towards sharks as often as I could.

Diver swims next to a shark

As the years progressed, the primary emotion I felt for sharks morphed from excitement to concern. It was becoming evident that sharks were in serious trouble worldwide. In nearly every location I worked, I heard the same thing: “You should have been here a few years ago when we used to see so many more sharks.” It was easy to believe; I was seeing the decline myself. There were fewer sharks in the places I once saw many and it was taking much longer to find those that remained. It began to feel like a race against time; traveling the globe to take pictures of animals I feared might not be there if I waited too long.

In 2004 and 2005, I proposed two stories to my editor at National Geographic magazine, stories I hoped would shed light on problems occurring in Earth’s oceans and show readers the magnificence of the marine wildlife we need to protect. The first story was to be a feature on the Global Fish Crisis, which would look at the problems of overfishing, a substantial component of which was the shark fishery. I wanted to approach this story like a war photographer, making images of things few had seen before, from the methods used to catch fish (like gillnets and longlines) to the destructive practices that accompany many such methods such as by-catch and shark finning.

I wanted the second story to be a celebratory piece about sharks, with pictures that brought readers into the sea for an intimate look at these misunderstood animals. Despite the affection many divers have for these animals, sharks are being slaughtered at alarming rates and little is being done to stem the tide. National Geographic speaks to a much broader audience than only divers; I wanted as many people as possible to grasp the horrible reality that more than 100 million sharks are being killed each year, and this is having dire consequences on the overall health of the world’s oceans.

Caribbean reef sharks

While researching locations for the shark story, I considered many potential places but settled on the Bahamas for several reasons. Although there are some great places in the world to see specific species, the Bahamas was one place I knew I could photograph multiple species in a variety of habitats, thereby providing a broader view of these animals. The Bahamas had mangrove nurseries, coral reefs, shallow sea grass beds and deep oceanic trenches, all perfect ecosystems for sharks. I’d spent time over the years diving with sharks in the Bahamas and from my perspective, sharks were doing better there than in many other places in the world.

The combination of great natural geography and government protection was delivering great results. My friend, Jim Abernethy, had also discovered new locations for species that were of great interest to me, and predictability in finding such animals is a big plus in terms of my fieldwork. With the story approved, I returned to the Bahamas to spend about 10 weeks in the company of sharks.

There is something about the Bahamian blue waters that is always exciting. No matter how many times I dive in the Bahamas, I continue to feel a thrill whenever I am suiting up and looking over the side of the boat into those rich, vibrant waters. They seem to glow from a light source from deep below. Some of my first experiences in the Bahamas were in the mid-1990s, when I dove with Caribbean reef sharks off Nassau on the island of New Providence while working on a film for the Discovery Channel. Stuart Cove and his crew were my guides, and I was blown away by the up-close-and-personal encounters that were possible with these animals. Photographically it was a perfect situation: beautiful backdrops, shallow, clear water and plenty of sharks. I could shoot wide-angle seascapes or intimate portraits on the same dive and do it again and again, day after day.

Bearded man holds a lemon shark
lemon shark (being held by Samuel Gruber in a display of tonic immobility)

It was Cove that first impressed on me the value of sharks to the local economy. A few years before I first photographed sharks in the Bahamas, a longline fishing boat had targeted sharks off Nassau and devastated local stocks. The primary purpose of killing the sharks was for their fins, a sought-after commodity in Asian markets. Divers, of course, and dive operators like Cove were outraged at this senseless slaughter and short-term approach to business, not to mention the domino effect removing sharks from marine habitats has on the health of the ocean. It was determined that a single, living Caribbean reef shark was worth about $200,000 to the economy during its lifetime, a figure corroborated by legendary shark scientist Samuel Gruber (coincidentally my mentor for the mangrove work I did with sharks in Bimini). It was clear that tens of thousands of visitors from around the globe would come to the Bahamas just to see and swim with sharks. The ecotourism value of sharks to this island nation then was incredible, especially compared to the few dollars a single fishing boat might make selling shark fins. In 1993 the Bahamas made it illegal to export shark fins from the Bahamas.

Over the last several years, I have photographed some of the world’s most remote and pristine coral reef ecosystems, places like Kingman Reef, the Southern Line Islands and the Phoenix Islands. All located in the central south pacific, these remote locations are home to amazingly healthy reef habitats. During each expedition I worked with a team of scientists that have determined a number of things about healthy coral reefs, chief among which is that truly healthy reefs systems have a biomass dominated by predators. In fact, about 85 percent of the biomass consists of predatory fish like snappers, groupers and sharks. Everything in these systems works in harmony and every species has a role, but the message is clear – sharks are a bellwether species. If you want healthy corals, you must have healthy shark populations. As ocean temperatures continue to rise and the frequency and severity of bleaching events occur on coral reefs, the best thing we can do to help their resilience and survivability is to protect them and the animals that live there. Without sharks, reefs are far more vulnerable to decline. By taking steps to conserve sharks, the Bahamas has helped their marine environment’s future.

Whitetip sharks swims next to a yellow cage that has a diver inside

While working on my shark assignment a few years ago, I learned from Jimmy Abernethy that sport fishermen were spotting oceanic whitetip sharks in the central Bahamas. Stories were told of fishermen reeling in yellowfin tuna while oceanic whitetips took the fish off their lines. This species of shark was once commonly seen offshore in the Bahamas, but I hadn’t heard of anyone seeing one underwater in decades.

This likely had to do with the fact that oceanic whitetips had declined worldwide by 98 percent. They were highly prized for their large fins and had been decimated by longlining in pelagic waters around the planet. But with the Bahamian “fish tales” in my ears and an optimistic spirit, I headed off with Jim and shark biologist Wes Pratt for a 16-day, highly-speculative voyage.

Because we would be working in the water column and not on the bottom, I brought along a shark cage as a safe haven in case we needed it. We spent day after day cruising, diving and searching with no luck. Then one afternoon, we struck gold. It was late in the day; we had positioned our boat over a bank and throttled back the engine when a large dorsal appeared off our stern. It was splashed with white.

I flew from the wheelhouse down to the deck, suited up as quickly as possible and slid into the crystal-blue water. Grabbing my housing from my assistant, Mark, I swam off to find the shark, knowing that Jim would soon be in the water as well. She materialized at a distance, a female oceanic whitetip about nine feet long, and she moved directly toward me. She reached me in seconds and was highly curious, bouncing her nose off my dome port repeatedly. I made a series of pictures, my heart excitedly racing all the while. I remembered the shark cage and Pratt back on board, and I wanted to get both into the water. Jimmy and I climbed back on the boat and quickly prepped the cage. We lowered it into the sea, where it glowed vibrantly against the deep, blue, featureless void.

The shark eventually settled into swimming large, lazy circles around the three of us in our cage, often moving in close to check us out, then returning to her orbital path. In the late afternoon light, she was absolutely stunning with her long pectorals and golden colored back. Light levels slowly dropped and reluctantly we exited the water, leaving our spectacular oceanic whitetip to her journeys as we steamed for port.

I have had many magical shark encounters in the Bahamas with tiger sharks, bull sharks, blacktips, oceanic whitetips, great hammerheads and more. I believe I am better for having such experiences, and I find I am as respectful of and fascinated by these animals as ever. It has been said that sharks have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years because they are perfect and no further evolutionary change is necessary. A few days in the company of Bahamian sharks is all that’s required to know this is true. I hope that mankind can evolve with the same sensitivity and grace.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Fall 2010