Diving with Tiger Sharks and Photographing in the Bahamas 2016
The trip always starts with the packing. I packed as efficiently as possible. Years of experience has taught me what I need and what is not necessary. I picked up a nice bottle of rum to enjoy after the dives and to with the delicious and fresh meals.
Canon 5D MKIII
EF16 – 35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF15mm f/2.8 fisheye
Glass dome ports
2 Inon Z 240 strobes
Backup: a 2nd Canon 5D MKIII and Nexus housing (this one is a MKII housing converted for the MKIII)
We boarded the boat in West Palm Beach and were on our way to the Bahamas overnight. After the stop for customs and immigration checks we headed out to deep water for our first dives.
The first sharks to react to our chum and scent trail were the lemon sharks and some caribbean reef sharks. It always takes a few dives to bring in the tiger sharks. The day there was just one small one then by the last day we were attracting 5 at a time.
During the course of the dive week, the captain moves the boat to different locations. One of my favorite is the beds of eel grass with their green glow. We also anchor near a reef where we can get shots of sharks cruising over the sponges and fans and also see some reef fish.
Basking Sharks are the 2nd biggest fish in the ocean. (whale sharks are the biggest)
A basking shark can grow to over 10m (33 ft) long and weight several tons. Their mouth can open 1 metre wide for feeding on plankton. They filter fed on the plankton by sieving out the minuscule animals from the water column using special gill rakers. These rakers are specially adapted bone which sit in the sharks gills and act in a similar fashion as baleen in fliter-feeding whales. They are efficient and can filter up to 1.5 million litres of water her hour.
Scotland has some of the richest cold waters in the world and every spring the oceanic and weather cycles create optimal conditions for explosive blooms of plankton. The sharks migrate from their winter feeding grounds to feast on the plankton and for mating.
Historically basking sharks have been a staple of fisheries because of their size, (former) abundance, and slow movement. Today basking sharks are still hunted all over the world for their livers containing a vast amount of oil. The oil is used in cosmetics, perfume and lubricants. Synthetics and conservation efforts have stopped the hunting in some places and they are now protected. They are also victims of the shark fin trade.
Basking Sharks are a cosmopolitan migratory species, found in all of the world’s temperate oceans. In additon they prefer to swim close the shore and also enjoy swimming near the water’s surface swimming at a slow pace while they filter. They travel through the Mediterranean Sea, Pacific and Atlantic ocean, sea of Japan, New Zealand, and Southern Australia. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are great places to spot them as well. At times they travel in groups of about 100 but also are most often seen traveling alone.
Like many sharks, ovoviviparous basking sharks develop embryos which first rely on a yolk sac with no placental connection and develop inside the female. Gestation is unknown but might be a year or more. The small young are born fully developed at 1.5 – 2m. From the only pregnant mother ever caught we learned that the brood can be six pups. The lifespan is not known. Experts estimate about 50 years.
This article appeared in Issue #87 of Underwater Photographer Magazine UWPMag.com
Northeast off the coast of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico lies the small island of Isla Mujeres. The island is approximately five miles long and one half mile at is widest point. Just a short ferry ride from Cancun, the island offers beaches, scuba diving, and a relaxing place to shop and dine. In the summer months the island plays host to guests drawn in by the whale shark ecotourism trips. Guests travel out into the Gulf of Mexico and snorkel with the gentle giants. If they are lucky they also may encounter giant manta rays.
Isla Mujeres is best known for wintertime fishing and game fishing of sailfish. The sailfish attract many fishermen, but also underwater photographers. Watching the great coordinated predation of the bait balls is a thrill and photographing it underwater is challenging but rewarding. The sailfish work together as a fast moving team to keep the baitfish tightly packed in the bait ball. Being in the water to witness during this action is as exciting as catching a sailfish on the rod.
Adding to the adventure of Isla Mujeres is the chance to see shortfin mako sharks up close. Captain Anthony Mendillo is now offering this opportunity to photographers and shark fans during the winter season.
Captain Anthony was the pioneer of the sailfish freediving experience. Also he was involved in early efforts too preserve the sailfishing industry. The fishermen of Isla Mujeres all agreed to a Code of Conduct that only allows traditional fishing methods.
The same spirit of sustainability and responsible tourism extends to the whale shark trip and to the mako cage dives.
Capt Anthony and crew have worked with Guy Harvey Research Institute to catch, tag, and release Makos, which are then tracked to add valuable and previously unknown details about the timing and long distance migratory movements of this vulnerable species. This experience has added greatly to the knowledge of the Mexico shortfin mako population and their overlap with other populations tracked by the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Close interaction with the makos has also taught the crew the secrets of location, behaviors, bait preference, and seasonality. This know-how leads to a 70% success rate for attracting makos to the boat.
The makos in this area of the Caribbean are large compared to those in some other locations. Average sizes for shortfin makos are 3.2 m (10ft) in length and 60 – 135 kg (132 – 298lb). The Isla Mujeres population averages in the top of that range at 114 kg (250lb). Shortfin makos are a beautiful and photogenic fish in brilliant metallic blue and a white underside. They inhabit offshore temperate and tropical seas worldwide and this pelagic species can be found from the surface to depths of 150m (490ft) normally far from land, though occasionally around islands or inlets. Makos are seldom found in waters colder than 16’c (61’F)
Makos are curious and feel and taste everything with their mouth including the cages, floats, transom, and midwater bait or other targets. Their prey is cephalopods and bony fish including bonitos and swordfish. They hunt by lunging vertically up and tearing off chunks of flank or fins. Makos swim below their prey and have a high probability of reaching prey before it is alerted due to their high velocity. Makos are the fastest species of shark. This speed and hunting method makes Makos one of only a few shark species to accomplish a full breach out of the water as part of its predatory attack. Captain Anthony has observed makos of all sizes doing this full breach behavior and he has developed methods to allow guests to see and photograph the breaches.
Our boat is the very comfortable Keen M , a 41 ft custom Michael Fitz Sportfish with a 580 hp diesel. We leave the dock on Isla Mujeres in the early morning and head to the waters North of the island. The cage is mounted on the back. Once we reached the deep 400 ft water, the trolling lines are baited. No hooks are used so as not to hurt the shark. It did not take long to attract a shark. When it hit the bait its whole body launched out of the water like a rocket and with tail flapping did a nearly complete flip smacking back into the water on its side with it prize in mouth.
I have my camera set to burst mode with a fast shutter of 1/1250 sec. I will only get a few frames per leap and it happens with little warning. A shout comes from a crewmember and I press my shutter capturing the full breach.
With a confirmed shark in the area, bait crates are set around the boat and scum scent slick started behind the boat. Now it is time to deploy cage in the water.
The cage adds a safety factor for the guests and piece of mind for the captain. This area is subject to wind, current and the boat is constantly drifting. Using the cage eliminates the worry that guests will drift too far from the boat or let go of the line drifting quickly out of sight of the boat and crew. Without the worry of where the guests are, the crew can concentrate on keeping the makos close to the boat and interested; coaxing them into the best position for observation and photos.
Engineered to be similar to the cages used in South Africa for great white shark encounters, this one has room enough for 2 people. It sports bars of stainless steel and aluminum with a solid floor and a top protected with bars. The cage floats a bit above the surface of the water to enable communication with the boat if needed. At eye level on the sides and front are clear panels made of Lexan polycarbonate sheet. The front has two open ports for cameras.
Captain Mendillo has experimented with different ways to rig the air supply to the cage: They tried bottles in the cage, but now opt to leave the bottles in the boat and run hookah lines to the people in the cage. This allows monitoring of the air supply and leaves more room in the cage for the guests.
Using a tether, the cage is floated 2m away from boat so the shark can do a complete 360’ around the cage.
In the cage I am able to see the makos up close and swimming very calm and curious right in front of me. They come to the bait floating nearby first to investigate then to strike. They even investigate the cage on a few passes. As the large eye connects with me I feel secure in this strong cage.
The makos will stay with the boat and cage for extended periods. Some encounters have been 3 hours long with the same shark staying with the boat feeding and circling. Our mako stayed for almost an hour doing many passes by the cage and boat. I am able to get great shots of the full shark passing by either the side or the front of the cage. As the mako comes close to check out the cage I get some close up and front opportunities. Later back on the boat it is still circling and I get some topside shots of attacks on the bait to add to my breaching shot. Capt Anthony has seen guests achieve great images with everything from professional cameras and video rigs to GoPros on a stick.
Hunting for and photographing shortfin mako was a fun and productive day. I returned with great underwater images from the cage and spectacular breaching shots from the boat. The cage experience is exciting: the sharks come close and stay close making many passes and allowing time to get a variety of images and angles. The encounters are very engaging and guests can get a great experience even if they stay in the boat and forego the cage. It is a good feeling to know that a sustainable tourism activity is being built around this vulnerable sport fish. Since the season overlaps with sailfish season it is possible to get both of these exciting large fish on the same holiday using the same crew. It is thrilling enough to appeal to both photographers and fishermen.
Each year I charter the MVS Dolphin Dream for a week charter to Tiger Beach Bahamas in search of sharks and especially Tiger Sharks.
The crew is great and the shark action is always spectacular. This year we had 4 -5 large tiger shark females on each dive and they didn’t seem shy of us at all as has happened in the past. Of course the lemons were intimating and the caribbean reef sharks were picturesque as they slid through the water.
My charter for next year is March 5 – 16 2016 . If you are interested, at this writing there is only 1 space left available.
Watch my website for announcements about the 2017 charter
The Bahamas is indeed a great destination for shark diving and photography. I have been traveling with guests for many years to Tiger Beach for tiger sharks. We would see a few great hammerheads but they are shy and would not come to us with all the other sharks and tiger sharks around. I decided to try one of the spots known for hammerhead visits off the coast of South Bimini Island.
Our dives were in the afternoon and of moderate depth: 12 – 20 meters so we were able to have long bottom times for plenty of photos.
For this trip I had my Canon 5D MKIII in an Aquatica housing. I had Ion Z 240 strobes rigged on my long control arms. I had my 16 – 35mm F2.8 lens attached. Knowing the sharks would come close influenced my equipment choices and rigging.
2014 has been an exciting year for me full of travel and photography. I had a chance to host some really great people on my safaris and on my underwater trips. Being out among nature I see the impact that humans have on wildlife: mostly negative, but sometimes positive. As I review the year in photos in this blog, I have decided to highlight some of the conservation issues I experience out in the field with my camera.
March 2014 – Bahama Banks Tiger Beach
Tiger Shark Dive Expedition
This annual favorite is a chance to see and appreciate these great predators up close. We get to see some large breeding age female tiger sharks and loads of lemon and reef sharks. Unfortunately, many have fishing gear or scars from fishing gear cutting their mouths or slowly slicing through fins. I seriously want to reach out and cut the line off, but this is a shark and touching would be a big mistake!
April/May – Limpopo Province South Africa
South African Wildlife – Rhinos
Africa has many conservation issues, some newer and some are very old problems. The one that is having a vast impact on wildlife, conservation, tourism, and economy is rhino poaching. The region where my lodge is has a very high number of rhinos and thus has been changing as rhino poaching continues to increase. I have seen my region go from no rhino poaching a few years ago to armed antipoaching road blocks and patrols. This year has already seen more deaths to rhinos (and humans) from poaching than any other year.
We can still see white and black rhino on our game drives, but this is through the efforts of their caretakers: often they have had to remove the horns to keep their animals and land safe.
A baby rhino nuzzles his mother who has had her horn removed
Join one of my safaris in 2015 or 2016 – small groups of 6 and spaces are going fast!
July – Isla Mujeres and Gulf of Mexico
Whale Sharks and Giant Manta Rays
Each year whale sharks and manta rays aggregate in the Gulf of Mexico to feed on the krill bloom. The whale sharks are full grown and many are breeding females. This is a perfect opportunity to witness them in their feeding behavior. They seem to be completely unimpacted by our presence. The encounters are regulated in a sustainable way making this a great educational opportunity for people to see, experience, an appreciate a fish that is little understood and in places overfished.
Can’t wait to get back. I have secured a prime block of time in July 2015 for my 2 groups of 6. Join Us
February – Crystal River Florida
I have been photographing manatees for many years and have seen the evolution of manatee conservation awareness and the rise of manatee tourism. More and more people are impassioned and taking action for the manatees that I am confident that manatees will continue to be a stable if not increasing population in Florida.
January – Isla Mujeres Mexico
Photographing sailfish is an athletic event. It is fascinating to watch them work as a team to keep a baitball and take turns disrupting and eating the fish.
While looking for sailfish we ran across an out of season whale shark in the water. When we got in to see it we discovered it was severely tangled in a fishing net dragging buoys with the ropes running through the mouth and across the gills. I fear this whale shark may not last long.
September – Limpopo South Africa
Wild dogs were killed by farmers and homesteaders and remain a rare and endangered species. I have heard reports starting last year of some in our area and was fortunate to see some on my own land. What a wonderful feeling to host wild dogs on our reserve! They travel around but repeated reports in our area seem to indicate they are more or less residents.
South African (Jackass) Penguins
Numerous oil spills have made this species of penguin vulnerable. This colony of Simons Town in the Cape Peninsula is a rare onshore nesting group – most nest on offshore islands. In the nesting season it is possible to take a walk on the beach and have them walk right past you on the way to their nests. They also take shelter around buildings and under cars in town. The locals have adapted since the penguins came to town about a decade ago. I had one come into the restaurant where I was eating: hopping up the stairs to scout it out.
June/July – Bahama Banks, Bahamas
Atlantic Spotted Dolphins
I consider this to be a positive conservation story: swimming with wild dolphins. These dolphins are not fed, trained, confined or otherwise forced to interact with the swimmers. They do it because they want to and they have been doing so for 30 years. This proves you do not need captive dolphins in order to offer close encounters: you can do it in their own environment and on their own terms. The charter captain has been documenting these pods his whole career and contributes his records to biologists. It takes some speed and creativity to interest these intelligent creatures, but when you engage together it is magic.
If this has made you hungry to get out there next year, please contact me at the link at the top or visit my website for details. Spaces on my trip schedule are filling fast. www.gregorysweeney.com
After a morning of Great White Shark action, we planned a dive to see the broadnose sevengill cow shark. We met at the dive shop then drove to the shores of the Castle Rock Marine Reserve. Just out of Simons Town, a small rocky peninsula juts out rather abruptly into the bay and provides a sheltered site for the slipway boat launch. Our boat carried us a short distance and dropped us off in the kelp beds. Underwater there is granite reefs with sandy patches. The cowsharks swim in a pattern in the kelp channel close to shore. The water temperature is around 13’C so I was happy to have my drysuit.
the cow sharks circle in the kelp
The cowshark is thought to be a very primitive form of shark as their skeletons resemble those of ancient extinct forms. They lack a dorsal fin, have a rounded head, and sport 2 more gill slits than more modern sharks. The sevengill shark is a versatile and common predator that has often been overlooked as an imporant marine predator capable of feeding on a wide variety of prey species. They eat fish and small chondrichthyans (sharks) while larger individuals eat more marine mammals. They have been known to hunt in packs to bring down larger prey by means of stealth. Cowsharks are not protected unless in a marine reserve.
We encountered quite a bit of surge on this dive, but once we fixed ourselves on the bottom we could settle down to photography. Soon the cow sharks emerged from the gloom of the distant kelp and circled very close to us. Their smooth glide a few meters from the bottom was entrancing. It has been a while since I did a cold water dive and enjoyed the green water and giant kelp forest.
Everyone knows South Africa is a premier destination for wildlife photography: full of predator and prey dramas played out between lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, and countless other beasts. The drama continues underwater in Simon’s Town with the famous breaching great white sharks of seal island, African penguins, and cow sharks: the ancient predator of the kelp forests. Unique in all the world, this is the best place to observe the thrilling natural predatory hunting behaviors of the great white shark. A giant shark launching out of the water to catch a seal is an unforgettable wild experience. I traveled down to the Cape Peninsula after a leading our series of photo safaris in hopes of experiencing this behavior and capturing some topside and underwater images.
Simon’s Town is a unique and appealing seaside town on the Cape Peninsula south of Cape Town. Historic and modern houses are built up the hillside and a main road lined with charming storefronts hugs the coast and continues past beaches, harbors, and penguin colonies. The fine old buildings of the town center house restaurants, shops, and cafes. The food is outstanding with terrific fish and chips, smoked fish, and other South African favorites. The north facing orientation of the town and False Bay affords it some protection from the wind, but it can still be subject to the famously changeable Cape weather. The former British Naval base is now an active South African Naval Base.
Just as Simon’s Town is an attraction for human visitors, Seal Island, a 800m granite island protruding six meters above the waves of False Bay, is a seasonal attraction for great white sharks. Large numbers of Cape fur seals occupy the island and the great whites are here to prey upon the young seals that will be heading out on their first foraging expeditions. It is thought that the sharks target the young seals because they are less skilled at the avoidance techniques learned and practiced by older seals. The great whites that visit Seal Island have adapted their hunting strategy especially for this area. Their ambush at full speed from below results in the spectacular full breaches out of the water that make this area famous.
On this day in early June we assemble at the boat before sun up and get settled in. The 8 nautical mile ride out to Seal Island is shorter than I expected and quite smooth. The stern of the boat is dominated by the shark cage and crates of chum, but we have plenty of room to move about and a cabin for shelter and storage of topside gear. Once we have Seal Island in sight the mood among the crew changes to anticipation and concentration. We are now just off shore of “the launch pad”; the shallow area from which seals embark to go fishing or steer toward upon their return. The crew is spotting for seals swimming on the surface. We give special attention to small groups or individual seals returning to the island as these are more often targeted by the sharks since they may be tired, full, or less attentive. Crew members shout out at each seal sighting and we all position ourselves to watch the seal. Watching through the camera I do not loose my lock on the seal. Just as I am ready to move to new target off the stern, the water erupts in a white foam and the great white hurls himself out of the water. I can see a full profile, jaws to tail, as his belly rolls towards us and he falls with a splash back into the water.
The whole event is over in seconds and I collect only a few frames of the incredible sight. On this occasion the seal seems to have escaped the jaws. Others are not so lucky and fall victim to attacks from underwater executed without a breach but the blood in the water testifies that it was a success. We counted over 10 incidents of natural predation including that great breach. All events that we spot are recorded and added to the boat’s detailed records. Next we deployed the decoy seal behind our boat. The rubber seal is constructed out of a child’s wetsuit and is towed a short distance behind the boat. The photographers take up positions in the stern and it was not long before “(Justin) Bieber” the decoy fell victim to a massive strike and a full breach.
I have packed two cameras to use:
My Canon 5D Mark II with a EF 70–200mm f/2.8 IS with and without the +1.4x teleconverter for use topside capturing the breaching, predation, and seal island.
Underwater I used my Canon 5D Mark III in a Nauticam housing fitted with a EF 16-35mm f/2.8 lens
As the morning faded and the pace of the hunt typically slows, we prepared the cage and chummed the water to attract a great white to the cage for underwater observation. After a time a monstrous female gave us some wonderful close encounters.
The excellent crew with their knowledge of the sharks and the area made this a truly unique and exciting experience. To see the predators breach from the water is a magnificent sight . These excursions and our photographs give great white sharks a value alive where previously their only value was their fins, jaws, and as fishing prizes. The 3 companies running the shark boats do so with the greatest amount of respect for the sharks and are contributing to our knowledge of the sharks and their ecosystem.
Tuxedos on the Beach
A much calmer but still exciting attraction in Simon’s Town is the penguin colony at Boulders Beach. In 1985 a colony of African penguins established a rare land-based breeding site at Boulders Beach just a few kilometers to the south of Simon’s Town. Small coves with white sand beach and calm shallow water are interspersed between huge boulders of smooth weather-worn Cape granite. There is no record of the birds having lived here prior to 1985 so their decision to settle in an area already well utilized by humans is remarkable and a very happy occurrence for numerous photographers. Their nesting season peaks from March to May so when coming for the Great White action in June, nesting is still active and the penguins are easy to locate and photograph.
The park has been modified to protect the nesting and allow easy viewing. A long walkway leads from a visitor’s center down to a large platform with a view of a nesting beach then traverses along the hillside over to the swimming beach. Many nest sites can be spotted from the walkway. Down on the swimming beach it is easy to encounter groups of 1 – 4 penguins emerging from the water then walking across the sand, right past me, under a boulder arch, and up the hillside to their nest under foliage. Even the parking lot has great views of traveling penguins, nests, and their water access points. To photograph the penguins I used my EF 70–200 lens and added the 1.4x teleconverter when photographing from the viewing platform.
Penguins are all around town in the evenings. Going to a bayside restaurant you will often see them outside in the parking lot, under the cars, crossing the roads, and even ambling up the steps and into the restaurant.
After a morning of flying great white action, the perfect activities for the afternoon are a nice plate of fish and chips followed by a shore dive with the seven-gilled cow shark. Several dive operators in town take guests to a beautiful cove just 5 minutes out of town. Here the wave action is gentle and the kelp undulates on the surface between rocks. Seven-gill cow shark or spotted cow shark is a prehistoric apex predator and king of the kelp forest Little is known about cow sharks because they spend most of their lives in the deep, cold oceans beyond the reach of divers. This site is one of the few places in the world where you have a great chance (85% as stated by the local diver operators) of diving with this rarely seen shark.
I am rigged with my Canon 5D MKIII in a Nauticam housing with a fisheye lens and just one strobe, for a pop of light only if the visibility is good. No chumming or baiting is needed due to the shark’s natural confidence and curiosity. The sharks readily approach me to get a closer look and pass at arms length before turning at the last moment and continuing to glide through the channel. Ready access to this marine reserve and the beautiful underwater setting make this dive a special event.
I have enjoyed several days of wildlife and thrills in Simon’s Town between the penguins, great white sharks, and the cow sharks of the kelp forests. The many accommodations in town are top notch and there are many fine restaurants to choose from. Exploring the Cape of Good Hope and the nearby wineries yielded spectacular views, ostriches on the beach, character villages, and much more. This was the perfect end to a wonderfully exciting and wildlife filled trip to South Africa and is not to be missed by any photographer.
If you would be interested in a safari with some added days in Simons Town for diving , great whites, and penguins in late May/ June 2015, contact me!
Follow our adventures on safari in South Africa and underwater