As I kneeled on the powdery white seabed, with fists clenching the camera and eyes wide open, I peered into the thick, foggy seascape. Slightly above me, the crystal clear water column arose, while a milky soup formed over the bottom two meters. As I unconsciously leaned forward, my eyes rapidly opened and closed as they struggled to focus on the approaching figure. The dark, shifting shadow at the rim of visibility clutched my primal senses and the pulls on my regulator increased as I anticipated my first wild encounter with a great hammerhead shark.
As she approached out of the chalky, blue water, swaying her streamlined body side to side, her bizarre “hammer” structure appeared almost stationary. Yet at each end of her cephalofoil, giant, round, eyes studied me carefully as she gracefully drifted by and then disappeared into the void. Nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of such a regal, prehistoric creature, and I found myself overwhelmed and yearning for more.
Having woken up early, I entered the aqua water heavy-eyed and listless. By the time I came face to face with this charismatic creature I was alive with excitement and a flood of emotions. In absolute awe, I could not even review the initial images I had captured, before another hammerhead approached from the rear.
This time it was a small male that made his way past me, suspended just a few inches from the seafloor. Just as quickly as he passed, his powerful, elastic body appeared to bend in half and entirely switch directions without even the slightest stir of sand. It was an astounding maneuver, and one I had never witnessed before. He circled back for one last assessment of me before he, too, disappeared into the endless ocean.
Moments such as these are exactly why I love to dive. Sure, the weightlessness and silence are very alluring and therapeutic, but the ability to explore the last wild places and creatures on our planet is why I repeatedly return to the sea. Nothing recharges my batteries more!
Over the next few days, my group had had the privilege of sharing the same ocean with many more great hammerheads – at times, three or four would delight us with their presence, and, when the great hammerheads weren’t around, an inquisitive school of nurse sharks often dawdled around as if to keep us company while we awaited the star attractions’ return. Through these fascinating experiences, I observed the unique idiosyncrasies of each species. As my guide, Debra Canabal of Epic Diving, pointed out, “Great hammerheads are the classy sharks of the sea.” And she couldn’t have been more accurate with this assessment!
A novice might not believe that sharks have particular temperaments that are observable by divers, but that’s not true. The hammerheads appear to carry themselves with true grace, are very prudish when it comes to physical contact and demand a great deal of respect from other sharks. On the other hand, nurse sharks come across as a bit eccentric; and contrary to great hammerheads, they appear comfortable with physical contact, even other species of shark seem wary of their peculiar disposition. I have had the good fortune to dive with many different shark species and really enjoy studying the differences in their temperament. I found the stark contrasts observed on this trip were truly notable.
Having traveled to the island nation of the Bahamas in January, with a high-level goal of low-impact ecotourism, my trip to Bimini was planned for two reasons: to encounter and photograph great hammerhead sharks underwater. I’d like to imagine many of you are wondering how you can get involved in such a life changing experience, yet I have to be realistic and understand most might not share my zest for such unconventional activities. And that’s okay. Really.
So, if feeding the ducks is the closest to nature you allow yourself to venture, perhaps this experience is not for you. Then again, perhaps it’s just the sort of push you’ve been searching for. As author Carl Safina so aptly put it, “In our estrangement from nature we have severed our sense of the community of life and lost touch with the experience of other animals.” It is my wish to convey through imagery and writing the awesomeness of the natural world and to inspire others to get out there and explore. Whether in your backyard, or the open ocean there are many ways to connect with nature.
What You Need to Know Before You Go:
Winter is the best season to see great hammerheads in Bimini
Plan your trip between January and March
Expedition operator I went with (recommended): Epic Diving
Flights from Nassau run daily and take about 30 minutes
Your gear should be all black from head to toe
Hoods and gloves are necessary to cover light colored skin and hair
If you dive on DIN tanks bring your own yoke converter
You’ll be adding a lot of extra weight to reduce movement from the surge (You’re only submerged in about 10-12 meters of water the entire trip)
Pack a weight belt if you use integrated weight pockets
Last but not least, bring a camera to document this epic experience!