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Exerpt from book entitled Professional Nomad by Maurice Marwood. See: Professional Nomad Book

We watched with rapt attention as the Stuart Cove diver carefully opened the lid of the bait box, skewered a piece of raw fish on the hand spear and slowly held it above his head. Instantly, an eight-foot reef shark swung its head sideways, turned upwards, snatched the bait off the end of the spear, and then swam a short distance away to enjoy its morsel. Meanwhile, a dozen other sharks swam over and around us as we sat, motionless on the sand, among the coral heads 50 feet below the surface. They appeared to be maneuvering into a favorable position as they stalked the bait box, knowing that another piece of food would soon be coming.

My stepson Andrew had only recently acquired his scuba certification and was determined to do a shark-dive before ending his brief visit to the Bahamas. Once he had made up his mind, there was little I could do but go with the flow and try to make it a safe and memorable experience for him. I had already been intrigued by the possibility of doing a shark dive, but had not considered it high priority. However, sharing the experience with Andrew was a good excuse to make it happen.

 

The Bahamian Tourist Office takes every opportunity to promote the country's pleasant climate and beautiful clear waters. There is an extraordinary diversity of marine species thriving amongst the coral, caverns, and blue holes. The diving possibilities are endless. Reef sharks are prohibited from being caught and harvested in United States waters. It is also forbidden to feed sharks in the waters off the coast of Florida, so you must go to Caribbean and Bahamian waters to participate in scuba shark-feeding dives.

You can find a shark dive in many parts of the Bahamas; however, living in Nassau, we decided the best choice for us would be Stuart Cove Aqua Adventures, located on the southwest side of New Providence Island. Stuart Cove landed a job as a stunt diver in the James Bond feature film For Your Eyes Only (1981). Subsequently, he bought his first dive boat and started his own dive business, which soon grew into one of the leading dive operations on New Providence Island. In 1983, Stuart and his partner, Michelle, became underwater film production coordinators on the island during the filming of another Bond movie, Never Say Never Again. He trained Sean Connery and Kim Bassinger as certified divers, so they could complete their roles in the film. Stuart also choreographed the underwater shark wrestling. Later, the site was part of the set location for the movie Flipper, and by 2003, it had become one of the leading dive centers of the entire Caribbean. I figured that if Stuart's operation was good enough for James Bond, it was good enough for Andrew and me, so we booked the shark-dive event for a Saturday morning in July. It was to be an adventure of a lifetime—albeit a short one-day event.

We arrived early at Stuart Cove Aqua Adventures with eager anticipation and a good amount of butterflies in our stomachs. It was about a 45-minute ride out to the dive location—a flat sandy area called the Runway and Shark Arena—near the New Providence Wall and the Tongue of the Ocean. The event was organized as a two-tank dive. The first dive—a routine exploratory dive along the Wall at a depth of about 40 to 50 feet—allowed time to relax and get used to seeing a few sharks in the vicinity. It also provided an opportunity to change our minds and return to the boat if swimming with the sharks suddenly seemed too intimidating. None of us opted out.

During previous years, I had dived in a variety of places throughout the Bahamas and had never encountered a shark. Nevertheless, by the time we dropped anchor, donned the dive gear, and entered the water, they were already swimming around at a distance, waiting for an easy lunch. The arrival of the boat and the anchor hitting the bottom must have sounded like a dinner bell to the sharks in the area.

While changing tanks for the second dive, we received careful instructions to follow during the feed. It was important not to panic or make any sudden moves, to sit still on the sand with our hands and arms tucked close to our bodies, and to avoid waving our hands or touching the sharks as they swam past. A professional underwater cameraman was present to take photos, so plenty would be available; it was not necessary to take our own. The internationally recognized 'buddies' safety system was in force, and Andrew conceded to accepting me as his 'buddy.'

With tanks on and masks in place, we entered the water once again and formed a semicircle on the sandy bottom about 50 feet down. The feed took place at 11 a.m. every morning. Several sharks were already starting to gather in anticipation of the next feed—they obviously knew how to tell time. Soon the Stuart Cove feeder left the boat with the bait box and slowly drifted downwards to the center of the semicircle that we had formed. The sharks saw the bait box, knew exactly what it was all about, and immediately followed the feeder to the bottom. By then, plenty of sharks were on hand and they proceeded to swim closer, passing between us, over our heads and all around, several coming within touching distance. I watched a couple of members of our dive group struggle to get the correct negative buoyancy that would allow them to sit comfortably on the bottom, and hoped they would not provoke an attack with all their thrashing about.

The Caribbean reef shark (classification: Carcharhinus perezi) is not considered a threatened species and lives in abundance in the tropical western Atlantic and the Caribbean waters, from Florida to Brazil. Generally, they inhabit shallow waters near shore, cruising along the edge of a reef or continental shelf over deep water, feeding on rays, crabs, and other small fish. The reef shark has six very keen senses to detect its prey, including smell, sight, sound, taste, and electric pulses. They are also able to pick up low-frequency sound vibrations, indicative of a fish struggling nearby. Many fishermen are often surprised to find that a reef shark had taken a big bite out of their catch while they were reeling it in, and they sometimes ending up with only a head left to brag about. The only known evidence of Caribbean reef shark becoming aggressive is apparently during moments of passion when males have been known to leave bite marks on the dorsal fins of possibly uncooperative, female partners.

They kept away from us unless they were being baited, in which case they became quite bold and made very close passes. The Stuart Cove feeders carefully presented the bait on the end of a stainless steel spear, about two feet long to keep the sharks a bit further away at the critical moment when they take the food. Each piece was small enough to be gulped easily in one bite; therefore, the other sharks did not attempt to fight over it. The feeders never removed the food from the bait box until the previous piece had been completely consumed and the sharks were calmly swimming about waiting for the next serving. That technique controlled the pace of the feed and prevented a feeding frenzy. When the energy level of the feed became excessive and the sharks became a bit unruly, the food was withheld until the situation calmed down. It was amazing nonstop action from start to finish as a few jockeyed for position waiting for the food to come out. Meanwhile, the other 20 or so sharks swam slow circles around the area within touching distance, anxious to take their place in line and receive the food.

At one point, the Stuart Cove feeder gently grabbed a shark and turned it over on its back as we all watched with astonishment. The shark suddenly went into a state of tonic immobility—a natural state of paralysis. I read later that sharks can be placed in that state simply by inverting them—provided one has the courage to do it. The shark can remain in that state of paralysis for an average of 15 minutes before it recovers, but in that case, it only lasted a few seconds, long enough for us to observe the paralysis. Scientists have often exploited that phenomenon to study shark behavior. So, if you ever find yourself being attacked by a shark, simply grab it and turn it over on its back…!

Suddenly, a shark peeled away from the group, flicked its tail slowly and headed straight toward Andrew and me. Its beady eyes, chipped teeth, and diabolical smile succeeded in frightening us for an instant as it passed over our heads like a silent submarine. As it turned and came back toward us, the photographer caught all three of us in a great pose—we stopped breathing shortly so that bubbles did not obscure the view. When the shark passed back over us, both Andrew and I instinctively violated an important rule and let our hand slide gently along its belly as it swam back toward the bait box. Only then did I notice a large fishhook caught in the corner of its mouth trailing a length of line. I was told later that that was a common sight.

At the end of the feed, the sharks all quickly disappeared to seek nourishment elsewhere. We remained until they had gone and then explored the area to look for the sharks\' teeth that often fall out and settle to the bottom. Only a couple of divers were lucky enough to find one. Finally, we surfaced and made our way back to the boat.

Sharks of the Caribbean

The Bahamas offer some of the best shark encounters in the world today. Most are well organized, the waters are warm and crystal-clear, and you get excellent action. The experience was everything we had expected, and I highly recommend it as an experience to remember. Andrew would heartily agree. He was able to check it off his list and move on to other adventures while carrying with him great memories of that one.

The recent popularity of the shark dive spurred the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) to offer a Shark Awareness Course, which is now available at several locations in the Bahamas. Those wanting a closer encounter can take one of the Assistant Shark Feeder Courses, which allows recreational divers to don a chain-mail suit and feed the sharks.

There are numerous sites on the Internet designed to instill fear and to emphasize the danger of participating in commercially organized shark encounters. One site ventured the opinion that no one had ever lost money underestimating the intelligence and judgment of scuba divers, especially those who dive with sharks, and that 'shark feeding is to the Bahamas what sex and violence is to Hollywood.' Another generally described dive operations as 'overpriced and overdeveloped tourist traps.' Several sites are replete with gruesome descriptions and photos of shark attacks, showing missing and mangled limbs of those foolish enough to go frolicking with sharks—blatant fear mongering. Several organizations are strongly opposed to the sport. On January 2002, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission managed to get a law passed that made it illegal for divers to feed marine wildlife in the State of Florida. A grassroots coalition of recreational divers, dive operators, fishermen, and environmental groups fought a two-year battle with the dive industry—most notably PADI and DEMA (Diving Equipment Marketing Association)—to get the law passed.

Statistically, shark attacks are both uncommon and less risky than many other ordinary activities on the water, especially considering the number of people in the world\'s oceans on any given warm summer day. However, shark diving does require preparation, common sense, and good scuba diving experience and expertise. Shark feeding events began in the Bahamas more than 20 years ago, and during that time more than 60,000 divers have participated with virtually no incidents of a respectful guest being bitten. I am certain the danger posed by the Bahamian drivers encountered on route to Stuart Cove that July morning would have been much greater than the danger posed by the encounter with the sharks. The risk associated with shark diving is reasonable and controllable, and I am glad we were able to share the experience.

About the Author

Maurice E. Marwood grew up after the Second World War as the son of a struggling, part-time farmer in eastern Canada. He eventually escaped the clutches of poverty and earned an MSc in engineering from the University of Guelph and an MBA from the University of Chicago. During his early career, he spent 20 years in increasingly responsible international positions with Caterpillar and, later, an additional 10 years managing two Caterpillar dealer organizations—first, as President of the dealership in the Bahamas, and most recently as Managing Director for the dealership in Taiwan. An expert in corporate turnarounds, he spent several years restructuring and renewing a variety of business organizations struggling for growth and profitability; his executive-level leadership has spanned manufacturing, distribution logistics, marketing, and international sales of industrial equipment and packaged consumer products.

Marwood has served as a Rotarian, Director of the Nassau Institute, Governor/Director of Chambers of Commerce, advisor to the University of Calgary Faculty of Management, and to the Conference Board of Canada\'s Operating Council for Business Excellence. He has been a frequent presenter and panel participant at university and industry association gatherings, and published articles on business management, leadership, and social issues in magazines, newspapers, and websites. In 2007, he was the first 'foreigner' to receive a special annual award from the Council of Labor Affairs of the government of Taiwan, for innovation in the development of Human Resources.

From a young age, Marwood instinctively knew that life was for living and discovered an insatiable appetite for experiences and ideas. He worked hard to maintain a balance between life\'s critical success factors—the material and the spiritual—making time to raise a family and pursue such adventures as climbing the Matterhorn, trekking Nepal, marathoning, skiing, snowboarding, scuba diving, and cruising eastern North America and the Bahamas. Firsthand involvement in a wide variety of events and situations shaped his values, opinions, and philosophy of living that he shares with honesty and passion.