Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Feeding Sharks - posting of older National Post article at the request of a reader
Underwater encounters off St. Maartens
The sharks’ bad table manners leave bloody bits of
half-eaten mackerel in spectators’ hair
By Stephen Weir
Underwater, a mile off shore from the island of St. Maartens, surrounded by a pack of hungry 10 foot sharks I learned an important life lesson. Always look an incoming shark in the eye and stare ‘em down … and if that shark’s nictitating membrane suddenly drops over the eye you are glaring at, put your hands under your armpits and pray!
“Show fear?” said shark trainer Estanda Koblasa. “You can’t even think fear. They will know and they will be on you like a pack of dogs chasing a mailman.”
Three afternoons a week Estanda is the centre of attention at an underwater sushi party for sharks. While the Czech diver dishes out hunks of raw meat to the sleek gray fish a dozen paying customers sit on the ocean floor and watch this high voltage dinner.
“There are shark feeds in a couple of other Caribbean islands, ” said Estanda. “Here in St. Maarten’s we do it a little different. I have been training these sharks for the past year. I can actually lead an eight foot shark right in front of a diver before it will take a bite from the food.”
How close is close? When I got out of the water after a half-hour shark encounter, I found fish bits, which have fallen from the mouths of the passing sharks in my hair!
Estanda works for Dive Safaris, a dive firm headquartered in Philipsburg, the capitol of the Dutch side of this two country (French & Dutch) island. The local company is kept busy catering to the cruise market – a million tourists make land within site of their fleet of dive boats every year.
In fact most of the people who take part in the St. Maarten’s Shark Awareness Dive, are passengers from any of the 490 cruise ships that call on the tiny Caribbean island.
“We screen out the inexperienced and the nervous by making everyone who wants to take part in the afternoon Shark Awareness trip take a check-out dive with us in the morning,” explained Dive Safaris owner Whitney Keough. “We want them to do at least one regular dive with us to make sure they are competent – their air consumption needs to be good. “
Getting low on air in the middle of the shark feed may not be a very good thing. Imagine swimming up from 50 feet through a dozen circling and darting Grey Reef (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) and Caribbean Reef (Carcharhinus Perezi) sharks who are so intent on getting a piece of meat that they would sooner swim through you than go around.
Most days a dozen brave souls qualify to take part in the $100 cd half-hour dive. (Because most cruise ship goers don’t have equipment, the fee includes the rental of all underwater gear, the boat ride and all the raw fish the sharks can drop on you).
“ We advise people to overweight themselves,” said Ms. Keough. “We have placed cement blocks in the feeding area and we ask everyone to grab a block, hold on tight and watch. Having a few extra pounds of lead around your waist will keep you well planted.”
The dive site is a 10-minute run from the harbor out to a sandy shoal a mile offshore. Dive Safari’s boat 38ft Still Waters, has on open transom, you simply get into your dive equipment and waddle back to the stern and step off into the warm blue water.
The feeding zone is a short swim from the base of the mooring pin. In fact as you fall slowly down to the sand bottom 50 ft below, you can see the sharks begin to gather, near a semi-circle of cinder blocks.
Estanda brought a small box filled with pieces of frozen mackerel to this underwater theatre. He quickly transferred the fish into a larger weighted box that is permanently chained to the bottom.
The brief exposure of the “chumsickle” was enough to get the attention of the 14 sharks that could be seen off in the distance. Within seconds the sharks, ranging in size from 3 ft to 10 ft long, began to circle around Estanda and the box. Gil Antigua, the safety diver, positioned himself behind me; he had a small pole that could be used to ward off any shark that might get too frisky.
The glass faceplate on a dive mask magnifies by a factor of 40%. When I went on the solo shark dive with Estanda, the 8ft Grey Reef shark looked about 10 ft long. He said that looking through my mask my eyes were about the size of “soup bowls.”
Estanda opened the box and took out a piece of meat and skewered it with a spear. He looked at an incoming Grey Shark, then nodded at me to get my camera ready.
As the shark opened its mouth and lifted its nictitating membrane over its eye (sharks instinctively do this to protect their eyes when they are taking prey) Estanda began to lead the shark towards my camera lens. When it was 2 feet away, he made an audible click with a dolphin underwater training device and the shark bit down on the food.
Mouth dripping bits of half-chewed fish; the big shark passed right over my head. It didn’t touch, but I could feel the current created by the swimming motion of the shark.
After that the feeding was methodical, with each shark taking its turn. Estanda’s training appeared to work with only a few of the sharks; they would pause in mid-flight waiting for the audible command before snatching their meal from the stick.
All of the sharks were female. One or two nuzzled the feeder and let him scratch their heads and rub them above their gill slits.
Most times when you encounter a shark underwater the meeting is very brief, it happens so quick there usually isn’t time to take a picture of the much-feared predator. In Saint Maarten your face-time with the sharks is only limited by your consumption of the air in your scuba tank.
After the initial rush of having 8 feet of teeth swim under my left armpit, I was able to relax and study the sharks as they whizzed by. Most of them were identifiable. Some bore white scars on their flanks, souvenirs from the aggressive behaviors of males during mating. Others had parasites attached to their dorsal fins.
“I know them all and they know me. They are much smarter than you think. If you work with the sharks on a regular basis you get to easily recognize them.” Estanda said. “ We give them names . . . Big Mama, Scratch, and Notch are just a few of our regulars.
So docile were a couple of the small sharks, they let Estanda flip them over onto their backs. As was first noticed by dive pioneer Jacques Cousteau, when a shark is turned upside down it stops swimming and goes stiff-as-a-board rigid until it is righted again.
Despite his claims that the sharks would turn on him if he showed fear, Dive Safari’s safety record is impeccable. Not a single shark or diver has been injured on the Shark Awareness Dive. And, unlike shark experiences elsewhere, Estanda, and his guides shun the wearing of protective gear (underwater chainmail).
It takes about 20 minutes to conduct the feeding. Even after the food supply has been exhausted, the sharks continue to whizz over my head, across my chest and near underwater camera.
Waiting for the sharks to leave town, Estanda and I kept busy sifting through the sand around the food box. Sharks feed agressively, even when their meal is handed to them on a fork, we found several shark’s teeth which had come loose and fallen out of their jaws during dinner.
By the time we swam back to the boat the area appeared to be shark free. The beasts had moved on to look for the next meal.
“We do not want to harm them in any way,” said Whitney Keough. “In order to preserve their natural feeding instincts, we only feed them a small amount every other day.”
““We decided to feed our sharks for a couple of reasons,” she continued. “First off, we love watching them and diving with them. Secondly, we want to educate divers on how important sharks are to the future of the Eco-system. In addition, we want to dispel and relieve people’s irrational fear of sharks.”
Not everyone agrees that these sorts of programs benefit sharks or people for that matter. In fact, in the state of Florida, shark dives have been banned for the past year.
The state’s wildlife department has made it illegal to feed marine animals. Officials in Florida have not linked shark dives with a spate of shark attacks last year. However they do say that shark-feeding dives cause sharks to lose their natural fear of humans and may serve to attract and concentrate sharks in areas near popular beaches, increasing the possibility of attacks.
The Florida-based International Shark Attack File recorded a total of 60 unprovoked attacks in 2002, down from 72 in 2001 and 85 in 2000. Three of those were fatal -- two in Australia and one in Brazil, compared to five in 2001 and 13 in 2000. None of the fatalities included scuba divers or snorkellers.
“We are monitoring the Shark Awareness dives,” said St Maartens Tourism Director Regina LaBega. “We know that the species of sharks they are feeding (Grey and Caribbean reef) are not particularly dangerous, however we are aware of the Florida concerns.”
Info on the island
St. Maarten is the smallest Island in the world to be shared by two sovereign governments-namely the Dutch and French. The Dutch side, with Philipsburg as its capital occupies the southern 17 square miles of this 37-square-mile island; St. Martin, a French dependency, occupies the northern half.
On the Dutchside the official currency is the Antillean guilder, but the American dollar is extensively used. The Guilder, the Euro and the US dollar is honouredFrench side.
St Maarten is a safe and pleasant place to visit, The total population has grown from 13,156 in 1980 to nearly 40,000 in year 2003. It is estimated that the population of St. Maarten consists of 77 different nationalities. The native languages are English and Dutch.
There are close to a dozen dive operators on the island of St. Maarten. Dive Safaris is the only firm offering a shark dive. For more information:
6800 SW 40th Street #100-46
Miami, Florida 33155
Bobby's Marina In Philipsburg
La Palapa - Simpson Bay