Earn your stripes with tiger sharks

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE | TRAVEL - Sarah Sekula

If you’ve ever watched Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s Shark Week, you’ve seen Joe Romeiro. He’s the tat­tooed cin­e­matog­ra­pher who films mako sharks, great whites and ev­ery­thing in between. From Fiji to New Zealand to the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands, he con­sis­tently comes home with epic footage.

It’s the Ba­hamas, though, that has earned a spe­cial place in his shark-lov­ing heart. For a good rea­son: This lovely chain of is­lands is home to Tiger Beach, one of the world’s most un­usual shark dives. It’s so spe­cial, in fact, that it at­tracts divers from around the globe.

Like­wise, it’s ex­actly what brings me to Old Ba­hama Bay Re­sort and Ma­rina on a balmy Novem­ber day. Tucked away on the West End of Grand Ba­hama Is­land, this cozy hide­away is the per­fect jump­ing-off point for ad­ven­ture.

Con­di­tions are per­fect: glassy water, non­stop sun­shine and next to no wind. If we’re able find tiger sharks, it could be the per­fect day. Known for their stripes and broad, flat heads, tiger sharks are the sec­ond most-dan­ger­ous shark, with great whites com­ing in at No. 1.

Need­less to say, I’m equally ner­vous and ex­cited as we pull away from the mega-yacht-filled ma­rina.

With a two-hour boat ride ahead, there’s plenty of time to think about what I’m get­ting my­self into. I will soon plunge di­rectly into shark ter­ri­tory sans cage. A lot could go wrong.

Dicey en­coun­ters

Take, for ex­am­ple, the time a fe­male tiger shark tried to chomp on Romeiro’s head. Thank­fully, he no­ticed in time and was able to gen­tly push her away.

Even more wor­ri­some, in 2014 a diver dis­ap­peared dur­ing a night dive here. Sharks have tried to steal Romeiro’s un­der­wa­ter cam­era more than once. Would my GoPro (and my hand, for that mat­ter) even stand a chance? There’s no doubt these mas­sive fish are highly cu­ri­ous, so it will be up to us to stay on guard.

I take com­fort in some­thing Romeiro said: “We’ve co­ex­isted with these sharks for years (at Tiger Beach), and there’s never been an oc­ca­sion that I’ve

seen a shark turn and hurt any­one,” he says. “If any­thing, I’ve seen them be more afraid of us.”

As the boat starts to slow down, Romeiro re­peats some­thing his men­tor told him on his first dive here: “You are about to en­ter the water with some of the largest preda­tory an­i­mals in the world,” he says. “They are dan­ger­ous, they are un­pre­dictable and they are huge. Try not to fall in love.”

It’s go time

Then, the chat­ter stops, the is­land mu­sic is turned off. It’s time to get se­ri­ous.

“When we’re down there, keep your head on the swivel,” says Jamie Fer­gu­son, dive mas­ter with West End Wa­ter­sports, Old Ba­hama Bay’s dive shop. “Don’t get TV head.”

In other words, don’t ever let a tiger shark (or any shark) sneak up on you. Eas­ier said than done, I soon find out. And al­ways main­tain eye con­tact.

Within just a few min­utes, dozens of reef sharks, lemon sharks and one tiger shark are thrash­ing around the sur­face. I suit up, scoot off the plat­form as qui­etly as pos­si­ble and grab the dive line. It leads me down about 40 feet to the sandy bot­tom.

To my left, Romeiro films while ward­ing off the sharks that come too close. Within 15 min­utes, three tiger sharks do sev­eral swim-bys. Soon enough, two more tiger sharks join us for a to­tal of five. They cruise along stealth­ily, eye­balling us the whole way.

It’s not long be­fore the in­ten­sity builds. A 12-foot tiger shark’s square snout points di­rectly at me. For­tu­nately, the vis­i­bil­ity is about 100 feet, so I spot it eas­ily as it glides just inches above the sandy bot­tom.

No need to poke the an­i­mal, just let it ap­proach you, Romeiro ex­plained to me be­fore the dive. Romeiro and Fer­gu­son each gen­tly put a hand on the shark’s snout. It quickly re­treats and goes back to the usual pat­tern of large cir­cles. It was not scary at all. It was ex­hil­a­rat­ing be­ing so close to such a misun­der­stood crea­ture.

Plus, it does not think I’m a snack. Tiger sharks would much rather fill their bel­lies with sea tur­tles, fish, smaller sharks, birds, seals and squid.

If you keep your wits about you, this ex­pe­ri­ence is amaz­ing. I’m so mes­mer­ized by these mam­moths, I of­ten for­get about film­ing the 15 or so lemon sharks, 30 reef sharks and one nurse shark that dart to and fro.

Be­ing in their habi­tat al­lows for an up-close view of their gills pump­ing grace­fully and their tails whip­ping back and forth ef­fi­ciently. The beauty of it all is over­whelm­ing. And a bonus: Not once do I see a shark flash its pearly whites.

Su­per­model sharks

When I no­tice a hook lodged in the jaw of one of the tigers, I re­al­ize this must be one of the “su­per­model” sharks Romeiro men­tioned. They aren’t shy and al­low you to snap amaz­ing pho­tos.

“Shark Week has been able to dom­i­nate that mar­ket be­cause of the charisma of sharks,” Romeiro says.

I can at­test to that. We are hard­wired to think of these an­i­mals as scary, but once you get up close to them, you no­tice that charm he’s talk­ing about.

Soon enough, it’s time to sur­face. As I make my way back onto the boat, I can’t wipe the goofy grin off of my salty face for quite some time.

“Look at Sarah crush­ing Tiger Beach,” Romeiro says. “I can’t re­mem­ber ever hav­ing five tigers show up on a first dive.”

If you go

A shark dive with West End Wa­ter­sports is $425 per per­son and in­cludes tanks, weights and lunch. Dive in­sur­ance is highly rec­om­mended. Divers Alert Net­work rates range from $40 to $125 for a year of cov­er­age.

JOE ROMEIRO

Swim­ming with tiger sharks in the Ba­hamas.

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