Written by Dr. Brady Barr, Dangerous Encounters:
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that you should do one thing every day that scares you. Somedays are certainly bigger than others, and today was going to be a big one for me —though I had no idea going into it. From working around dangerous snakes to walking into a mine full of bats, I’m often (gladly) pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone, and today was one I’ll never forget. It was a bright clear morning over our patch of water somewhere between Grand Bahama and Bimini. The tiger sharks we were filming the previous day were nowhere to be seen, but the lemon sharks that had been our constant companion since our arrival 2 days before were thick in the water. At one point, we saw 12 of them, just swimming around.
Now, lemons weren’t the reason we were there, but they’re beautiful sharks. These guys typically grow to be 8-10 feet and can be distinguished most easily from other sharks by their unique yellowish hue, which was clearly visible from our boat, even in several feet of sparkling blue Bahamian waters. Diving and fishing boats are common in this area, and these sharks seemed content to hang around the boat, watchful for bits of bait tossed overboard or outright handouts. The boat’s crew was packing up to make the trek back home, and the film crew was in the water getting some final shots, so I decided to take advantage of this relative lull in my own activities to take the plunge — so to speak.
Now, I know you’re to avoid shininess around sharks—you don’t want to resemble the flashy scales of a fish, do you? — so I kitted up in some cargo pants, a t-shirt, dark fins, a mask and a snorkel and jumped. It takes a lot to take that step off the boat when there are literally a dozen sharks finning about the vicinity, but at some point, the adrenaline just convinces you that you want to move, so you do. *splash*
The current was strong that day, so I quickly surfaced and held onto a rope connecting our boat to a skiff a little distance away. I looked down and I saw the crew on the bottom (it was about 12″ down, and crystal clear) with a few sharks around. They were wrapping up and would shortly be making their way to the surface. From twelve feet away, this is still a bit like watching it on the monitor. It’s cool, but you’re not really there. “Okay,” I remember thinking, “this is not a big deal at all.” Then, I caught a dark movement out of the corner of my eye.
I don’t think I have ever moved quite that fast underwater. I swung my whole body around 180° while holding onto that rope in a flash. There it was — about 6″ away, a lemon shark. Let me tell you—when it’s you and the shark and a gap that either of you could close with just a couple of fin movements, it’s not like watching tv anymore — it’s very very real. In that second, my heart froze and my eyes locked on it. In my head, it was a 20’ behemoth, slowly and deliberately sizing me up. Would I make a nice side dish to that bonita it just ate? Perhaps. I mentally gave it a little toothpick to pick its teeth with while it considered. My breath started coming very fast and I was gripping that rope like it was going to run away from us both.
And then, as quickly as it had (actually) began, it ended. The shark passed under me and went on its way. Another shark swam in from the other direction, passed below me, and went on its way as well. Also, I observed that it was only about 8 feet long — not even all that big for a lemon. Apparently, I had been fear-goggling. Gradually, the toothpicks vanished and it occurred to me that I was just some weirdly shaped thing that had entered their territory and they were probably just checking to see what that was. Clearly, I had passed the initial visual inspection. I could literally feel my heart rate slow and my breath stopped coming in ragged gasps. I relaxed my death-grip on the rope and just floated.
It was amazing—there were still at least eight sharks in the vicinity and they all came over to check out the new thing in the water (me), and then they went about their business as if I wasn’t there. I watched them for a while (and maybe they watched me) and was rewarded by an up-close look at one of the most awe-inspiring fishes swimming — the reflected rays of the sun skittering across their skin as they moved, their gills moving slowly in and out, and — on a few eye-opening occasions—those legendary teeth chomping into a discarded bit of fish just feet away. Eventually, it was time to pull anchor, so I made my way out of the water. A little shaken, a little wiser, and most definitely awe-inspired.
Dangerous Encounters: Deadliest Sharks airs tonight at 8P et/pt on Nat Geo Wild.
Photo — Brady Barr prepares to take a bite force reading from this captured bull shark.