Follow a shark conservationist’s journey freediving alongside great hammerhead sharks and educating people about their importance.
I slip over the side of the boat and into the stunning blue water. I rest on the surface, watching a dozen nurse sharks scattered through the water column, eagerly awaiting a snack. From a distance, I see a large silhouette approaching. I take a full breath and slide under the water, descending slowly to the white sand below. Settling at the bottom, camera in hand, I wait.
A great hammerhead shark that I do not recognise swims cautiously towards me. She passes by within a few feet of me and I watch in awe. She then circles back around before disappearing, like a ghost into the blue. I return to the surface, my lungs reminding me: I am not an ocean creature.
FREEDIVING WITH GREAT HAMMERHEADS
While my encounter with the “ghost” was unique, I get to spend a lot of time with other great hammerheads. During the winter months, these remarkable creatures can be found in the shallow, clear waters of the tiny islands of Bimini in the Bahamas. It remains the only place in the world (that we know of) where you can encounter several individuals (five to 10) in very shallow water on a single dive. They are naturally a solitary species, unlike scalloped hammerheads, who are observed aggregating in the hundreds. For this reason, Bimini has quickly become a renowned location to witness these incredible sharks first-hand, drawing divers and film crews from across the globe.
For this dive, a feeder goes down with a bait box and the divers line up side by side, creating a wall.
The great hammerheads approach and are hand-fed as the divers get to witness the ocean’s most mesmerising creatures. The dive is anywhere from six to 12 metres depending on the water conditions. This means a single tank of air can last over an hour. While I love scuba diving with these sharks, there is something really special about laying on the sand bottom with a single breath, waiting for a dance.
Freediving with wildlife always requires respect, and with great hammerheads, a beautiful interaction also requires a lot of patience. Believe it or not, these sharks have unique personalities. Some are bold, while others are shy and may take a while to come closer.
I have learnt so much about the species and sharks in general by simply observing them. I have gotten to knowthe regulars like Amphitrite, Atlas, and Gaia over the years, and I usually know how they will behave when they show up. Interestingly, the Bimini Shark Lab, a local research centre, has named most of the identified individuals after Greek gods and goddesses.
I see Scylla, my favourite shark on the planet, in the distance and I breathe up, ready to descend into the blue. I glide to the sand bottom and position myself along the path I think she will travel and settle on my knees with my camera poised and ready. Scylla moves directly towards me before cruising up and over my head. I admire her beautiful ventral markings, which make her easily identifiable. Gaia and Queen, two of the largest great hammerheads in the area, have arrived.
Patience is really necessary; not every drop leads to a close encounter. Sometimes, the sharks turn or head in a different direction than you anticipated. It’s important not to chase after the sharks. The best moments happen when you wait for them to approach.
I breathe up one last time, slip beneath the surface, and cruise along with Gaia and Queen, taking in the absolute beauty of this moment. Time disappears as you drop into the ocean over and over again, sharing a moment and a space with such a magnificent animal.
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