By Willy Volk
Nominated by Lynn E. Harvey
30 Sep 2008
Though the Bahamian water was warm — about 90 degrees! — we tugged on our gloves, wetsuits, and dive socks. Some divers even struggled into full hoods, their eyebrows, noses and lips smooshed out from inside the restrictive neoprene. All our gear was black — snorkels, masks, fins, weight belts — and sometimes it got confusing as to whose equipment was whose. We weren’t cold, and we didn’t plan on getting chilly. So why all the gear … and why all of it black? Sharks — like most ocean creatures — are less likely to nip at a human covered in black. The shine of a wristwatch; the sparkle of an earring; the quick kick of an opaque fin — under water, these things all resemble the sudden flit of a fish’s tail. And none of us wanted the twelve- to fourteen-foot sharks we were hoping to encounter — bigger than a VW Beetle, and heavier, too — to confuse us with lunch.
I peered over the edge of the transom and saw gray smudges glide through the water, directly under the boat. I figured most of the streaks were harmless Lemon sharks, their snaggly smiles belying their gentle demeanor, but you never really know what’s down there until you get in the water and look around.
When the smudges vanished for a moment, I took a deep breath, popped my regulator into my mouth, grabbed my camera, and slid into the water silently, without even one splash. On the boat, I’d purged my BCD of all its air, and that, coupled with the added weight on my weight belt, made me drop to the sandy sea floor like a crate of frozen chum.
Orienting quickly, I scanned the endless blue for Tiger sharks. The other eight divers were doing the same, cameras in hand, heads rotating slowly and steadily on their neoprene-covered necks. Though I kept glancing behind me, I knew a Tiger would come from my right, cruising upstream towards the fishy scent of the frozen chum-cicle the dive master was shaking patiently in the water. I waited quietly, upstream of the crate of melting fish guts. I took some practice shots of my fin, to confirm my camera’s settings were correct. I squeezed off some shots of the Lemons circling my feet. I glanced around some more.
Suddenly, I detected a dark blur. I looked up and saw an elegant Tiger shark, back gently arched, swimming arrogantly, slowly, toward the chum-crate. As the sun streamed through the shallow water, I raised the camera to my face, peering over the housing. The gun-metal gray shark cruised up the current, toward the fish-guts we were releasing. The stripes on his belly pulsated as his giant tail fanned back and forth. He slowly slid past the crate. He was coming right for me.
My right index finger was taught on the shutter release, and as the shark approached me, I tripped the shutter over and over. Glancing into the viewfinder, I noticed the enormous creature was overflowing out of the frame. Clumsily, I backed up, kicking up a little silt, but still tripping the shutter. As the majestic striped animal approached, his large black eyeball — as expressive as a puppy’s — rotated and focused right on me. He was less than twelve inches away. Using the curved dome of the camera’s housing, I gently touched his snout and pushed him away. He corrected his course to the left and swam past. In an instant, he was gone.
I frantically checked my camera to see how the pictures turned out. Most were bad. One was acceptable. I looked around again, performing a 360-degree spin under water. I wanted desperately to get another shot. Where was he?
There! There he was. He had circled around, swimming back up-current, back toward the chum-crate, back to the scent of fish, back to me. I prepared my camera for more shots. Here he came. Snap. Snap. Closer… Snap.
Over the next seven days, I took over 5000 pictures of Tiger sharks, Lemon sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, dolphins, and more. And I never got bit.