In a couple of weeks it’s time to get ready again for my annual trip to the Bahamas and to enjoy some warm sunshine to burn away the blues of this exceptionally grey and wet winter. The plan is to stuff my gear in two suitcases, weighing not more than 10 and 23 kilo’s, if I follow the baggage limits of Delta airlines. No diving bags or backpacks, but two Samsonite rollers, a smaller carry-on suitcase with the fragile camera parts and lenses, and a larger check-in suitcase with the camera housings, maintenance kit, domes, 5mm wetsuit, regulars fins, mask, snorkel and personal items.
Left: map of the Bahamas with the major shark sites marked as yellow dots (Tiger beach, north of Grand Bahama, Bimini at the left, and Cat island at the lower right at the edge of the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean)
This year’s trip will my 7th in a row of visits to the Bahamas. Two years ago I started to document my addiction to these beautiful islands and their magical sharks in a number of blogs. That was on 24 April 2016, Oct 9 2016, February 9 2017 and March 3 2017 respectively. I’m afraid that much of this article might be rumination of older stuff, with little news for those that have read the earlier blogs. Never mind, since I find it always it pleasant to unload my preoccupation with an upcoming major diving event and try to insert some new material.
The trip Easiest and most economical are flights from Amsterdam to Nassau with a stop-over in Atlanta. Nassau is the ideal hub for local airlines like Bahamas Air, Sky Bahamas, and Western Air to visit Bimini, Grand Bahamas (West End) and Cat island. These islands are presently the top three for UW photographers in search of big sharks. Winter is the best season to meet tiger, lemon and Caribbean sharks at Tiger Beach, north of West End, as well as the great hammerheads at Bimini. Spring is best for the oceanic sharks at Cat Island (see also the map above) These locations can also be visited with a live-aboard, like I did six years ago with Jim Abernethy’s Shear Water, crossing the Gulf Stream from Palm Beach to Tiger Beach (see also Jeb Corliss recent impression of this site taken with a new 360 deg. camera). But I now prefer the more comfortable resort-based operations, using day trips to reach the nearby shark sites.
Baiting and more The sharks from the Bahamas are always willing to pose for photographers. Sharks don’t do that spontaneously. Just like doggies, they appreciate little snacks, in particular bits of tuna, grouper or even mahi-mahi handed out by dive master from his metal box. We should not call this feeding but baiting, it’s not the quantity than counts but the incentive quality. Unlike feeding, baiting will not interfere with the normal feeding behavior of sharks and not lead to a shark frenzy. Nor are there any signs that baited sharks may endanger diving or non-diving visitors in the vicinity.
Wild animals tend to lose their natural fear for humans, once they have learned that they bring not danger but something tasty. For example food is also effective to attract very shy predators like wolves. In the new documentary film Jane Goodall describes how after her initial frustrating attempts to make contact with the chimpanzees in Gombe, placing some bananas in their territory did the ‘trick’ and made it much easier to approach the chimps from a very close distance. Later she discovered that she had to restrict the supply to prevent the chimps from scavenging and becoming too obtrusive. There is also a negative side of wild animals getting too familiar with or coming too close to humans. One is that they may become an easier prey for hunters or poachers (just think of the tragic faith of two socks the wolf that befriends officer John Dunbar in the film Dancing with the Wolves).
Another example of (un-intended) ‘baiting’ of predators are wild boars or even grizzly bears scavenging through garbage boxes at the outskirts of towns or villages. Probably a sign of their shrinking territories by the ever-expanding human settlements. Then there is the constantly growing number of tourists visiting beaches adjacent to territories of the Great Whites in Australia, which may lead to potentially dangerous interactions, when these apex predators mistake surfers for their natural prey.
Shark bites and tourism In our crowded cities many vulnerable pedestrians or cyclists are hit daily by motor vehicles. Recent statistics show that more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. But such accidents normally receive much less public attention than an occasional shark bite, because they are regarded as an inevitable part of modern society. In contrast, certain media are still obsessed by reporting bites or even 'nearly bites' of sharks. Just type the word shark bite on Google to check out for yourself. Sharks do not feed on humans, but may indeed accidently bite an arm, leg or foot of someone swimming with no protection in deeper water, or when a diver gets too close to baited sharks. Two years ago a Dutch producer of adventure documentaries was bitten in the shoulder when he moved into a bunch of baited Carribean sharks at Bimini, but later proudly showed his injuries to the media. Which of course contributed to his reputation as the brave shark man. Unfortunately, not only risk seakers but also the greater number of tourists arriving in the Bahamas with cruise ships may increase the probablity that someone gets bitten by a shark.
Bahamas two-step That said, let’s now look at some more pleasant sides of the shark trips. A new option of some scuba operators is to combine two trips in succession to different islands with different sharks. After three days of shooting hundreds of pictures of tiger or lemons sharks, one tends to get saturated. It is then great to move to another location of the Bahamas visited by an entirely different species. There is only one restraint, the season. End February is ideal (also weather wise) to combine Tiger Beach with Bimini. End March is OK to ‘do’ Bimini (end of great hammerhead season) with Cat Island (start of Oceanic season).
Last year we did a combined Bimini/Tiger beach trip in February with Sean Williams of Neal Watsons crew from Bimini. This year the same type of operation is run in reversed order (Tiger beach--Bimini) by Vincent and Debra Cannabal of Epic diving. An airline called Flamingo Air now runs daily flights with a twin engined Beech99 aircraft between Bimini and Grand Bahamas. Overall, the local flights at the Bahamas are pretty safe, except that this Beech99 had a crash landing at South Bimini in August 2016 caused by the right wheel collapsing during landing, luckily with no injuries. So better carry your rosary with you on these flights (-;
What lens and combo With so many different sharks at a close distance, conditions are optimal for nice shark portraits. But for each type of shark there is that very specific moment that will make your shot unique, and to match the ideal image you might already have in your head. Although perhaps not the most spectacular species, I always find the Carribean shark a great target because of if its elegant torpedo shaped body (see the front page for example).What camera lenses should one take along on a Bahamas trip? For shark snapping that would be a wide-angle or fish-eye lens. I normally take the Ikelite D7200/Tokina 10-17 combo and the smaller Olympus EPL5/PT-EP10. On the Olympus set I use either the 8mm Lumix Panasonic or the Olympus F1.8 8 mm lens with extension ring. I further use the less bulky 5 inch and 4 inch mini domes, and the same set of Ikelite sub strobes DS 161 on both combos. The strobes are connected via electrical cords with the Ike housing. On the Oly housing I use fiber cords triggered by the internal flash after fitting Ikelite optic converters # 4401.1 on the strobes. The reasons why I still have the old EPL5/PT-EP10 combination are that it is light and small, and that I cannot yet see the advantages of the more sophisticated models in the Olympus OM-D range. My little Oly is ‘multipurpose’ since I can also use it for macro shooting with a 60 mm Olympus lens and +5 Subsee diopter screwed on a 4 cm extension tube (not for sharks!). With sufficient sunshine, I take both camera’s down to the sharks. I use the Ike with strobes to start with, and leave the Oly with filter on the flat sea floor for ambient light shots at the end of the dive. There is a risk though that a tiger shark at Tiger Beach may steal your camera on the sea floor; such things have happened before!