3. Feb, 2018

Going Bahamas

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 AirSky 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!