They’re closer than you think…

diving in

It had been a week in December quite unlike any other, mainly due to the fact that this week in December 2013 was being spent in the sunny climes of eastern Mexico and not the dreary bleakness of Nottingham, England.  A week in a top-end all-inclusive had led to itchy feet, feet which hadn’t felt the awkward rubber of fins for a few months, and it proved to be too much – I had to get wet (without involving alcohol).

There is a well reputed, albeit predominantly French, dive operation on the Mexican coast called Phocea and being impulsive I decided without too much research that they were the ones to look after us.  Having been used to diving in Egypt for the past few years, it was with great pleasure that this turned out to be a more Fijian experience with the divers cramming into a small, informal vessel and back-rolling in to the water (thereby avoiding the potentially groin-crushed ‘giant stride’ method pictured above (Marsa Alam, Egypt, 2013) and feeling a little more James Bond).  The two dives turned out to be real unexpected gems, with bountiful coral, turtles aplenty, American rays (new to us, having never dived in this continent) and some great macro life.  It was the third dive, however, that was the game changer.

Sharks prefer to hang below and behind...

Sharks prefer to hang below and behind…

We arrived back at the bustling “Playa del Carmen” beach, heaving with sun-seeking, volleyball playing tourists and locals alike.  The dive boat had to navigate around frolicking holidaymakers in the shallows.  A number of the divers jumped out, but some stayed behind.  “Is it pretty much guaranteed?,” I asked the divemaster incredulously.  “Let’s just say, yesterday, we saw 8” he replied in Frenglish.  I’d heard that sort of thing before.  “Where are we going?” I asked.  “About 400 metres out from the beach,” he gestured, vaguely waving his arm out to sea.  I went along with it.

We zipped out for only a couple of minutes, the beach very much in sight, still within swimming distance, and descended.  We dropped to 20 metres, and waited.  We didn’t wait long.

The unmistakable, barrel-torpedo silhouette began to emerge from the edge of the visibility, winding through the kicked-up sand slowly and purposefully.  There were, perhaps, 10 of us but only two, including myself, were looking in the right direction.  A three metre apex predator, a bull shark, wound to within feet of us before turning away and losing itself in the murky distance.  Soon after, another appeared from another direction, and then another, and for twenty minutes there was rarely a point where at least one bull shark was not on the groups radar.  Bulky, blunt-nosed and narrow-eyed, a tarnished silver colour occasionally tinted with black, more and more of these stunning creatures began to swim amongst us.  At the point of ascent, no less than 7 sharks were around us in all directions, never threatening, but ever curious, as highly aware of us as we were of them.  Once surfaced, with some of the less shark-familiar divers in more of a rush to get off the surface than others, I glanced back down into the blue but I had lost them.

Every year, from November to February, bull sharks amass in this same spot off the coast of one of Mexico’s busiest tourist spots.  Every year, hundreds of humans splash around in the shallows less than half a kilometer from dozens of bull sharks.  They have absolutely no idea what is out there, but the proof is in the fact that there are never incidents of attack despite the close proximity and the feckless antics of the watersporting tourists.  To surface from sharing an experience with these stunning animals is an incredibly cathartic experience – we can share our world provided we offer the same respect to the sharks that they offer to us in leaving us alone year after year, despite our intrusion into their territory.

I would encourage anyone to visit the Project Aware website to learn more about shark conservation and protection.

VIDEO of the dive with a Bull Shark – Bull Shark, Mexico 2013

Bull shark