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

Sharks in a storm, Australia

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It was a stormy night.  The boat was pitching back and forth, arching in the continuous flow of waves breaking over the surrounding reefs.  Seasickness had kicked in a few hours ago, and the darkness of the night made staying on two feet all the more challenging.  Resolute, I forced my way into my wetsuit and assembled my regs – it was time to dive blind, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

Everyone was struggling.  A few were ”sitting it out”, confidence knocked by the choppy water and the lack of visibility underwater.  I tested my torch; it was strong, but the beam narrow.  If you shone it on your depth gauge/air measure, it briefly glowed an eery green before fading back to its usual white – this is how you keep a measure of your air and buoyancy underwater at night, with the surface and the bottom invisible maintaining a level profile is challenging.  The dive boat had a fairly bright blue light underneath which was designed to give you a reference by which to return.  As I pulled on my fins and shuffled to the bucking edge of the boat, what was revealed by the light caused me to pause momentarily. 

The water was teeming with sharks, their sleek silhouettes moving slowly, circling around in the light, using the small source of light as an aid to their hunt.  Most of the bodies were typically small, white and black reef sharks, and they wouldn’t trouble any of the divers many of whom were already paddling in the water just above them.  One or two were a little larger.  I held my mask in place and took a giant stride out into the water, and then descended through the sleek, barrel-shaped bodies which paid me no heed and finned away from the boat’s light, into the dark. 

The light of the torch probably went up to 10 metres ahead in a straight, narrow beam, and other than that long white line I could see absolutely nothing else.  It was a matter of luck as to what the light found, usually sleeping fish but occasionally something greater; a huge green turtle making its bed for the night being the highlight.  Navigating using the brief green glow of the compass was difficult, and after 30 minutes or so I signalled to my buddy to ascend.  We located the light beneath the boat, grabbed the mooring line and began to pull ourselves up, the current sweeping us out horizontally as we climbed hand over hand.

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At 5 metres we stopped, in order to allow excess gasses built up at depth to seep out of our bodies and avoid ‘the bends’.  We were being swept sideways by the powerful current, all the while right in the middle of the dozens of circling reef sharks.  Suddenly, my buddy’s grip on my arm tightened, and a pointing hand gestured wildly to my left.  I turned just in time to see the dark eyes and white teeth of a large grey shark, close to the largest length to which they can grow, about two feet in front of me.  At the very last minute, staring into my eyes, it bent its trajectory and soared over my head, knocking my mask with the lower lobe of its caudal fin and disappearing out of the light into the murky darkness.  We surfaced, bucked back and forth by the now stronger waves, and fought our way up the kicking steps at the rear of the boat.

I spent the rest of the night racked by seasickness, but still grinning to myself about the close encounter with the inquisitive grey.  I had gotten in the way, I suspect, he had just wanted to know what clumsy creature was interrupting his feeding. 

Beneath the unspoilt waters of Sipadan Island, Borneo

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Sipadan sits in the Celebes Sea, off Borneo’s eastern coast. A conical spit of land breaking an otherwise endless blue, it rises from an otherwise flat sea bed nearly 600 metres, standing solitary and defiant against the horizon. Only a limited number of permits are issued each day for those who have travelled across Borneo, one of the few wild places left on Earth, drawn to the island by tales of wonders beyond belief. Nutrients washed in from the sea have only the small barrier of Sipadan standing in their way, making the marine habitat rich in food for the smaller fish, making it rich in food for the bigger fish.

We set off early from the port of Semporna, in the southeast of Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah region and, with only one break-down en route caused by a stray plastic bag, the going was good. The sea was calm, the sky blue, the temperature rising by the minute. Eventually, the island came in to view, barely piercing the water, only the trees rising more than a couple of metres from sea level. The sand was a grainy white, the shallows a transparent turquoise swarming with life and colourful coral – it truly was an untouched piece of art.

We stood on the warming sand, awaiting our official registration, gazing whistfully into the entrancing water. Dozens of angelfish and bannerfish scattered themselves amongst the coral, to the left a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose under a rock seeking food, and only four or five metres from the shore a whitetip reef shark waited patiently, passing the day until the night time hunt. We were soon informed that our first dive site of the day would be “South Point”, at the other side of the island, the side facing the open ocean. Back in the small boat, we admired the 30+ metre visibility of the water below us as we raced to the rear of the island, keen to arrive before others.

Under now intense sun, still in the early morning, we donned our equipment and strode out into the unknown. The water was teeming with activity. The coral in the first 5 metres was exceptionally pristine, creating a garden of colour unlike any on land; reds, greens, yellows, oranges, purples in all imaginable shapes, textures and sizes. The smattering of butterflyfish now became a swarm, not one but six reef sharks swam gracefully before us. The sillouette of a green turtle floated peacefully and effortlessly towards the surface in the distance for a breath. The world was silent and majestic, a rare impression of peace in a restless world.

Suddenly, a shadow cast itself over us. It seemed to shift and change shape frantically, there was an unfamiliar noise in the water. I turned, and if I could have gasped I would, as within metres of me whirled a tornado of hundreds of great barracuda, swimming wildly around one another, razor teeth gnashing at the end of sleek, silver bodies. The storm grew and grew, ten metres wide and twice as deep, barrelling across the reef and out towards the ocean. I was gulping down air at an alarming rate, not scared but thrilled, in wonderment at the inconceivable sight. It suddenly tore away out into the blue, leaving us staring at one another in disbelief. In these more remote parts of the World, it seems, life exists on a whole new scale. Sipadan island, barely a speck in the waters of Earth, had played host to one of the most unforgettable encounters of a lifetime, and that was just the first dive…

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Lost in the Great Barrier Reef

ImageThe horizon curved around us, stretching in azure blue with not another boat in sight. Looking overboard, the surface of the water was made of transparent crystal, the bottom of the ocean clearly visible 25 metres below, such was the stillness. Our dive boat, a small white speck on an endless blue, had moored up at Flynn Reef, on the outer rim of the Great Barrier Reef, and we were decompressing, waiting eagerly to get back into the 29 degree celcius water. The divemaster was mapping out the coming dive on the whiteboard, giving us bearings, fin-kicks to measure distance, turning circles. He promised a great dive if we could maintain enough air to allow us to get amongst the farther corals. That shouldn’t be a problem, we agreed.

It was time to dive – we undertook our equipment checks which by this point are second nature, and took a giant stride out into the unknown. The noise of entry and the fizz of bubbles that accompany it are always the only chaotic part of any dive, and as soon as we had followed the mooring down just one meter the familiar, peaceful silence of the warm ocean had engulfed us, and life and colour was everywhere. Brilliant streaks of sunlight led us down to the sandy ocean floor 20 metres below, we checked our compasses and set off on the route unguided, just the two of us, surrounded everywhere by beauty. Bommies, small underwater islands of life, scattered across the seabed each one covered in a different aray of greens, yellows and reds. Hard coral stood like miniature fortresses guarded by their faithful fish, soft coral stretched out as though awakening from a deep sleep. Turquoise parrotfish pecked at rocks, batfish floated by with their signature shape, a giant trevally soared past the size of a small shark. We followed the coral to shallower water, gliding along a solid wall of colour for what felt like eternity, the tiny creatures watching us intently from within. The underwater world was welcoming us, with unspeakable splendour.

As we got lost gliding through endless swim-throughs and along the reef wall at 10 metres, several ‘nemo’ fish ushered us away from their anemone homes, a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose into the sand in defiance, several green turtles slowly swept within inches of us, unconcerned by our presence, each shell a distinct pattern of pentagonal greens and browns. Utterly lost in the brilliance of the moment, only our diminishing air could drag us back to the surface; we signalled to the boat that all was well, and snorkelled across the glass-like surface back to the boat. “I said an hour,” said the divemaster. I looked down at my computer – 73 minutes flashed back at me. Looking sheepishly up, I met his stare as I removed my mask, and what did he say? “To be honest mate, I don’t blame you. Beautiful, isn’t it?”. I sit here now and think yes, it truly is, beautiful