THE BOAT WAS STOPPED AND MOORED at the massive US Navy submarine-training buoy. Twenty or so silky sharks gathered around the aft-deck swim platform, their dorsal fins breaking the water in finest movie tradition. My dearly missed friend, the late Rob Palmer, decided that he wanted to snorkel with them.
Stuart Cove and I decided to make his swim a bit more challenging, and amused ourselves by lobbing bits of tuna meat at him. Rob was not amused, but the little sharks knew what to do and snapped up the free meal, leaping around and over him.
I realised that day that all my previous ideas about sharks had been misplaced. I have never regarded them in the same way since.
Lately, however, the creatures have been getting a bad press again, particularly following a series of attacks on people in Florida.
Deliberate feeding by dive centres has been blamed, but is there any truth in the assertion that fish-feeding endangers human lives - and that, by altering their natural lifestyles, it can also endanger sharks and other marine creatures themselves?
I reported the experience with Rob Palmer as part of a story about the Bahamas in the early '90s, but Diver didn't include it. Even that recently, we didn't think people would believe it.
The Bahamas, and Stuart Cove in particular, have since become synonymous with shark-feeding dives. Years later, I found myself swimming backwards through the water while Stuart induced a feeding frenzy of Caribbean reef sharks by free-baiting the water with tuna meat along my path.
Occasionally pushing into an animal with the back of my head, I photographed his wife Michelle as she swam through the pack.
I DON'T RECOUNT THESE INSTANCES TO PROVE THAT SHARKS ARE "SAFE", nor that they do not bite. What they indicate is that sharks are not the undiscerning predators of the popular media. They're quite choosy.
They live a long time, breed only in small numbers and take care of themselves. They manage to feed without damaging each other and they try not to bite any other large predator, such as a scuba-diver, which they assume also to be present for a meal.
Even the ultimate undersea predator, the great white, attacks its prey by making a sudden rush from below followed by a single bite, returning later to feed on the animal after it has bled to death. It won't risk damaging itself by joining battle with typical prey, such as an elephant seal.
At Walker's Cay in the Bahamas, the dive centre regularly feeds sharks with a chumsicle, a large barrel of frozen fish-cleanings suspended in the water with an anchor, steel wire and float.
A hundred or so mixed Caribbean reef, blacktip and nurse sharks will circle, feeding on the scraps as they defrost. You can swim round too, in close association with them. They don't bite divers, or each other for that matter. Even if a solitary great hammerhead, normally quite partial to eating smaller sharks, arrives, it too concentrates on the easy meal.
In the somewhat murkier waters on the other side of the cay, a flotilla of bull sharks regularly congregates to enjoy the supply of unwanted food and fish-cleanings regularly discarded in the sea over many years.
Bull sharks have been implicated in more attacks on man than any other shark species, but I was able to snorkel with a dozen or so without ill-effect. We had to keep them interested by tossing the odd snack into the water or they would quickly retire. For any shark, discretion is the better part of valour.
Sharks hang around to be photographed only if there is something in it for them. Working at Sha'ab Rumi in the Sudan, we used to tie a large lump of fish to a coral head and watch them come up from deep water on the scent trail. There were hundreds then, grey reefs, silkies and silvertips, but we would rarely see any on the reef in the shallows unless there was bait to attract them.
I have seen the same thing done in the Maldives, although shark-feeding is now illegal there.
MEDIA HYSTERIA IS ALSO NOW driving moves to outlaw shark-feeding by divers in Florida, following a number of attacks on people, most noticeably the little boy whose arm was recently severed by a bull shark in shallow water.
Anyone who has witnessed a shark feed will know that the moment a shark gets a meal in its mouth, it hurtles off into deeper water, where it can deal with it without hassle.
In this case the boy was in shallow water on a boogie-board with his uncle, when it seems he felt something touch his hand. He pushed away from it and inadvertently thrust his arm down the shark's throat.
The uncle saw the shark and instinctively grabbed it by the tail to try to drag it away. This caused the shark to react violently, severing the boy's arm.
Although the arm was recovered in order to be stitched back on, the boy lost most of his blood before he received medical attention and is, at the time of writing, said to be in a "light coma".
The crucial factor here would seem to be that people were fishing from the beach nearby. Florida's beaches are often crowded with fishermen free-baiting the water to attract sharks in.
However, it seems to be politically expedient to blame the single dive centre that feeds requiem sharks. Three others feed sedentary nurse sharks only.
Shark behaviourist Dr Rocky Strong draws a distinction between the effect on sharks of feeding them dead fish and that of fishermen hauling in live fish. "A shark may spend hours following a scent trail and will generally do so at a leisurely-to-moderate pace. In contrast, that same shark will rush at full speed toward the source of low-frequency vibrations such as a hooked fish.
"Thousands upon thousands of fish are hooked all day, every day, bleeding as they struggle violently, emitting smells and tell-tale sounds that bring sharks rushing in like a ringing dinner-bell. The threat posed [by shark attack on people] from recreational and commercial fishing is colossal compared to the impact of a few tour operators who feed sharks once or twice a week."
JIM ABERNETHY OF SCUBA ADVENTURES, a leading Florida shark-dive operator, says: "Recently Florida State Representative Charlie Justice said on CNN that he was going to shut shark-feeding dives down. I believe this was just a political move. Of all divers who participate in managed shark dives, fewer than a thousandth of 1 per cent suffer minor injuries.
"Of all shark attacks worldwide, nearly all occur on surfers and many were directly related to fishing or spearfishing. Sharks are being lured with livebait in Florida seven days a week, 24 hours a day, by fishermen who hook live fish which fight for their lives as they're reeled in.
"From a statistical analysis of the International Shark Attack files over the past 106 years, it's plain to see that the shark-feeding operations have had no effect on shark attacks in Florida."
HOWEVER, GEORGE BURGESS, CURATOR OF that shark-attack file at the Florida Museum of Natural History, adds a word of caution: "It appears that the pendulum has completely swung. A newly restructured shark image has emerged in the shark-feeding dive communities and sharks have been transformed from being bloodthirsty man-eaters to playful puppies. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes."
When I asked Michelle Cove, from the Stuart Cove dive centre in the Bahamas, why there had been so many sharks around Florida in the first place, she told me that, because of new controls on commercial fishing, stocks of pilchards and other baitfish had boomed and come inshore to beaches.
"You can see tuna feeding on bait-balls in very shallow water in the cuts left by the outgoing tide," she said. "There are many sharks and other big predators in attendance too. Don't be tempted to swim with schools of feeding dolphin either, for the same reason."
Even under water and unthreatened or unfed, the presence of man alters the behaviour of all wild animals. Most take flight. Only the sedentary and toxic hang around waiting to be examined. Because they are slow and often molested or provoked, nurse sharks make more attacks on divers than any other species of shark, but that's not to say that they should be regarded as dangerous. Adding food to the equation changes things, so feeding must be approached in a very considered manner.
The southern stingrays of Stingray City in the Cayman Islands might be soft and gentle, for example, but even they can leave a nasty love-bite on the arm of anyone who doesn't appreciate how persistently they pursue a meal.
Gentle giant green morays have inflicted nasty wounds on those who have used food to tease them beyond endurance, and I have witnessed an attack on none other than Lord Tebbit by a large green turtle that was expecting to be fed, and irritated that the diver did not respond to its request.
"I love to see fish close up but it does seem to create a lot of problems for both fish and people," says Dr Liz Wood, Coral Reef Conservation Officer for the MCS. "I've never seen any scientific papers on the subject of fish diet but I have been attacked by hordes of little sergeant-majors that expected food." As Dr Wood hints, feeding can also be dangerous for the fish. Before fish-feeding was banned there, Ras Mohammed had some very attentive Napoleon wrasse. These had been hand-fed.
The first and most famous pair, George and Mildred, became very over-sized after being given unsuitable high-protein foods such as cheese and boiled eggs. The associated stomach problems eventually killed them, but not before they had put the wind up a few unwary divers who had not been quick enough in presenting them with a snack.
Dr David Frape, animal-nutritionist and pathologist, told Diver: "If you feed an animal a diet that's foreign to it, the effects can vary from simple digestive problems to being lethal. Small amounts may do no harm but too much can cause explosive fermentation. It's a question of quality and quantity."
In both southern Corsica and Spain's Medas Islands there are large groupers that have become fearless because divers feed them. But they are given the wrong things, such as frankfurters and cheese.
"It's sad that nowadays you have to feed fish if you want to see them close up," said Dr David Bellamy, Diver's marine biology consultant. "I used to be able to dive and see plenty and I didn't need to feed them. Most fish seem to eat anything you give them, but if you do feed them, please give them what they normally eat - raw and uncooked."
FLORIDA'S GEORGE BURGESS is concerned that shark-feeding operations are altering the natural balance. "It's normally difficult to see blacktip or reef sharks in non-feeding situations in the Bahamas, but the resident sharks and some bony fishes at these sites are now trained ‘show animals' and at least partially dependent on free food," he says.
The large numbers congregating around feeding sites indicates that repetitive feeding attracts sharks and associated fish from wide distances, and can present an easy mark for poachers, he says, as happened in the Bahamas when sharks attracted to a feeding site were wiped out.
Reef-fish stocks can also be depleted in the process. "South African white shark dive operators reportedly catch juvenile bronze whaler and smooth hammerhead sharks to use as bait. As with reef-fishes, repetitive fishing for these species in a small area may lead to reductions in local populations."
All manner of animals have been "tamed" with food. The large marble rays of the Halaveli wreck, in the Maldives, turn up on cue for food. They normally eat the molluscs they find in the sand, but now they take fish from dive-guides, though oddly they don't appear to eat it. They drop it on the nearby reef before coming back for more.
SEMI-WILD ATLANTIC BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS living at the reserve in Sanctuary Bay on Grand Bahama do not hunt for food themselves, because they are not indigenous to the area. They are considered especially valuable to the "dolphin experience" industry, so their diet is closely monitored, with Canadian herring specially imported for them.
The feeder, videographer and two dive guides from UNEXSO wear full chain-mail suits for that operation's shark feeds, though the paying guests often wear nothing more than their bathing suits. I suspect that the body armour is more for the theatrical effect than to counter any real threat.
HOWEVER, ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN. Michelle Cove got bitten in the back of the head when she unwisely dived into a throng of feeding sharks to wrest away an accidentally upturned and spilled bait-box.
Despite the massive amount of blood that emanated from her head wound, this did not precipitate a feeding frenzy. Most sharks are simply not tuned in to eating land mammals.
I was present when a girl was bitten in the face by a conger eel during a Mediterranean feed, again because too much food was liberated into the water at one time and animals began to compete for it. The eel seemed more frightened by this mistake than the girl did.
The feeder will always be at the centre of any incident. I saw one get a nasty bite from a big grouper that dashed in to grab fish from under the noses of the sharks.
Even big grouper don't hang around for photographers for long unless there is some sort of edible kickback. At the Cod Hole, on Queensland's Ribbon Reef No 10, the regularly fed potato cod now hang around without too much fear of divers. Even so, the dive-guide from Mike Ball's Supersport liveaboard prudently wears chain-mail gloves to feed them.
Groupers move more ponderously than sharks but they can still make a sudden dash, and they have a mouthful of teeth. It's important that they are fed in a careful and controlled manner.
OF COURSE YOU, THE VISITING DIVER, can get the benefit from controlled feeding of being able to meet and photograph these creatures in extreme close-up. It gives anyone a thrill to be brushed or jostled by a big animal and momentarily to feel its power. All you have to do is follow instructions from the person in charge and avoid any initiative of your own.
GARY ADKISON OF WALKER'S CAY talks about "ambassador sharks" which give people a better idea of what a shark is about than the stories of fishermen or the media circus. Of the 60,000-plus divers who have enjoyed the spectacle at Stuart Cove's shark-feedings alone - and this is only one of a number of similar operations in the Bahamas - none has been injured. All go away with an enormous respect and a more informed perspective on these "denizens of the deep". So what can we learn from all this? If you don't want to be bitten, don't molest or feed the animals. If you want to see large predators close up, you might well need to offer them food, but make sure it's the right stuff, and let someone else do it!
Sedentary nurse sharks make more attacks on divers than any other species - these are behind glass
Norman Tebbit was bitten by a large green turtle
No guest diver has ever been injured at a Stuart Cove shark feed
Big grouper don't hang around for long unless they are in the habit of being fed
One of Ras Mohammed's very attentive Napoleon wrasse
The large marble rays in the Maldives take fish from divers
The Sanctuary Bay dolphin's diet is closely monitored
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: THE SHARK TRUST FEEDING CODE
- No indiscriminate surface chumming, or chumming around boats
- Only feed sharks using free-standing baits or by poles or sticks, not by hand or mouth
- Minimise all handling of sharks, particularly when done as a "show" for divers
- Do not take fish from reefs or inshore habitats for feeds. Use fish waste or unwanted bycatch
- Boats should use permanent moorings, not anchors
- Locate feeding sites in coral rubble or sandy areas
- Consider carefully the relative locations of feeding sites and other recreational areas
- Minimise the number of sites and frequency of feeds, if necessary by agreement between operators
- Promote a strong diver education programme, covering life history and ecology, and the ecological role of sharks, threats from man, and diving conduct
- Seek legal protection for sharks and their habitats
- Liaise with fishermen and local communities, support conservation by promoting local educational programmes