The Story of the Tiger Shark, Mahi Mahi Carcass & The Freediver
Returning from a morning snorkeling trip we entered the harbor at around 1:30 pm, when a lot of the other morning trips were returning. There was a gathering of people on either side of the harbor channel where there is only a large landing craft moored for use as an offshore fish farm.
People were talking and pointing in the water and I knew what is was right away, a large Tiger Shark. A guy on the shore looked over at me and gave me the “fin on his head” sign (which is the universal sign for shark) then pointed into the water in front of him. I could barely make out the shape because the water was a bit murky due to a slight algae bloom.
As we got closer I could see the large outline of the shark. It had white around its mouth and I quickly realized it had a fish carcass and was attempting to eat it. I scrambled to put on my gear and grabbed my camera. When the animal came back into sight I slid into the water hoping for a shot of the shark with the fish in its mouth.
When I entered the water I noticed that the visibility was worse that I thought and I couldn’t see the shark at all. I swam out into the middle of the channel and found the carcass of the fish, (which was a Mahi Mahi) but the shark was not in view. My partner’s wife just happened to be sitting on shore in front of me taking photos and I asked her if you saw the shark, she said it was behind me.
I turned quickly to see the animal approaching from below at a steady pace. She did not veer away from me as she had done in the past (I had photographed this shark before) and she showed no fear. She seemed to be zeroing in on me. Her speed never changed as she got closer and closer. I exhaled (a technique I use for some of my photos and not recommended to an untrained freediver) and sunk down to line up a shot hoping she would get closer, but not too close.
This is when she did what every diver dreads to see in a sharks behavior, she lifted her nictitating membrane to protect her eye. This is a behavior they use right before they bite at something, be it an attack or just an investigative nibble. I had the presence of mind to fire a few pictures off just as she opened her mouth. I wasn’t really thinking as much as reacting at this point.
There was no way for me to swim away, which actually never crossed my mind, my only alternative was to fend her off with my camera. Her first attempt to bite me was mouth wide-open jaw extending. I used my camera to push off of the left side of her nose and like a martial arts move using her momentum and my agility to move to her left side. She turned towards me again and opened her mouth with more of a snapping movement when I made contact with her again. I was moving down her left side and she made one more attempt with another quick snap to get ahold of her target. At this point she turned away and swam off.
I was now looking for the boat on the surface and scanning underwater for the shark. She made one more pass at me and I made the same type of maneuver and sunk down to get a few more shots of her coming towards me then she turned away. I looked up to see that there were quite a few boats coming down the channel and I didn’t want to get hit by one of them so I made my way back to the boat.
Looking back on this encounter I feel very lucky. Not in the sense that I had a brush with death, but the realization that I shared an encounter with one of the most awesome creatures on the planet. This is an animal that deserves respect and protection not to be feared and exploited.