A couple years ago I met Jorge Loria, owner of Phantom Divers in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. He told me about an amazing dive he had been doing with Bull sharks, and I really wanted to do a Blue World segment about it. Bull sharks look like your basic reef shark, but they grow considerably larger, and are often considered quite a bit more feisty. Bull sharks enjoy a rather bad reputation as the shark involved in the most documented attacks on people, but this is probably more because of where they live (shallow water near people) than their demeanor. I wanted to find out what these sharks are like in the wild.
Since Jorge doesn’t want to freak out beach-goers by feeding sharks too close to the shore, he does his shark feed plenty far from the beach in 80 feet of water. It’s a little deeper than ideal for shark diving as it limits the bottom time, and put restraints on the quality of light. As a result, we used 32% nitrox to extend bottom times. Even then, we were only getting about 30 minutes on the bottom. We often found that the sharks were just getting adventurous by the time we left. Jorge said that in November and December there are a lot more sharks, and the feeding can get very exciting, almost to the point of having too many sharks. But in January, the really big (presumably pregnant) sharks vanish. He is pretty sure they go to have their pups in shallow water someplace. He and Mauricio are going to put sonic tags on them soon to see if they can figure out where they are going. They are already putting receivers to track the tags in various places where Bull sharks are thought to be pupping. Curiously, all the Bull sharks that show up in Playa del Carmen are female. We didn’t see a single male. Very interesting!
In the afternoon we headed out again for my second try at hand feeding. To hedge our bets a little, we sent Charlie down 15 minutes before us to chum in advance. He sent up a float a few minutes later to tell us the sharks were ready. When we got down there, Charlie had the sharks in a flurry of activity. I swam right up to him and took over feeding. I had a really huge female taking fish after fish from my hand! And even though I had fed plenty of sharks before, I was glad to have the chain mail on—just in case!
Once we had enough shots of me feeding the sharks, it was time to let Mauricio have a go at taking a tissue sample. I grabbed my video camera from Christine to film it along with Cameraman Tim. The big female that was monopolizing the feeding had already been sampled a few weeks ago, so Mauricio was waiting for one of the smaller ones to come within range. Because the skin on the Bull shark is so tough, Mauricio has to be within 3 feet of the shark for the speargun to carry enough force to take the sample. We didn’t think it was going to happen, but towards the very end of the dive, the right shark came in close. Cameraman Tim and I were both in position and filmed Mauricio taking a perfect tissue sample. Mauricio even had a GoPro camera mounted on his speargun as a “gun camera” so we have three angles on it.
On the third day, I planned to just shoot some B-roll of swimming sharks. The morning was again a little frustrating. This time we had almost no sharks in range the whole dive and we got pretty much nothing. I left the last dive as my only opportunity to shoot a few stills. Christine volunteered to shoot some B-roll of shark cutaways so I could take my still camera in the water for one dive before heading home. We got lucky with pretty good shark action on the last dive and even though I didn’t produce anything utterly spectacular with the still camera, I got a few pictures to share.
After only three days of shooting, we packed our bags to come home. I wish we could have stayed a few more days, but we had to get home. It was a short trip, but we nailed a fabulous segment. I can’t wait to start editing!
We would like to thank Phantom Divers for hosting us, The Riviera Maya Tourism Board for their invaluable assistance and the Blue Parrot 5th Ave hotel. This was my fifth trip to Playa del Carmen for various underwater exploits and I’m sure I’ll be back again!