BIMINI -- Hovering in an underwater cage beside the fish-cleaning dock at Bimini Big Game Club, I watched with fascination the reactions of various species of marine life to scraps being tossed into the water.
There were the round bellies and webbed feet of a half-dozen pelicans trying to catch the carcasses in mid-air. There were schools of grunts and gray snapper attacking the sunken offerings with frenzied ferocity. There was a large Southern stingray that somehow got past the fish fury to the bottom, covering its haul protectively with its circular body.
And then … the stars of the show: three large female bull sharks, all trailed by multiple remoras, leisurely circling the cage from about 10 feet away and occasionally inhaling a scrap missed by their smaller cohorts.
It never occurred to me to be frightened. Breathing calmly from a surface-supplied air hose called a hookah and wearing a dive mask, I lounged around, neutrally buoyant, in a 10-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide enclosure made of thick-gauge aluminum as huge sharks cruised right by me. Heck, I could stay down here all day — except that other guests of the resort were waiting their turn to see large ocean predators in their natural environment.
I am one of about 100 visitors to experience Bimini Bull Run — the small island chain’s latest eco-attraction, which opened about a month ago. For $120, anyone — scuba certified or not — can take the shallow plunge and see sharks up close in the wild without fear.
“We’re going to bring this species home to a lot of people,” said Patric Douglas of Los Angeles — whose firm, Dock Sharks, developed the attraction.
Dock Sharks is known for creating cage dives at the shallow Tiger Beach site off Grand Bahama Island and at Isla Guadalupe in the Mexican Pacific, where great whites congregate. The company was invited to Bimini by Michael Weber, general manager of the Big Game Club, who had cage-dived with the great whites off Guadalupe several years ago.
“This past summer, we were throwing fish in the water and one day, we had 13 sharks there. A crowd gathered,” Weber said. “So it popped into my head we have a new attraction. I knew Patric and his team had the experience because they’ve been doing this all over the world. We put it together and magic happened.”
Kids as young as 8 have dropped in on Bull Run, enjoying it so much that they have named individual sharks — like Bummer, a large female with a hook trailing from her jaw.
“Part of it for us is education,” Weber said. “There’s a negative stereotype of sharks. They are magnificent creatures and part of the ecosystem.”
Well before launching Bull Run, the Big Game Club volunteered to become a “Shark-Free Marina” — part of an international conservation initiative to discourage anglers from bringing in dead sharks. Harvesting sharks has been illegal in the Bahamas for the past couple of years.
“They are perfect predators — not terrible monsters,” Douglas said.
Sharks have been gathering around the fish-cleaning tables on the south dock of the Big Game Club for decades. That’s how the location for Bull Run was selected.
Besides drawing tourists, Douglas said, Bull Run is a good underwater location for shooting film and television documentaries. It could also serve as a platform for scientific studies of a somewhat mysterious apex predator, the bull shark.
Bulls are among the least understood shark species. Growing up to 9 feet and weighing more than 400 pounds, they are often blamed for attacks on humans. Common to Florida and the Bahamas, they are one of a few species that can live for long periods in fresh water. Their reproductive processes and migration patterns are not well known. Several scientific research organizations are currently conducting tagging studies.
All of the dozen or so “residents” identified by distinguishing marks at Bull Run are females, and one of them may be pregnant. No males have shown up so far. How long they’ll stay around remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the cage is open for business.