For thrill-seeking Bimini divers, it’s hammer time under the water

A great hammerhead shark swims by a gaggle of scuba divers off Bimini in the Bahamas.
A great hammerhead shark swims by a gaggle of scuba divers off Bimini in the Bahamas. Courtesy photo

S It’s only really scary for about 5 to 10 minutes.

You and your fellow scuba divers are lined up, kneeling in the sand 25 feet deep holding on to PVC staffs stuck in the ocean bottom when you see a gaping maw with a row of jagged teeth swimming straight at you. It’s not coming in hot, but approaching in a relaxed, unhurried manner and one of its big, black extended eyes sweeps the line of divers before it pauses directly in front of Grant Johnson and his aluminum box full of fish scraps. Johnson pushes a piece of fish toward the mass of teeth with his PVC staff, and it is immediately gobbled up. Then the creature moves on.

Welcome to the only spot within a short plane or boat ride from South Florida where scuba divers consistently can get up close and personal with great hammerhead sharks 9 to 13 feet long. Listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as globally endangered, these large creatures are protected from harvest in the Bahamas, Florida and several other areas, and the prospect of interacting with them draws hundreds of visitors to the Bimini Islands from mid-December to mid-April.

Underwater feeding of any shark is illegal in Florida waters but not in the Bahamas. Johnson and his colleagues at Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center recently won a Cacique Award for sustainable tourism from the Bahamian government.

“This has become one of the biggest eco-attractions for Bimini,” Johnson said. “We want every shark enthusiast to value this. The more valuable we make these resources, the more protection we can get for them.”

Johnson, his life partner Katie Grudecki, and divemaster Sean Williams were diving with the hammerheads off Bimini for a decade before the 2012 debut of the underwater attraction. As colleagues at the Bimini Biological Research Station specializing in shark research, they spent their days off taking a boat out to the harbor between North and South Bimini and using a scent trail of fish parts to draw in the sharks.

“At the end of the day, with a north current, the sharks are coming in from deeper water to the west and they came right up to the boat,” Johnson said. “It has literally worked every single time. We are trying to plug into their schedule and mirror their natural movements around the island.”

Johnson said the sharks usually depart the area by late April, probably migrating north. He said one that was tagged with a satellite transmitter by the scientists at the research station made it up to Virginia Beach in 18 days.

One day last week, Johnson, Grudecki, Williams and captain Neal Watson Jr., escorted a group of seven divers to the feeding site only a five-minute boat ride west of the dock at Bimini Sands Resort. All divers were over-weighted so they would remain stationary on the bottom — not bobbing around in the northerly current.

Before anyone entered the water, Johnson gave an extensive briefing.

“We can get the sharks to come in if we are all stationary,” he told the group. “We are trying to create the appearance that we are one solid mass down there that gives them an afternoon snack. We try to set this up and do it the exact same way each time we come out so the sharks know what to expect.”

Holding up a PVC staff, Johnson said, “This is all you need to stop a 12-foot hammerhead. All you have to do is hold it out. You don’t poke them in the eyes or hit them in the gills or punch them in the nose. They do not want to bite you. They do not want to eat you. It will take you 10 minutes at the most to get used to the sharks. They’re very calm, very relaxed. Some are a little pushier than others. We ask you not to touch the sharks. They don’t really like it.”

Johnson said unwelcome guests — bull sharks and nurse sharks — might try to crash the party and would be shooed away.

With the bull sharks, he explained, “it’s not a safety issue. The bull shark and the hammerhead don’t like each other, and the hammerhead will stay in the distance.”

After the briefing, divers entered the clear, shallow waters one by one and took their places on either side of Johnson, who knelt behind the aluminum fish box.

A couple of large hammerheads cruised in almost immediately, along with about a half-dozen nurse sharks that lay on the sand on their bellies and tried surreptitiously to edge closer to the bait. Johnson used his PVC baton to push the nurses away so the hammerheads could approach unimpeded.

The divers watched, enthralled (and maybe a little spooked), as four hammerheads up to about 14 feet long rotated in and out of the area. Gliding slowly up to Johnson, each shark would pause about 2 feet in front of him as he extended a piece of fish with his baton. The sharks typically would take it in one gulp, but sometimes they would miss and a sneaky nurse shark would swallow it as it fell to the bottom.

All but one of the hammerheads bore a streamer tag on its dorsal fin (likely courtesy of the local shark lab), and all were accompanied by a phalanx of remoras that stuck to them. A gaggle of rainbow runners swam in and out of the gathering trying to snag scraps. The hammerheads largely ignored them and the nurse sharks.

Once in a while, a hammerhead would pass so close in front of a diver that the diver would have to extend the baton. But the animals never exhibited any aggressive behavior at all. As Johnson had predicted, they kept cool and calm, interested only in what was coming out of the fish box.

Most of the divers stayed watching the live underwater show for at least an hour shooting photos and video, and two of them remained for two hours until Watson knocked on the side of the boat signaling to them it was time to leave. The divers waved goodbye to the hammerheads and returned to the boat.

“I thought it was fantastic,” said diver Mark Winkle of Lansdale, Pennsylvania. “It’s a little bit artificial, but on the other hand, that’s the first time I’ve seen one live.”

Neither Winkle nor his diving companion, Jan Lansinder of Trenton, New Jersey, were nervous about being so close to giant predators.

“I’d be nervous if I were a surfer. But a diver? No,” Lansinder said. “As long as you’re in a healthy ecosystem, they don’t want you. They have plenty of natural food.”

Added Winkle: “How else are you going to get that close to a hammerhead? I think they’re the coolest shark in the world.”

If you go

Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center is taking reservations for hammerhead shark encounters through April 15. Go to www.biminiscubacenter.com or call 1-800-737-1007.

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