Bimini divers get close look at calm bull sharks

The best word to describe my nine recent diving companions off Bimini is “polite.” They swam slowly — not herky-jerky — and waited their turn. They didn’t behave aggressively, and they were very careful not to bump into me underwater. Pretty easygoing, I thought.

But they weren’t human. They were bull sharks up to eight feet long. Yes, bull sharks — the species most blamed for attacks on humans. But they surely didn’t act like people-eaters. They seemed only marginally interested in me and the other six scuba divers kneeling 45 feet deep in the sand. It would be wonderful if other marine life we encounter while scuba diving — hear that, triggerfish? — would comport themselves with such gentility.

“They seemed to be enjoying us, and we are enjoying them,” Afif Darwish, a Canadian dive instructor, said of his first underwater bull encounter.

While their appearance was not unexpected, the bulls were not what we were there to observe. The daylong dive aboard captain Scotty Gray’s dive boat Kate out of the Bimini Big Game Club Resort & Marina had been billed as a great hammerhead encounter. But after one fleeting glimpse on the day’s first dive, no members of the advertised species appeared. Oh, well. I heard some hammerheads showed up in the days after I left. But I was far from disappointed.

The Bimini Islands, located only about 50 miles from Miami, have long been recognized as Shark Central. Located smack in the middle of the north-flowing Gulf Stream, the small island chain gets lots of other fishy visitors as well. In 1990, University of Miami professor emeritus Samuel “Doc” Gruber set up his Bimini Biological Field Station, concentrating mainly on lemon shark research. Since then, scientists have identified and begun studying 13 shark species that call the islands home for at least part of the year. Besides bulls, hammerheads and lemons, there are Caribbean reef, tiger, blacktip, nurse, blacknose, sharpnose, mako, spiny dogfish, big-eye thresher and smooth hound sharks.

The bulls show up there so reliably that last year the Big Game Club inaugurated its popular “Bull Run” shark cage dive located next to the fish-cleaning table on the south end of the marina. You don’t even have to be scuba-certified to drop into the cage just below the surface, breathe off a hookah (surface-supplied air hose), and watch the animals eat scraps of fish tossed out by resort staffers. Children as young as 8 have done it.

Shark lab scientists have been baiting the hammerheads at various sites around Bimini for the past 10 years so they can tag them underwater. (Members of the species do not survive well if hauled aboard a boat to be handled.) The Big Game Club launched hammerhead dive charters this month, seeking to draw divers who would ordinarily visit another internationally popular site — Cocos Island located more than 300 miles off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

But Gray and his crew couldn’t direct which species would come to their chum line on my dive, and it turned out to be a bullish kind of day.

Before we got into the water, Gray gave us the usual pre-dive warning speech.

“Don’t reach out for the sharks,” he told the group. “Watch your buddy’s back. Don’t keep looking at your cameras. You’re concentrating on your viewfinder and a shark comes up your butt.”

He instructed us to stay at least 20 feet away from the chum tube hanging off the boat and the bait crate sitting on the bottom.

“If the bulls come in and get too aggressive, I’ll do this,” Gray said, crossing his forearms. “That means we’re done. Everybody out of the water.”

We entered the water one-by-one, climbing down the dive ladder instead of splashing in — no doubt aimed at keeping the sharks calm. Two bulls about six feet long were circling slowly near the bottom when I got down. They were soon joined by three more about the same size.

The animals moseyed calmly in slow circles, occasionally gulping stray pieces of bait that Gray took out of the crate. Sometimes they would rise to give the dangling chum tube a sniff, but they didn’t attack it. Often they swam within a few feet of us, their tiny, unblinking eyes regarding us implacably. But none lowered its dorsal fin (a common pre-bite signal), and the only aggressive behavior they showed was chasing away a couple of margates that had the nerve to nibble the bait sticking out of the crate. Visibility was at least 50 feet, so we could see our visitors long before they got close to us.

On the second dive, five more bulls joined the party, bringing the total to nine, with the largest about eight feet long. I must confess to a small case of the heebie-jeebies during round two because the visibility was growing worse. The sharks acted no more aggressively than they had that morning, but I was still a little creeped out and I skipped the third dive. Fellow divers told me a few more sharks showed up; the visibility worsened, but nothing untoward happened.

I had to leave the next day, so I never got to see the hammerheads. Eventually, they came around and divers reported they were just as polite as the bulls.