Sharked out

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Sun 24 Jun 2018 04:08

At 5:30pm we met at the dive pontoon. Nearly everything was ready for our night dive. We’d changed our air cylinders in the morning, after our test dive, all we needed were bright torches. 

To qualify for a night dive, Marc, the dive master insists you do a day dive first, irrespective of the dive qualification you hold. This is to make sure you are competent but also that you remain calm around the sharks.

“Last week, a woman disappeared half way through a dive. She’d gone to the surface to empty her mask, and did this three times during the dive, at least on the second and third time, she warned me she was going up. Like you guys, she held a PADI Open Water award. I told her she couldn’t come on the night dive.” Marc explained. 

Emptying your mask under water is the first thing you learn on a dive course and a basic requirement to diving safely. By surfacing fast to empty her mask, she was breaking all the decompression protocols that insist you surface slowly at a speed of 10m per minute.

During the daytime, the sharks are resting. Their biology requires them to swim all the time, to keep water flowing through their gills. To do so while exerting minimal effort, they hang out in the main channel of the pass and swim gently against the incoming or outflowing current.

The boat took us to the out to the ocean side of the pass and we dropped down onto a sandy patch. With the tide we drifted back through the pass until we got to the first group of sharks. There are three distinct groups altogether, and each shark remains in their particular ‘pack’. We stopped to observe, holding onto some dead coral. I was surprised when Marc edged over towards me, surely he wasn’t scared of sharks? Ah, I got it, he thought I might be!

Marc pointed at a large shark further away, it was a silver tip shark (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) around 3m long, all the others were smaller, the majority grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) and a few whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus). Only once when producing the documents-films, did Laurent’s team have to leave the water because of shark behaviour, it was when a silver tip shark started ramming the cameras and lights. We gave it a wide berth.

The grey sharks came quite close but always staying in the current. Some kept a beady eye on us and we stared back through our goggles.

Too soon, we let the current take us slowly back to the dive pontoon. We’d passed Marc’s test and he’d passed ours, he’d looked after us well and wasn’t as casual as some yachties had led us to believe.

The sun had set, it was time to go. The boat was ready so we hauled the dive bottles onto the deck and jumped aboard. As we weren’t going far, we immediately strapped into the buoyancy jackets (the dive bottle is attached to the back) and fitted our fins.

“Three, two, one, go.” Called out the boatman.

In unison we fell over the side of the boat backwards and dived down into the dark ocean. Marc lit his powerful beam, the sharks were all around. As I landed on the bottom, right next to me was a whitetip reef shark with its head stuck down a hole in the coral. It was hunting. Being smaller, the whitetip reef sharks often flush fish out from the corals for the waiting larger greys. The night promised to be exciting! 

Using our lights, we observed, unlike during the day, the sharks were everywhere, swimming in all directions. There were no fish, not a sausage, they were all hiding in the coral, hoping that tonight wasn’t the last. Catching a glimpse, out of the corner of the eye, of a shark coming straight towards you, does awaken a kind of primeval fear. I watched a small shark heading for Franco, who’d seen it too. He shone his torch in its eyes and it turned away.

We went a little further and Marc landed on a small patch of sand. Franco, and our two companions landed too but I couldn’t find a large enough spot, there was too much coral. I was hovering, still looking for somewhere to alight when I lost my balance and glided against Franco then bounced onto Marc who pinned me to the ground. I was embarrassed, it shouldn’t have happened. 

The current was speeding up and I had to fin against it to slow down, I seemed to be drifting faster than the others. In the end I stayed five metres behind Franco who would turn round frequently, either checking that I was still there or that no large sharks were creeping up on him.

Marc was heading up the coral cliff, peering into cavities. Reef fish stirred but stayed hidden. He motioned us to stop. Clinging onto coral by our finger tips, we watched. The sharks were milling. Then something changed, the water became charged with energy, the hunt had started. Sharks were appearing in my torch beam, fast and furious. I was mesmerised.  

A pat on my shoulder, Franco was signing that we were heading off. “Just as things were starting to happen,” I thought, disappointed. By the time we surfaced by the diving pontoon, I’d worked out that we’d left BECAUSE something was about to happen, you don’t want to get between all those teeth and dinner.