Swimming with Sharks
Fins to the Left...
Do the big ones always come from the left? Of the sharks I've encounter snorkeling around Middle Caicos, that's where the really impressive ones were. Just to be sure, though, I'll keep looking both ways.
The idea of seeing sharks while in the water might scare some people. While we've occasionally been a little surprised to see them, we've never really felt threatened by them. We treat them with the respect that any large powerful animal deserves and look forward to seeing them.
Checking Me Out
Aside from tourism, which is rather limited on Middle, the economy of the Turks and Caicos Islands depends on the export of Conch and Lobster. As we became familiar with the island, we found the castoff shells from that industry scattered along the beaches and the sea bottom. Many of the belongers we know help support themselves by collecting and drying Conch which they sell overseas, often in the Dominican Republic. My first brief meeting with a Middle Caicos shark was a side effect of thatConch export.
Near the end of our first trip to Middle, we were returning from a ferry trip to neighboring North Caicos. Driving along the shoreside highway, all of ten feet wide, we saw three young men in a boat off of Samuel's Landing. We had yet to get Chris, our 10 year old son, to do much snorkeling so we decided to collect our gear and return to Samuel's for a swim.
The bottom at Samuel's, once you get past the murky zone where the surf washes ashore, is a strange and lumpy terrain. Where the grass holds the sand together, it forms knobby hills. Between the hills are sandy flat channels, often overhung by the grass hanging from the sides of the hills. At the bottom of one of these channels I found the discarded Conch shells that the young men had been cleaning. That was about as exciting as I thought the dive would get (in other words, not very). At least Chris was in the water being towed around by Mom while I tried to find something to show him
I must have been passing the cleaning site when I saw the unmistakeable scythelike tail of a large shark out of the corner of my left eye. He was swimming parallel to me and quite a bit faster. I only saw the back half of it as it disappeared behind one of the hills but what I saw was at least four or five feet long. The whole shark must have been eight or nine feet from the unseen snout to the white diamond marking on its tail.
Something about the arcing path the shark took by me gave the feeling it had been some kind of inspection. I didn't want to know if I had passed the test. I popped my head above the surface to find my family and swam to them. I calmly suggest "It's time to go" and followed them towards the shore. The whole time I scanned the limit of visibility behind us fully expecting to see a head-on pursuit by the mystery fish. It wasn't till we waded ashore that I broke the news, "You didn't see it, did you?"
Back at the villas on Bambarra Beach, I consulted the fish ID guides until I found one with the diamond on the tail. A mostly harmless Nurse Shark had smelled the conch remains and come in for an easy meal.
A Baby Below
Reassured by the now-known identity of my surprise dive buddy, I wanted my family to share in the experience. It was on our second trip that my wife, Cathy, got her chance.
Swimming from Dolphus's boat, we were exploring a coral head inside of Ferguson Cut. At dive locations, Dolphus anchors in a sandy place and points in the direction of the reef. We reached the coral and turned right, Cathy slightly behind me.
Cathy touched my leg and pointed at the bottom below us. A small nurse shark sat still on the sand. This time I had my underwater camera so I swam around to dive down for a shot. The shark didn't like this and turned to move away. It seemed uncertain whether to stay still and, hopefully, unnoticed or to flee and draw our attention even more. For the rest of our swim, we saw it here and there among the rocks and coral.
To The Music Of Jaws
The third time was a charm for Chris. He even provided his own musical accompaniment.
By this visit, Chris was becoming more comfortable with snorkeling. We entered the water where the isthmus beach connects Dragon Cay to the mainland. The bottom is sandy here and clear of rocks. As we swam with him between us, Cathy and I both turned our heads in amusement at him; he was humming the theme to "Jaws" through his mouthpiece.
We were swimming in a harbor formed by the tail of Dragon Cay. This rocky island lies a hundred yards offshore but is usually connected to it by a sand bar. Depending on the seasonal movements of the sand, the bar may be dry all day long or only barely submerged at low tide. The cay itself is shaped like a dragon; the sand bar forms a beach beside the body. The day before I had been flyfishing from the tail and spotted a hole not far from it.
We circled the shallow rocks and passed through a deep channel toward the tip of the dragon's tail. We turned right at the tail and swam to the hole. As I approached the lip of the hole, I spotted that familiar tail again. Since it was lying still on the bottom, I knew it was another Nurse Shark, this one six or more feet long.
I went back to the others to plan our approach so we didn't surprise the shark, or Chris, too much. I was signalling to Cathy when Chris started pointing to the hole and mumbling "Shark!" through his snorkel. We circled the hole to watch the shark from behind.
We must have made it nervous as it lifted from the bottom and circled the hole. A large rock rose out of the mddle of the hole and the sandy bottom formed a racetrack oval. After a few laps, the shark swam into a crack in the wall of the hole and we took the chance to cross the hole for our exit.
Another surprising encounter came near the end of our third trip and, again, it came from my left. And my heart skipped a beat even though I was becoming more used to the idea of swimming with sharks.
We had just dived a cut in the reef, our furthest site from shore so far. The giant corals, some broken by wave action, were a real change from the peaceful coral communities we had found protected inside the reef. Our next stop was inside the reef some distance to the east, again rather far from shore.
I entered the water and headed for the back of the reef. I turned to my left and saw it. Not just a tail this time, this shark was headed straight at me. What could I do but float there and watch... and wait?
The swept-wing pectoral fins, tall arcing tail and flat gray color gave the shark the look of a fighter jet. Then I recognized the down-sloped face and bottom-feeding mouth as it turned to pass in front of me. Another Nurse Shark.
It passed about twenty feet in front of me. I thought of what Dolphus had told me; that they sometimes grab the fins of a Nurse Shark and go for a ride. I don't think so - I'll just stay still and take some pictures.
I looked back to see Cathy watching the whole affair. I raised my eyebrows to signal my excitement then we both shrugged our shoulders as if this was becoming a normal thing.
The Nurse Shark
The Nurse Shark is a member of the order of sharks known as Carpet Sharks. Mostly harmless, this order includes the largest fish in the world, the Whale Shark. Nurse Sharks can reach 14 feet in length.
Nurse sharks feed on small animals living on the bottom. Around Middle Caicos, this is probably mostly Conch and Lobster. They suck the prey into their mouths and crush the shells with thousands of teeth.
They are usually not dangerous to humans unless provoked. Dolphus told us of his brother-in-law's not-so-pleasant encounter with one. They were diving for Lobster on the Caicos Bank south of the islands. He found an opening in the rocks full of them. As he was catching the "crawfish", a nurse shark also found the hole and tried to nose in. The brother-in-law kept pushing the shark away and continued his harvest. The shark took offense and rammed him with its broad snout, dislocating his shoulder.
Nurse sharks are common in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I look forward to see more. If they want my lobster, though, I think I'll let them have it.
But They're Not All Nurse Sharks
Just when I was lulled into thinking that all I would ever see was a nurse shark, I got another surprise. On trip number 4, Cathy and I had just jumped off Dolphus's boat after a day of fishing for another swim along the reef. We swam side by side and I scanned around the limits of visibility as Cathy looked down at the bottom. To my left (I told you they always came from the left) I saw that familiar shape. But there was something different this time. The drab grey was now much lighter and the underside was almost white. The tail and fins were outlined in black and the snout, instead of sloping to the sea bottom, had the sharp look of a predator. This was a Reef Shark; five to six feet long. Before I could raise my camera or point it out to Cathy, it turned and disappeared. When I described it to Dolphus, he recognized it as a frequent visitor to that spot on the reef.
Look For Them
In six trips to Middle Caicos, I've seen seven sharks; at least one each time. Chris and Cathy have only seen some of them. Chris doesn't go in every time we do, and Cathy is often looking down at the bottom. She did find one before I did, but the others have always been off to the side. So, my advise is to swim often and keep looking around. And when you see one of my many shark friends, wave and tell 'em I sent you.
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