Monday, May 7, 2012

Swimming with Sharks

Apparently, the beautiful Central Holandes area – where Irie recently anchored for almost a month – is teeming with sharks. From the moment we first dropped anchor and Mark took a look underwater, he saw one sleeping near a coral head. Our male friends, who often go fishing near the outer reefs, always see a whole bunch of reef and nurse sharks. The sharks’ attention is on high alert when they hear the sound of the spear gun and they’ve come to expect an easy catch. From the moment an edible fish is speared, these fishermen have to rush back to their dinghy as to avoid losing their dinner to the sharks, something that happens regularly.

There was a small patch of coral behind SV Reach, the sailboat of our friends Michele and Mark. Among other interesting things, the area is inhabited by a giant nurse shark. Michele had noticed him before, but one day, he surprised her when she was taking underwater pictures. This little scare made her more apprehensive about snorkeling around the reefs by herself. Another day, our German friend Stefan was fishing behind Reach, when all of a sudden Michele heard a male voice whimper: “Hey, get off, get off; leave my fish alone!” Stefan tried to push the shark away, but it was too late. This nurse shark had ripped the freshly caught fish off his spear. Another vegetarian dinner that night … for the human species!

While all this excitement was going on, I still hadn’t seen my first shark up close. Sure, Michele and I were walking on a chest deep sandbank one afternoon and we saw a dark, shark-shaped figure circle us ten feet away and then disappear, but I didn’t have a snorkel mask on to have a good look at this amazing creature, so the encounter didn’t count. That “girl time of the month” arrived and disappeared with a few very quick and worried showers off the back of the boat and then, I was ready for them. Almost every day, I went for a snorkel in “our garden” underneath Irie and every time I saw one or two nurse sharks lay on the bottom, resting. It was easy enough to observe them from safely above and spotting nurse sharks became a daily event, close by or further afield on other interesting reefs.

By now, I had gotten used to being around these sharks and most of the time when they were not sleeping and they saw me swim towards them, they took off.  One day, however, when nobody was around, I explored our garden again. The smaller shark was resting near a rock and the bigger one was just “strolling” about. I dove down to pick up a bandana I had dropped the previous day and when I emerged again, the big nurse shark was alert. He swam towards me – how exciting – and kept coming… all the way, until he almost touched my snorkel mask. I am not the scared type, but that was a tad too close for comfort; good photo opportunity or not! I said “booh” and waved my hand towards him. With a quick jerk, he turned and swam away. Then, he circled underneath me for a while and I considered hanging around to see what would happen next. He was probably just curious and I felt bad being afraid and intimidated before. Realizing that he was the same size as me, or bigger, and that Mark was not around to offer any help if needed, I decided this had been enough excitement for one day and got out of the water. After taking a very quick shower first!

Stefan diving down to have a better look at this nurse shark.

Sleeping nurse shark during a snorkel trip in the lagoon with Michele.

This curious nurse shark near Irie kept coming closer...

... and closer, while I was alone in the water!

After I "shooed" him off, he briskly turned around and stayed at a safe(r) distance.

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