Nose to nose with a hungry shark

Deborah Keeping spent a week diving with sharks in the Bahamas. Now she won't hear a word against them

"DON'T WORRY, I am perfectly sane," I assured friends and family. "They don't attack humans as we don't look anything like their natural prey. As long as we leave them alone, they'll ignore us." So how come I knew all these facts, was repeating them like a mantra, but all the while was feeling decidedly anxious?

I was planning to spend a week in the Bahamas, diving with sharks. But unlike the more familiar type of shark diving seen in numerous natural history documentaries, there would be no protective cage on offer. The Bahamas stages a different type of shark diving: divers are totally unprotected and are free to interact with the sharks. The crucial factor is that there are about 350 species of shark, most of which have not been known to attack humans. Our main companion for these underwater sorties would be the Caribbean reef shark, which is considered well-mannered enough for divers to mingle with without any protection.

The tiny island resort of Walker's Cay was to be the first stop. The northernmost island in the Bahamas, it is hard to imagine anywhere so tranquil and remote being the home to an event as dramatic as a "shark rodeo". We arrived in a 1940s seaplane which sped noisily over the turquoise expanse of sea from Fort Lauderdale. We splashed down dramatically on the water, fans of waves pattering against the window panes; this airborne journey was all part of the adventure. Gary Adkison, divemaster and manager of Walker's Cay, greeted us, and after introductions, gave us a "disclaimer" form to sign. It warned us of the "wild and unpredictable nature" of sharks. To sum up, if we got torn limb from limb, we would have only ourselves to blame.

The morning of the shark dive, after enduring the "last supper" jokes of the waiters at breakfast, we were on the boat. It was a beautiful day and I wondered if I wouldn't be happier sunning myself on deck rather than risking life - or at the very least limb - at a shark rodeo. Captain "Snoopy" Cooper, our dreadlocked and worryingly laid-back captain, turned the boat in circles, the engines revving furiously as a sign for the sharks to roll up for dinner. The noise and smoke added to the tension, and the adrenalin was pumping quickly.

Our party was a mixture of American and British divers - both groups behaving according to stereotype. The Americans made lots of noise, whooping and hollering. Their ringleader, an Alaskan appropriately named Butch, was shouting: "Yee hah! Ride 'em sharky!" He charmingly renamed his partner "wifebait" for the occasion. The British divers gripped the side of the boat with attempted nonchalance. On deck was a stinking bloody dustbin full of frozen fish carcasses, known as a "chumsicle". It started to melt in the sun; blood was oozing out on the deck. It was hard to believe that sharks would rather eat this muck than a pound or two of fresh, living human. Peering anxiously over the side of the boat, we saw grey-black shadows circling in the blue. It was our first view of the sharks, their anticipation obviously matching ours. Gary briefed us: get in the water, descend and kneel on the seabed in a circle; don't touch the food, don't ride the sharks (yeah!). "You can touch them," he said, "but it's better not to touch their sides as they're very sensitive there."

The chumsicle was lowered into the water and sharks gathered, worrying at it, jerking and twisting as they ripped away chunks of flesh. Others milled around the fringes, weaving in and out of the pack. The water was thick with them - at least 100, mainly Caribbean reef sharks and blacktips. Gliding past, silver-grey burnished skin, blank eyes, jaws open wide, their movement in the water graceful and smooth, they were awe-inspiring. I peered deep into their mouths at the most terrifying aspect of these creatures - the massed rows of jagged, overlapping teeth.

Meanwhile, the divemaster came up and signalled to us to mingle with them. I was surprised at this. I thought we would just be onlookers, but now we joined the circus. I dared myself to reach up and touch one, gingerly reaching out, worrying that it would turn and snap at my fingers like an irritable Doberman. Its white underbelly was soft and silky, its nonchalance proof that we were about as interesting to them as the rocks on the seabed. From time to time they bumped into me, like a powerful underwater battering ram, knocking the breath from my body.

Back on the boat, we were all exhilarated and excited. Far from being the terrifying experience we were expecting, we unanimously agreed that it had been surprisingly calming - the slow, deliberate circling motions of the sharks had actually made us feel relaxed.

On to Nassau, and a couple of days at the Nassau Scuba Centre. Away from the shrieking casinos, cabarets and night spots of the centre, we were going on another type of shark encounter, where the sharks are hand-fed by divers dressed in chain-mail suits. The sharks' teeth cannot get through the metal but divers are warned that there is no protection from the crushing action of their jaws. "Who wants to wear the spare suit?" asked the divemaster. Silence.

Once they had their volunteers, we were briefed. This shark dive was different to the one at Walker's Cay. The divers in chain mail indulged in a bit of rough and tumble with the sharks, waving the food at them, stroking and fondling them. Amazingly, the sharks seemed to love the human contact. Their eyes glazed over as they almost seemed to doze off under the attentions of the divemasters, like doting Labrador dogs - almost. We were told to keep our hands tucked away as the sharks were used to being hand-fed, and they might just take a nip at our fingers. After a while, I almost regretted not having volunteered for the chain-mail suit - unlike the dive at Walker's Cay we were very much the onlookers. But at the same time, it was slightly scarier as the sharks were feeding much nearer to us, their movements more violent as they darted and lunged for the morsels on offer.

It was an unforgettable week, but we were always aware that what we were doing is the subject of some controversy in the diving community. It is probably fair to say that many divers are adrenalin junkies, always looking for bigger and better thrills. Shark diving provides them with a new, exciting experience and, let's be honest, something to boast about back home.

All around the world shark-diving operations are growing. Last year, for example, more than 20,000 people dived with sharks in the Bahamas alone. It is controversial because it interferes with the sharks' natural feeding patterns and uses wild and potentially dangerous creatures as a form of entertainment. But the people who run these operations claim that what they do plays a vital role in changing the public's preconceptions about sharks.

There is no doubt that sharks are victims of their own negative image, generally seen as ruthless, brainless man-eaters. They do not arouse as much pity as cuter creatures, despite the desperate plight they are in. Shark numbers are falling alarmingly throughout the world as they fall prey to long-line fishing and demand grows for shark by-products. Sharks badly need some good public relations. Images of the public cavorting with these supposedly evil monsters may, in the long run, prove their salvation.

FACT FILE

diving with sharks

Going diving

Seven nights' room-only accommodation at Orange Hill, staying in a standard double, with five days' diving at the Nassau Scuba Centre, costs from pounds 655, departing on any Monday in November. It includes return flights with BA to Nassau. For bookings, contact the Bahamas Tourist Office (tel: 01483 448900).

Seven nights' deluxe accommodation at Walker's Cay, including breakfast and dinner, three dives per day and one free shark dive, costs from pounds 1,079. This price includes return flights with BA to Miami, from where you fly out the next morning to Walker's Cay. (Overnight accommodation not included.) For bookings, contact the Bahamas Tourist Office (as above).

Other operators offering opportunities to dive with sharks in the Bahamas include Hayes and Jarvis (tel: 0181-222 7840), and Kuoni (tel: 0171-374 6601).

During the week starting 12 October, the Bahamas Diving Association will be presenting a Shark Symposium for divers and all those interested in sharks. Events include: 12 October, Sports Cafe, London; 13 October, University of Surrey; 17-18 October, Birmingham International Dive Show. For further information, contact the Bahamas Tourist Office (see above).

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