SCUBA Diving with Sharks in the Great Barrier Reef: My 1st Encounter
The first thing I said was,
“shit, you want me to jump in there?”
It was our first night dive in the Great Barrier Reef (but you can also find sharks in Sydney Harbor too) and we were busily putting on our gear when someone at the back of the boat yelled, “sharks!” Naturally the dive crew got excited at seeing the ocean’s mightiest of predators thrashing around at the surface. Me? Not so much.
I’ve gone diving with sharks before - Great Whites. But last time I was protected in a cage at the surface. Not exposed thirty feet under the water. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Some Background on Sharks
If you aren’t SCUBA certified (and you should at it to your bucket list), allow me to teach you a wee bit about sharks. At night, the lights from the our boat attract small fish. Sharks like to eat small fish. So it’s quite common to see sharks swimming around the surface of the boat.
Reef Sharks, the most common species we saw in the Great Barrier Reef, enjoy feeding at night. And our boat created a bountiful buffet. “Supposedly”, these sharks don’t enjoy eating people, so there was nothing to worry about. But try telling that to a boatload of novice divers!
Against Every Human Instinct
Hollywood has taught us that sharks are evil; That they will viciously attack us if we enter their territory. But that’s just not true. Sure sharks do attack humans. And yes, those attacks can be quite gruesome. But sharks and people can coexist peacefully. I just needed to convince myself of that.
When you’re in the moment, your brain is processing information at a mile a minute. Should I dive? What will happen? Is it safe? I spent a lot of money for this trip, I don’t want to miss out! This is an adventure. Am I the only one that’s nervous? I suppose I could back out and just make up an excuse.
Is SCUBA Diving with sharks safe?
At the end of the day I decided to put my trust in the expertise of the dive crew. They wouldn’t knowingly put us in harms way (or so I hoped).
With my heart pounding against my chest (but not as hard as my bungee jump at Victoria Falls), I jumped into the water.
Scary at First
Obviously I wasn’t eaten, so that’s a good thing. But you can be sure that I quickly descended to the bottom of the ocean, wanting to avoid the feeding frenzy at the surface.
When you dive at night, your visibility is nearly zero. We all had flashlights, but that only illuminates what’s directly in front of your light beam. Peripheral vision is non-existent and the moment your light beam turns in another direction, the rest of the water is black.
Knowing that there were sharks on the surface meant that every shadow I saw was a shark. Every diver that came near me was a shark. I’m proud of my vivid imagination, but I needed to relax.
When you dive at night, you see creatures you never see during the day: unique fish, crustaceans and other critters. You can get close to sleeping fish who wouldn’t ordinarily let you do it during the day. It’s an experience you have to see for yourself. I followed my guide closely on this first dive, following her neon light stick on the back of her tank (a feature we all had to help us find each other in the inky blackness).
On the second night I dove without a guide. Instead, it was just my buddy and I, alone underwater. We entered the water with more confidence on night two. Realizing that the sharks aren’t going to attack us. Our second night dive was just as fantastic as the first, perhaps more so because we were alone. That all changed when it came time to resurface.
We were alone. There was no guide. As we started our ascent from the bottom, we reached our decompression bar (a trapeze-like bar 15 feet beneath the surface of the water that we hold onto for 3-minutes to avoid decompression sickness from our ascent). As we hung there staring at the boat ladder above us, we saw the silhouettes of sharks swimming exactly where we needed to go.
Sharks swim fast. They are powerful. I watched in amazement as they darted across my field of vision attacking the fish that were swimming above. It was mesmerizing and hypnotic to see nature “do it’s thing”. And then it dawned I me, I still need to go up there!
“Shit” (a common expletive I have no qualms about saying loudly when I get nervous), I thought.
Unlike making the decision to dive with sharks when you are on the surface, when you are under the water, you have no choice. With a limited air supply, you have to resurface. You can’t wait there until the sharks leave. You have to enter the Shark Buffet.
With my 3-minute safety stop over. I proceeded upwards, eagerly awaiting the feel of the boat deck under my feat. I kept telling myself that everything will be fine. Trust the dive crew. But just in case – I kicked extra hard towards that ladder and quickly made my way up.
We all returned without incident with memories that we’ll treasure forever. A confrontation with nature you won’t experience on any television show or aquarium visit.
Yes I am an adventurer. Yes I love challenging myself. Yes, adrenaline gives me a high. Yes, I trumpet on this site how everyone should live a life full of adventure and do what I do. But I am still human. I get nervous just like you do. I second-guess myself all the time.
It’s a natural response. It’s a good instinct to have. It helps protect us from danger. But fear can be paralyzing. The trick is knowing when to trust your instincts, and when to trust the experts. In this case:
Ben 1: Sharks 0
Do you think you’re brave enough to SCUBA Dive with sharks? Comment with your answer.
I’ll see you out there…!