Diving with greatness

Words and photographs by Jillian Morris-Brake

“I take a full breath before slipping beneath the surface, sinking slowly to the white sand six metres below. As I rest on the bottom, an unmistakable silhouette appears from the blue elegantly moving towards me.”

In this online feature, Jillian Morris-Brake, a marine biologist, shark conservationist, photographer, author and the founder of Sharks4Kids, talks about her experience diving with the magnificent great hammerhead shark in The Bahamas.

Her pectoral fins create a sand trail as they drag across the bottom. My finger is poised on the shutter as she glides effortlessly past me, her massive dorsal fin slicing through the water. Within the silence of the deep my camera gives off a reassuring click as I capture this intimate moment. She circles again before disappearing into the distance. My body begins to remind me of the lack of gills or gear to hang out underwater for too long, so I return to the surface.

The shark I have just shared a moment with is a great hammerhead called ‘Queen’. Queen earned her fame by holding court among the large tiger sharks at Tiger Beach, another iconic shark diving spot in The Bahamas. She can be identified by her ventral markings, her size which is estimated at 4.2 metres and her pectoral fins that are slightly turned up on the edges. I relax on the surface, surrounded by nurse sharks. I begin to breathe up, ready to dive down and dance with this beautiful shark once again.

For most divers, an encounter with a hammerhead of any species is not only special but also extremely rare. My first encounter with a great hammerhead was 14 years ago off Key West in Florida, USA. It was near the end of the dive and I was making my way back to the boat. The shark appeared out of the haze of the ocean and I immediately paused. She passed within a couple feet of me, slowing down for a moment. She circled back around and did another slow pass before disappearing. I was so excited to share my experience when I got back on the boat and even immortalised the memory by getting the shark tattooed on my wrist a few days later.

The Bahamas has long been renowned for healthy and diverse shark populations, even being touted as the “shark diving capital of the world” by many. Divers, scientists and film crews travel from across the globe to experience first-hand some of the most spectacular and unique encounters with marine life. This island nation banned longline fishing in 1993 and established their shark sanctuary in 2011, ensuring a region where these animals can thrive.

Located just 50 miles off the coast of Florida, the western most islands of Bimini are known as The Gateway to The Bahamas. Their proximity to the Gulf Stream means warm, nutrient-rich waters nourish an abundance of marine life around this small archipelago. Along with seagrass meadows and coral reefs, Bimini has one of the most ecologically important mangrove nurseries in The Bahamas. These diverse and important habitats support hundreds of residential and migratory species.

(C) Sophie Hart

The tiny islands of Bimini first gained notoriety in the shark world when Samuel ‘Doc’ Gruber established the Bimini Biological Field Station, also called Sharklab, in 1990. Since its inception, the lab has been at the forefront of shark research, producing unique and significant findings. The scientists and the sharks here have been featured on countless documentaries and television shows.

Calling this beautiful place home means I get to spend a lot of time with sharks. The winter months are “the most wonderful time of the year”; not because the festive season awaits but because the number of sharks tends to increase with dropping water temperatures. It also means my encounter with Queen, although amazing, is not fleeting. For so many reasons, the great hammerhead dive in Bimini is remarkable.

The dive is shallow at six to 12 metres, depending on conditions. The water is crystal clear and there are multiple sharks to see. Although widely distributed in tropical and warm temperate waters, the great hammerhead is generally solitary. They are not seen schooling like scalloped hammerheads, so encountering even two or three at a time is unheard of. While you are pretty much guaranteed to see at least one, you might get eight to ten individuals on a single dive.

This dive is a provisioning site, meaning the sharks are fed in order to attract and keep them around. Shark tourism is gaining in popularity around the world and is extremely valuable in The Bahamas, generating nearly $114 million USD annually (Haas et al., 2017). Not only does it support the economy, it supports conservation, research and education. Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center has also worked to connect the local community to sharks and the oceans, with much of their staff being not only from The Bahamas, but actually from Bimini. Local students have joined our Sharks4Kids shark education programme, in partnership with the dive shop, and we’ve seen fear turn into fascination. Some of the students who have gone through our programme are now working as dive guides and feeders; true ambassadors for the many sharks of The Bahamas.

Like most shark provisioning sites, we recognise specific sharks. The regulars are predominately female and have an average size of around three meters. They are either measured during a scientific workup or measured underwater using laser telemetry. The Sharklab has identified over 60 individuals and each year new sharks show up. Some might stay and become regulars, while others make a brief appearance and are not seen again at the provisioning site. The Sharklab has named these sharks after Greek gods and goddesses; fitting for an almost mythical creature. Atlas, Gaia, Amphitrite, Tethys, Medusa and Nemesis have all become icons of Bimini. Divers are excited to identify the sharks they have seen and share their story, but knowing which sharks show up each dive has also proven to translate into vital data for conservation purposes.

(C) Ko Chuan Yang

My absolute favorite shark is Scylla. When she first arrived at the site she was named ‘Bite Back’ because of a large bite mark on… you guessed it… her back. Later renamed Scylla, she actually left Bimini and spent some time at Tiger Beach. It was here where she earned recognition for her unique ventral markings. I’ve had the pleasure of diving with her for nearly a decade and each year I anxiously await her return. I actually teared up in my mask during my first dive with her when she finally returned to our little island after her time away. Sadly, as I write this, she has yet to return this season.

Each year when the waters begin to cool, we anxiously await the return of the regulars. We know these sharks do not spend the entire year in the sanctuary and historically, tags have shown they run a gauntlet through areas where they are targeted in recreational and commercial fisheries. We can hope that something has changed their migratory paths but the harsh reality is that they’ve most likely been caught and killed.

Due to significant population declines, the great hammerhead was moved from endangered to critically endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2019. Not only does Bimini provide an extraordinary dive experience for so many but the consistent access to this critically endangered species also means it might play a crucial role in saving these sharks. Past research conducted by the Sharklab has advanced our knowledge about great hammerhead shark habitat use and migration. Scientists have also previously explored the impact of the provisioning site on the movements and behavior. Developing a site where divers and scientists can work together has tremendously increased our understanding, awareness, and appreciation for the importance of these incredible animals.

I take a deep breath in once again and return to the underwater world. As I gently glide across the white sand, Gaia and Queen cruise just ahead of me. For a brief moment I am part of their world. I am sharing this space with some of the most marvellous creatures on the planet. I can only hope that sharing their story through education as well as videos and images I take can play a small part in protecting their future.