Whitetips and wobbies in Indo. Silkies and Caribbean reefies in Cuba. Hammers in Baja and Tahiti. Great whites in South Africa. I’ve dived with sharks in a lot of places. But never before have I been circled by bull sharks. It’s an interesting feeling.
It’s our first dive with Emerald Charter’s Randy Jordan. He runs a shark-feed dive out of Jupiter, Florida, that is one of the most polarizing dives in the industry today — some local operators shun him, and the state of Florida convicted him in March of illegally feeding sharks inside state waters.
We’ve descended to the Esso Bonaire III, Jordan’s shark arena, hoping for lemons, tigers, silkies, hammers or duskies. Only bulls are present, slyly coming in from all angles, showing no respect for the stage-like layout where divers sit along the wreck’s stern, 20 feet above the action, until Jordan deems it safe for the bravest to zoom down to the sand where he’s hand-feeding the world’s most vilified predators.
Leaving the Bonaire, three of us fall behind. I can see strobes in the distance, but soon we decide, meh, we’re done. Up we go. That’s when we notice the bulls. My colleague Tara Bradley, photographer Craig Dietrich and I put ourselves back to back. Three medium-size bulls go round and round — are they getting closer? Are we being circled? I think, my brain catching up to the moment.
Back on board I pose the question out loud. “Yes. Yes, we were,” Bradley answers. We look at each other and burst out laughing.
Jordan, 60, is a PADI instructor who has been diving for 30 years. For five years he has run daily three-tank shark dives from his 42-foot Emerald. The nitrox-only shark-feed and spearfishing trips are addictive, not least for Jordan, who has an almost super-natural empathy for sharks. Photographers who dive with Jordan will tell you that he somehow knows where the sharks will be on any given day.
“These are not puppy dogs,” Jordan says. “Sharks can read your body electricity. If you’re chill, they’ll come to you.”
Jordan isn’t just a Pied Piper — he’s a one-man band. From ting-tings on his fish stringer to a shaker-style noisemaker to a horn he says attracts lemons, Jordan keeps up a steady racket. On days with good viz, Dietrich tells me, you can see sharks coming for miles.
Jordan isn’t alone in this pursuit — shark diving is one of the fastest-growing segments of diving.
Rick MacPherson is a marine ecologist and senior adviser to the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Shark Conservation Campaign who works with countries around the globe to establish shark-diving guidelines. He also has embarked on the first systematic assessment of shark-diving practices.
“Globally, dive operators are interested in the potentially lucrative nature of the fed-shark dive. Divers are increasingly looking for thrills, and the close viewing of mega-predators fills that niche,” MacPherson says.
For Jordan, the business is also a mission. He believes that the best way to protect sharks is to expose humans to sharks in their environment. “It’s all about educating divers. Sharks are more afraid of us than we are of them,” he says. Jordan doesn’t debate whether shark feeds are a good idea or a bad idea; he leaves that to others. Some conservationists are tolerant of the practice, with caveats.
“More people seeing sharks underwater means more people leaving with a new appreciation for sharks, understanding that they are not the creatures out of Jaws. That’s important to me as a conservationist,” says MacPherson. “Sadly, most dive destinations have seen their shark populations dramatically reduced, so the only way to see a shark is to attract it with food. But it takes only one sloppy accident to shut down the entire industry.”
Jordan acknowledges those concerns. “Getting bit is really bad publicity for sharks,” he says. So far the only person to sufer demonstrably has been himself. He lost the top joints of a couple of fingers in a spearfishing mishap, and a 2014 sting operation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and Palm Beach County Sherif’s Office led to a misdemeanor conviction for feeding sharks within state waters.
That is illegal. Past Florida’s 3-nautical-mile limit, in federal waters, feeding is permitted. Local operators who don’t do feeds claim that Jordan endangers divers by changing shark behavior, although so far there’s no evidence of that.
MacPherson says, “Initial research suggests feeding does not negatively alter shark behavior in species observed,” mostly bull and tiger sharks. “Changes in behavior occur just before and during the feed — increase in activity and aggregation — but sharks seem to go back to business as usual immediately after the feeding.”
MacPherson adds that “it’s important to consider factors such as the dive shops that were being observed.” In the study, Bahamas and Fiji operators used rigorous safety protocols, and feedings were highly choreographed. “What does fed-shark behavior look like when such rigor or routine is not as carefully applied?” MacPherson asks.
It’s our last day aboard Emerald, and Jordan is sawing away at bonito he’ll use in his feeds. He’s surrounded by eager young spearos watching intently, their faces practically down in the cooler. A group of divemasters and instructors from a nearby shop has come aboard to spearfish and to dive with sharks. They’ve been out with Jordan before but don’t want their shop name mentioned because its owners don’t endorse feeding sharks.
We drop in again on the Bonaire, where Jordan and two gorgeous tiger sharks are center stage. Jordan is ringmaster, with one eye on the sharks and one eye on the divers behind him. He uses bait and his movements to keep the animals interested, at times putting both hands around a snout in a gesture that appears to calm the sharks. With two tigers, three bulls, six goliath grouper and 15 divers — half of them spearing cobia overhead, half of them photographers with strobes and video lights whirring — it’s an underwater circus, an adrenaline-inducing thrill ride. The tigers are stunningly beautiful, swooping close enough to touch the heads of the divers nearest to Jordan, yet they produce no feeling of threat or menace. There’s intelligence in their black eyes, and curiosity. Among the divers, there’s over- whelming joy — everybody is high on life, and we all wish it could go on and on.
Back on the Emerald, high-fives all around.
“On a good day, this is an epic dive,” says one of the young divemasters. “Six kinds of sharks at once — where can you see that?”
He flashes a smile as dazzling as the point of his spear glinting in the sun, reveling in the sharks, and the cobia he had bagged.
“Even on a bad day, it’s a pretty good dive.”
Need to Know
When to Go: Emerald Charters runs shark dives year-round.
Dive Conditions: Water temperatures of Jupiter, Florida, range from the low 70s in winter to the low 80s in summer. Shark dives include both drift and wreck diving.
Operator: Emerald Charters (emeraldcharters.com) runs three-tank trips most days departing at 8:30 a.m. and returning at approximately 3 p.m.
Price: $100 per diver, not in- cluding tanks, which can be rented from Scuba Works (scuba works.com) for $15 to $20 per tank depending on size. A gourmet box lunch is included.
What it Takes: All dives are nitrox-only. Although Jordan accepts anybody he deems a “good diver,” this is advanced diving. You should be comfortable with depth, current, possible poor viz, and the presence of large predators.
To give you a first-hand look at what a shark dive with Emerald charters looks like, check out this amazing video put together by Randy’s fellow divers, the Shark Addicts: