Author Archive

Freediving the Most Dangerous and Beautiful Spots in the World

Friday, March 11th, 2016
freediver ice diving underwater photo Lake Paijanne Finland

Professional freedivers talk about this dangerous and addictive sport, and show us the best destinations to go freediving with animals, wrecks and more.

Operation No Fear: Diving with Oceanic Whitetips

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

By the time I realize what’s happening, it’s too late.

Tunnel vision is instant: The last thing I remember is the blunt end of an oceanic whitetip shark scratching an itch against my fins — my yellow it-won’t-be-a-problem fins. Normally these fins are so dependable that they don’t warrant a second thought — it was only their bad-as-a-banana color that gave me pause a few days ago when I packed for Cat Island. I knew this Bahamas trip would be different. In places like Nassau and Grand Bahamas, Caribbean reef sharks have become habituated to systematic feedings. The sharks showing up are all regulars, where every handler knows their names — it’s like Cheers, except the cold ones are herring.

In open water, the rules are different. There aren’t any — only procedures based on predictability. Sharks here act more on instinct, less on habit. Pink, baby blue, yellow or other light-colored fins could be interpreted as fish.

Luckily, sharks’ body language is as subtle as a pickup artist. With these predators, a sleek pectoral fin angling downward signals that all bets are off — and the hunt is on. Those same fins slicing horizontally away from the body is good.

This is called polite feeding, and it’s the only behavior Stuart Cove’s allows guests to experience, whether at its Nassau hub or satellite Cat Island operation, run by Beto M. Barbosa and Charlotte Faulkner with boat captain and all-around chill guy Alvin Duncanson.

Earlier that morning, I was the opposite of anxious as White Bungi, the 46-foot-long custom-built Newton, carried us 13 miles offshore of Columbus Point, an idyllic white-sand crescent. It’s a spot favored by big-game fishermen for the same reason we’re here now, engines idling.

At 70 feet, the reef gives way to a 3,000-foot abyss where anything can appear — the closest on-ramp to a superhighway of life.

And it’s officially spring break: For a few magical weeks in April and May, it’s Tunas Gone Wild, a migration of epic proportions. Big-game fishermen score. And the oceanics, practiced hunters that are opportunistic by default, know how to take advantage. It’s little wonder these sharks have made headlines picking off shipwreck victims.

That same energy-saving instinct brings them to Columbus Point. Just as Caribbean reef sharks have learned what it takes to score a handout from a chain-mail-clad feeder, so too oceanics understand what happens when a big haul is on the line, snatching the marlin, sailfish or other prize just before it’s lifted from the salt water.

Anglers in the Billfish Blast tournament held here every May label them as pests. But it’s all that fin flapping and those pulsing hearts that attract the oceanics — and the reason that Stuart Cove’s has started tours here.

Dive teams intentionally replicate the actions of a fishing boat, including gunning the engine into reverse.

“All the cues are there, so the sharks are confused,” Faulkner says. “They’re like, ‘Where the frig is the line?’”

Trickle Down Theory

The process starts with a slick of menhaden oil — a fish-attractant that smells like wax and is as common here as white ice chests. Next comes chum.

Barbosa slides a glove on, and then secures a hunk of mahi against a cutting board while perching off the swim platform. Down comes the hatchet as he flings bloody bites of sushi into the flat sea.
Sometimes the sharks appear right away — or, rarely, not at all. It’s the wild, not Disney World. Today it’s only 20 minutes before the first dorsal fin cracks the surface. We climb into our gear, and then plunge in behind Barbosa.

There is a system for the dive: An aluminum cube holds enough enticing scraps to persuade the predators to stick around. Tis is the worm on the hook — the bobber is a standard tagline buoy, which lets surface support know where the divers are at all times because the buoy is tethered to nothing. The whole show travels.

Barbosa keeps a light grip on the line connecting the bait box to the buoy. He stays at the center of the action, and can dole out fish bits if the sharks appear to lose interest — unlikely, given that it’s also raining chum. When Duncanson brings the boat near the group, Faulkner lobs tuna heads and skins into the mix, helping photographers get the open-jaw shots.

For me, the trickle-down of meat is just another obstacle to avoid. I keep it in mind when I first get in the water — when things are still quiet.

Swimming with oceanic whitetips requires mental gymnastics: Just as a juggler stays mindful of every brightly colored ball lobbed aloft, a diver must swivel one’s head about, keeping an eye on the ever-swimming sharks. As a species, they are known for nudging — then attacking — the unsuspecting. But they always knock first.

It’s polite feeding, remember?

In the water, tracking one shark is easy. Then it’s two. Three and four make me thankful for my second cup of coffee. Five and six make me wish I’d thought of a better system of staying aware of their positions. Photographer Elly Wray and I had considered diving with our backs up against one another so we wouldn’t be caught off-guard, bumped from behind. When the dive started, this seemed silly. Now I scan for her. Her hooded head is fixed behind the camera, strobes firing. She’s happy in her element.

That’s one of my first mistakes: I had been watching my buddy, not the sharks, when I first spotted the female whitetip who had me in her scope, pressing steadily forward. With each flick of her tail, my heart beats faster. And yet, this is why I’ve come. The primal rush of a shark approaching, unafraid, is a high that divers rarely encounter on a reef; most sharks keep their distance, darting away when spotted. Photographers call this head-on approach the Mercedes shot. Experience it, and it will be imprinted on your memory.

Right now, as this graceful powerhouse swims closer, it’s like watching target practice. I know it’s just a matter of seconds before it will veer away. Right? And just like that, doubt creeps in, quickly replaced by the sweet smell of panic — at least from the shark’s point of view.

She noses against my fins. I get the bright idea to use that soft plastic to swat her. That plastic is as deterring as a flopping fish, which, incidentally, is exactly what my fins must feel like.

If this were a movie, this is where there would be frames missing.

When I finally snap out of it, I realize I’m gripping Barbosa’s forearm. With his fingers tight against his chest, he makes the smallest OK sign. A question. I nod. With a flat hand, he gestures a reminder to slow my breathing.

Suddenly, the lessons come back. I have been diving with sharks a dozen times. I know the drill. Don’t show fear. Make yourself appear big. Yet I feel so small. The only positive thought flickering through my mind is that as long as I’m clinging to Barbosa, we must look like a giant fish. My other happy thought is that at the rate I am breathing, my tank will soon be low, even though we’re only at a depth of about 15 feet.

Strangely, this starts to relax me. With Barbosa as my personal bouncer, I’m free to admire these pack animals. Their fins are so long that they remind me of outrigger canoes. Oceanics have a cool, faux-aloof confidence — watching them in their natural habitat is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I suddenly realize how lucky I am. Fifty minutes into the dive, and the sharks still have demonstrated only curiosity, never aggression.

Scanning the group again, this time I see I’m not the only one who made a fashion faux pas. Another member of our group is sporting yellow fins, and he too has the unyielding attention of a shark that demonstrates all manner of pliability as it checks him out. But when the rest of the paparazzi approach this twosome of diver and shark, it’s too much stimuli, and the shark resumes swimming wider circles around us all.

When my air supply is sufficiently low, I signal to Barbosa. Once I’m safely back on the boat, I stop shaking. By the time I down a bottled water, the rest of the gang is aboard — it’s time for the halftime show.

Sharks are like houseguests: Once invited, they get cozy until the cupboards are bare. And right now, we’re packing two Rubbermaid coolers full of fish. The photographers ready their cameras, lowering the domes halfway into the water for over/under shots. The chum-slinging resumes, only this time, the chorus of oohs and ahs is audible.

Memory cards soon fill and residual nitrogen depletes. It’s time for dive two — only now jumping in requires trying not to land on a shark’s backside, their noses nearly pressed against the transom.

Other divers plop in, but I can’t bring myself to giant-stride smack into the middle of circling sharks that have been served only appetizers. While the others take advantage of round two, I join Faulkner on the bow. We’re mere feet from snapping jaws, but from this vantage point, I can re-collect my courage. It’s secondhand experience, but right now, it feels first rate.

Hours later, we make the 40-minute drive east from Hawk’s Nest Marina to Greenwood Beach Resort, a rustic, charming inn favored by Europeans. Dinner is served just after dusk, and I take solace stuffing my face: warm conch fritters, potato soup, lobster dinner and coconut-cream pie. Comfort food. I return to the room, belly bulging, and climb under the cool sheets, nodding off as Wray reviews her images and gives me a pep talk. She admits that she was surprised at how afraid I was, especially given how many years I have been strapping on fins and tanks.

As tiredness sets in and I think about tomorrow, part of me wants nothing more than to walk the white-sand beaches — the ones that Bahamas is famous for — and forget all about sharks.

But it’s not beaches I dream about. When I finally fall asleep, I’m picturing a fearless version of myself — in black fins.

I Am Not Bait

Take two. Morning at Hawk’s Nest Resort and Marina. The Stuart Cove’s crew has already set up our gear. As we embark on the hour-long boat ride, I take advantage of the fact that Andy Brandy Casagrande IV

is on board to shoot video. The GoPro-sponsored daredevil makes a living being fearless around sharks, including swimming outside the cage with great whites. Of course I hit him up for advice on how to be fearless around the sharks. Or for me, perhaps simply less fearful.

He says the biggest thing is to not think or act like bait. The sharks will pick up on that instantly. And with that, I find my mantra: I am not bait.

Faulkner answers another prayer: She hands me a pair of fins. Dark blue ones.

In the water, the first few passes the sharks make are a simple display of power — Lamborghinis doing warm-up laps. I work to make my buoyancy as perfect as possible. I want to avoid needless kicking, so I make like a statue and simply watch.

Sharks are funny. Anyone who has swum with them confidently likens them to dogs. Puppies even. Part of me understands. When interacting with us, they are harmless. They rub against divers to get a reaction.

I think they’re more like cats: curious and seemingly packing an agenda. They’re processing infinite amounts of complex data in any given moment. They scheme.

This occurs to me as I watch them twitch their freckled snouts. The movements are small, almost imperceptible. Te sharks are angling their noses and bodies into different positions, like rotating satellite dishes, to provide better positioning for their jelly-filled, cuplike receptors — the ampullae of Lorenzini. This is how they smell fear.

It’s this moment that I want to hold onto. I’m watching my fear swim around me, and it’s beautiful.

4 tips for shooting oceanic whitetips

1. Stay Shallow Oceanics are most territorial — i.e., more likely to come 
in close — from zero to 10 feet. This is also the sweet spot for surface reflections, or dappled light on their backs.

2. Don’t Chase Pursuit will only scare the sharks away. The electrical field emitted by your strobes should attract their curiosity.

3. Body language showing too much confidence might prevent a close encounter. Break eye contact from time to time. Letting your guard down (just for show) should bring them in.

4. Strobe Strategy Your camera-to-shark distance can change instantly. Be prepared to reposition and change the output of your strobes from close to camera at low power for a dome-bumping pass to wide set at high power when they’re farther away.

NEED TO KNOW

When to go Oceanic whitetip sharks flock to Cat Island in April and May, coinciding with the tuna migration.

Diving Conditions April and May temps average 75 to 80 degrees F. Visibility extends 70 feet or greater.

Operator Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas (stuartcove.com) brings a custom-built, 36-foot Newton to Cat Island, running trips through
 Hawk’s Nest Resort and Marina.

Price tag From $2,082 per person for 4 nights/3 dive days.

Top 100 2015: Best Overall Diving

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Our readers weighed in on their most prized dive sites around the world — from North America to the Caribbean and Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans — to bring our 22nd annual 2015 Top 100 Readers Choice Awards to life.

For variety, we have featured one destination in each region (Caribbean and Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and North America). Not all selections are the first-place winners in the Best Overall Diving category. Check out the complete list of Top 100 Readers Choice winners in this category below.

Need help planning a trip to one of the world’s best dive destinations?
The experts at Caradonna Dive Adventures can help you plan vacations to Bonaire’s Buddy Dive Resort and Divi Flamingo Beach Resort, British Virgin Islands’ Scrub Island Resort, Cozumel, Mexico’s Cozumel Palace and Occidental Grand, and scores of daily specials in the hottest dive locales on the planet.

BEST OVERALL DIVING: CARIBBEAN AND ATLANTIC

1. Cayman Islands

2. Bonaire

3. British Virgin Islands

4. Mexico

5. Belize

BEST OVERALL DIVING: NORTH AMERICA

1. Florida

2. British Columbia

3. California

4. North Carolina

5. Great Lakes

BEST OVERALL DIVING: PACIFIC AND INDIAN OCEANS

1. French Polynesia

2. Indonesia

3. Micronesia (Chuuk)

4. Palau

5. Guam

Thousands of subscribers and Web users rated their experiences at dive destinations in a variety of categories on a scale of one to five. Final scores are an average of the numerical scores awarded. A minimum number of responses was required for a destination to be included in these ratings.

More Top 100 Winners:

Best Wall Diving | Best Underwater Photography | Best Advanced Diving

The Magic of Cave Diving: Five Training Courses You Need to Take

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

These Five Courses Will Help You Discover a Deeper Self — Literally

Shining a light into the unknown — there’s nothing that feels more like exploration. But that’s not the only reason divers who enter caves become hooked. It’s a sport where record-breaking discoveries happen every year, and there’s no shortage of boundaries yet to be crossed. But underground glory isn’t the real reason to consider cave train- ing. Even if you never venture much farther than the sun shines, these courses will give you a degree of physical and mental confidence you never thought you could muster.

CAVERN DIVER

“I’ve had students who have recently finished open water training and have just 25 dives under their belt up to advanced trimix open water instructors,” says Johnny Richards of those who enroll in his cavern diver courses.

Dive Rite LX20 Dive Light

Zach Stovall

Gear Essentials: Cave Diving Light

“You’ll need a cave diving light, and you’ll get a lot out of it for other types of diving. Also, ditch the console computer and get a multigas wrist-model computer.” — Karl Shreeves

Contact: diverite.com

All must relearn buoyancy, given that the jump from open water to overhead environments can be jarring.

“Open water is very forgiving,” says Richards. “Vary 3 to 5 feet and it’s no big deal — but in a cave, that can put you on the floor or ceiling.” To help divers cement a new buoyancy foundation, focusing on fine-tuning trim and breathing, Richards instructs in north Florida’s cave systems. These caves better prepare students for one reason: They have flow. On entry, divers power against a current measured in millions of gallons per day. “Flow affects everything — trim, buoyancy, propulsion,” Richards says.

Richards’ favorite classroom is Devil’s Den in Williston, Florida, about 100 miles northwest of Orlando. This cave extends 35,000 feet and flows at 42 million gallons per day.

“Train in complex environments and you’ll easily go anywhere that’s not as challenging,” says Richards. “If you know what Devil’s feels like, you can get a sense of other places.”

Environments like Devil’s Den also help divers shed another nasty habit: the instinct to kick more than necessary.

On the return route, these caves present yet another challenge. “With flow behind you, you have to anticipate buoyancy-control changes before they’re needed,” says Richards. “As I approach the exit at Devil’s Ear, it’s imperative
I make buoyancy changes before that change in depth — otherwise, if I’m neutral, with flow behind me, I’ll have a sudden rapid ascent.”

But even this situation is one that students build up to, starting at Ginnie Springs, 80 miles west of Jacksonville, or an hour north of Devil’s Den. Ginnie, another high-flow cave, is even better suited to beginners thanks to its flow of 35 million gallons per day and a coarse-sand bottom.

“Generally speaking, high-flow cave means low silt potential,” says Richards.

For new cave divers, almost always guilty of kicking too much, this means their zealotry won’t result in a fog of silt and lost visibility for too long. But causing a silt-out is part of the process; divers gain an understanding of what it feels like to have successes and failures. Says Richards, “This isn’t a course where I expect divers to come in and know what they should be doing — it’s a time where a lot of mistakes can happen.”

Go Now: cavediving.com


INTRO TO CAVE DIVING

One of the first things aspiring cave divers must get used to is starting expeditions in the middle of nowhere — often a field or forgotten forest, reachable only by two-track dirt roads. To access Mermaid’s Lair, one of cave diving instructor Cristina Zenato’s favorite classrooms, start by heading to the eastern side of Grand Bahama.

ScubaPro MK25 EVO/G260 Scuba Diving Regulator

Gear Essentials: High-End Regulators

“At this level, you start using an H-valve with two independent regulators. You want robust life support that is dependable, with high performance. You should also look for an oxygen regulator, deco cylinder and backup computer.” — Karl Shreeves

Contact: scubapro.com

“Old Freetown Road is abandoned,” says Zenato. “It used to connect the two sides of the island, and now it’s just a very nice, scenic drive that adds to the adventurous feel.”

Mermaid’s Lair is worth the trek due to how well it suits the needs of beginners. For starters, Zenato rerigged the ropes running through the cave.

“I changed the line, so it’s continuous, with no navigational changes — you can’t take jumps or turns.” Neither of which is allowed in the intro course.

In other words, getting lost would be pretty hard. Nor is depth an issue: Mermaid’s Lair dips to roughly 70 feet, giving divers ample time to practice buoyancy and what Zenato considers the key skill to begin developing at this level: global awareness.

“When you’re cave diving, you can’t think about just one thing,” she says. “You have to be like a little computer, calculating all these things at once, like the line, the light, the cave — and your buddy.”

Part of global awareness is taking in the environment — and that can mean appreciating the scenery.

“In Mermaid’s Lair, the formations change from a rusty orange to a sheen of black to yellowish-white crystals — and then, all of a sudden, everything is covered in black crystals. You don’t expect it to be so different in such a short environment,” says Zenato.

It’s something she’s reminded of nearly every time she shares the cave with someone new. She can hear the “ooh” through the regulator. And afterward, reactions vary wildly.

“Some people talk nonstop, and some are silent, and I can tell their hearts are so full with what they just experienced,” says Zenato. “Either way, I know when they’re hooked.”

Go Now: unexso.com


FULL CAVE DIVER

For Alessandra Figari, graduating a full cave diver is like set- ting a tourist loose in a Venice glass shop. If divers meet her standards for the course, she knows they’re skilled enough to closely approach formations as delicate and unique as hand-blown curios.

Bare Sports X-Mission Drysuit

Zach Stovall

Gear Essentials: Drysuit

“As you go deeper into caves, your dives get longer and a drysuit becomes necessary, especially for the cooler waters found in north Florida cave diving. In warmer waters, such as in Mexico’s Yucatan cave systems, a full 7 mm wetsuit with a hood will usually suffice up to about three hours — beyond that, you might want to wear a drysuit even there.” — Karl Shreeves

Contact: baresports.com

Before she turns them free, she guides them through the blanker slates of Riviera Maya’s underground realm — the caves with fewest decorations. But even those are not without beauty. Chikin Ha is one of her top picks for training full cave divers. Divers first pass through two cenotes lit by thick bands of sunlight. From there, darkness.

“Then it’s two big blocks of rock, and you can’t help but have that feeling of being under the earth,” says Figari. “It’s like being in a Gothic cathedral with all these different pieces of art.”

Inside, trainees work toward following a line in no visibility, handling a lost-diver scenario and sharing air in an overhead environment.

“I make students share air from the deepest point in the cave,” says Figari. “It’s meant to help them work on stress levels.”

When the way in and out is the same, and something happens after 40 minutes in, you have to swim out 40 minutes.

“The only thing that determines whether or not you come out is how you handle yourself,” she says. “The full cave course teaches you how to handle emotion and control the mind in these situations.”

The basics of that control are the same as with any dive course. It comes down to breathing. “If we breathe incorrectly, we cannot control the mind, and that is when we get into big trouble,” she says.

Once they prove themselves, divers are handed the keys to rooms holding even more fascinations, places like the cave Nohoch. Inside, tight passageways are lined with white formations.

“Everything is so small that you feel you should freeze, that just your presence could compromise this environment,” she says. But worry not. “No, of course it won’t. Otherwise, I wouldn’t take anyone there.”

Go Now: cavetrainingmexico.com


DPV CAVE DIVER

Now you’re going places — or, at least, you will be after the diver propulsion vehicle cave course.

Hollis H-160 Diver Propulsion Vehicle

Courtesy Hollis

Gear Essentials: Diver Propulsion Vehicle

“Using a DPV to explore caves is a technical challenge that demands you to be entirely in the moment — you need to be self-disciplined and detailed, and show you can follow the rules and stay within your limits. You should also have lots of prior cave experience — otherwise, you can get yourself into trouble in a hurry.” —Karl Shreeves

Contact: hollis.com

The main motivation for divers to commit to the DPV course might appear to be the intense pleasure of zipping through extended cave systems — a roller-coaster ride past exponentially more formations and decorations than with fins alone.

But there’s a much more practical reason as well: DPVs buy you time.

“You get decent bottom time while keeping reasonable decompression times,” says cave diving instructor Johnny Richards.

This is an understatement. Instead of draining your gas supply on stretches you’ve seen hundreds of times, you zip past the familiar and start your dive with the new.

Exploration 101.

As for the course itself, says Richards, “It’s fairly arduous —lots and lots of skills and drills, such as dead-scooter swims and dead-scooter tows.”

There’s not much on-scooter time during the course, but afterward, it’s free rein. For Richards, use of a DPV opens up places like the Super Room inside Eagle’s Nest, a cave in the town of Weeki Wachee, roughly an hour north of Tampa.
“It’s a big monster of a room with a lot of features and fossils — mostly shells; this was all ocean floor at one time,” says Richards.

In the Little River Spring system, about 90 minutes west of Jacksonville, Richards likes to tar- get the Florida Room before continuing on by fin.

“There’s a point where you must drop the scooter,” says Richards. “The cave becomes like a roller coaster in places — then it becomes tight, with high amounts of silt. From there, you can swim 3,400 feet to the end of the line.”
He’s quick to point out that divers should never actively pursue that marker as a goal.

Says Richards, “It’s something that will naturally occur at some point given time and experience.”

Go Now: cavediving.com


STAGE DIVER

“Cave Diving is all about expanding your comfort zone, step by step,” says Patrick Widmann, an advanced cave diving instructor in the Dominican Republic. The full cave diver course allows finishers to explore a cave using one-third of their tanks; stage cave diver teaches students how to safely add a cylinder to explore even farther.

Hollis SMS 75X Sidemount BC

Zach Stovall

Gear Essentials: Stage Rigging and Sidemount BC

“When you start using stage cylinders, you’ll need more regulators with submersible pressure gauges, and rigging for each. At all levels, sidemount has become a popular option. There’s no reason to be a backmount cave diver if you know you want to dive sidemount — get certified as a PADI tec sidemount diver.” — Karl Shreeves

Contact: hollis.com

Skills taught include team protocols and how to stage and retrieve tanks blind, which simulates a silt-out caused by a tank dropped atop sediment.

This course also aims to strengthen confidence, especially with distance stress — “your mind telling you that you are a long way from home,” Widmann says. “Distance stress never leaves you, even after thousands
of dives. It just becomes a question of when it will set in.”

And it happens farther in after more training dives. For the stage cave diver course, Widmann teaches primarily in two caves. Cueva Taina and El Dudu. Cueva Taina, near the Santo Domingo airport, presents students with a halocline followed by rooms of white walls, stalactites and columns. El Dudu lies near the town of Cabrera, two hours east of Puerto Plata on the northern coast. Past its giant sinkhole opening, the cave’s route, 20 feet deep, winds past unusual water colors, walls stained with tannins and rooms filled with dark-dwelling critters such as bats, scorpions and tarantulas.

When students complete the course, Widmann takes them to Manantial El Toro, a cave outside Punta Cana that is the country’s longest, requiring stages to explore.

Distance stress can be heightened from the start thanks to the cave’s dramatic entry. It’s a 30-minute hike from the car park, then you descend 130 feet by foot. “The entrance is mind-blowing,” says Widmann. “It’s a ginormous dry cave with tree roots hanging from the roof.”

El Toro’s warren unspools to a variety of rooms and terrain, all serving as mental practice for future cave settings. With each new hurdle, divers are tasked with monitoring distance stress.

“There’s a tunnel filled with really rare bacteria that stain the water an opal green,” says Widmann. “It’s studied by NASA scientists.”

Like Alice in Wonderland, divers must be prepared to feel small in a large room, or huge in a small space.

“Going through a room a plane could fly through is much different from a tunnel the size of a computer screen,” says Widmann.

Either way, he reminds divers that it’s not so much about the conditions, but how you handle them.

“If I perceive something as dangerous, my body will react that way with increased breathing rate and risk of accident,” says Widmann. “Rather, we’re training ourselves to perceive our environment as safe so our bodies stay relaxed.”

Go Now: dr-ss.com


What It’s Like To Be A Cave Diver

Cave Diver Jill Heinerth

Courtesy Jill Heinerth

“A privilege,” says filmmaker, photographer and Scuba Diving contributor Jill Heinerth. You can read why caving is so addictive in the November/December “What It’s Like” column from this caver, who is a member of the Explorers Club and Women Divers Hall of Fame, recipient of the Wyland ICON Award for making a difference for our water planet and the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and Scuba Diving‘s Sea Hero of the Year in 2012.

Drive And Dive: Wreck Diving and Sand Tiger Sharks in North Carolina

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

This shark dive began with no chum, no briefing on kneeling on the sand. Ninety feet down on the SS Papoose, as six sand tiger sharks surround me, I realize I need to toss out everything I know about shark behavior — and I’m stoked.

Sand tigers are one of the biggest reasons to drive to Morehead City, located roughly midway south along North Carolina’s coast. The others: the U-352, a German submarine at 115 feet, and 20 or so additional wrecks, cruising grounds for the sharks found here year-round thanks to a couple of factors, notably the colliding Labrador and Gulf Stream currents. These supply a steady stream of nutrients and make it nearly impossible to predict dive conditions. The crew at Olympus Dive Center — the biggest scuba operator in town — is used to starting days with perfect forecasts and fat seas, only to be running from threatening skies and 5-foot waves by lunch time. You’ll see this variability in the water too — you can have 80 feet of visibility at one site and 40 at a site less than a mile away.

Finding the sharks is a similar gamble. There could be 100 or zero on wrecks like the Papoose, USCGC Spar, SS Caribsea and USS Aeolus — the hit list for our wreck shootout, a five-day photography competition organized by Mike Gerken, a shooter and former boat captain for Olympus, which hosts the competition. And the only way to tell where the sharks are is to drop in or radio another dive boat in the area to ask for a shark report.

Today, we’ve started out lucky: sunny skies, fat seas and a handful of sand tigers on the first dive. At depth, I understand why North Carolina is rumored to be a favorite location of National Geographic photographer David Doubilet. The distance — two-hour boat rides are common — limits runoff and the number of day boats; the reward is fish schools in numbers that far outrank other East Coast destinations.

And they’re what I notice first. Like the spinning clouds that surround the Peanuts character Pigpen, mini tornadoes of cigar minnows surround every sand tiger. Each baitfish reflects the sunlight in a different direction, creating the effect of a disco ball rolling toward you.

But what puzzles me about the sand tigers is how they glide — they barely swim. They move nothing like Caribbean reef sharks. Or bulls. Or oceanic whitetips. Other sharks never stop moving, but thanks to a makeup that does not require speed to oxygenate their systems, as many shark species do, sand tigers swim in low gear. They’re slow. Lumbering. And although I’m sticking to shark-diving basics such as keeping my arms at my sides, I’m finding I can swim much closer; these sharks don’t spook easily. Because there was no bait, I don’t have to stay in one spot to be near the action. I’m as close as my fins will carry me.

The interaction allows for extended eye contact. Time to appreciate the uneven rows of curved teeth beckoning toward the back of their gullets. Where the Caribbean reef shark appears more well mannered, with its mouth nearly shut, just the hint of teeth visible, this mess of points — an aw-shucks underbite — seems somehow more menacing. And yet, this species hasn’t been involved in any human fatalities.

On dive two, the boat relocates to the nearby Spar. This 180-foot buoy-tender-cum-artifcial-reef would be a curious enough attraction for any underwater tour, but it’s the big fish we’re after. The way the water flows along the bow attracts the sharks, so all the divers concentrate here at this stretch, a catwalk for 12 that strut up and down this corridor. It’s a bit of a cluster as photographers take turns swimming with a different shark to get a shot, but the overlap is nothing like the limited space found along the horseshoe shape that defines most shark dives.

The following day, we target the Atlas, a 430-foot tanker sunk by torpedo in 1942. The crew moors to the bow, where there sits a boxlike structure described as a rusted-out skyscraper of sorts. The rest of the ship would also be of interest to the metal-inclined, but we stick to this structure — because the sharks do.

As we drop into the intersection of their traffic, I’m reminded of what Gerken had said on the surface.

“It’s not so much that these sharks come close to you as you’re in their territory.”

Their territory extends to the ship’s interior cavities, which I find as I drop down into one. The room is maybe 25 feet by 25 feet, and yet a sand tiger and I manage to swim circles around each other in these tight confines.

Because there are 23 sand tigers at this location, we unanimously decide to stay here for the second dive. After all, when you’re shark diving in the wild, you have to consider hopping between wrecks much like one would with house parties: Never leave for a new party when you’re already at one that’s going off.

ITINERARY NORTH CAROLINA

Day One

Check in at the Hampton Inn Morehead City, which includes free breakfast, or the more affordable Olympus Dive Center Dive Lodge two blocks from the shop, with space to host 32 in five shared rooms. After you settle in, have an early supper at Channel Marker restaurant on the Atlantic Beach Causeway. Watch boats cruising under the bridge while you tuck into dishes like crabcakes or she-crab soup with sherry; the crab-stufed founder in a creamy mustard sauce is decadent, yet not a gut bomb.

Day Two

The dive day starts at 6 a.m. at Olympus Diving. Make sure you’ve packed breakfast, and a cooler with a sandwich, snacks and drinks for the long day on the water; you’ll also want a hat and sunscreen to take advantage of the ship’s sun deck. The boat typically returns around 3 or 4 p.m. If you can, nap before dinner at Floyd’s 1921. Dine inside for a more upscale selection of eats, such as plank-roasted salmon. Head to the patiofor casual dining, including tapas, and live music on most Sunday and Monday evenings.

Day Three

Spend another day on the water — you’ll be happy that you did. Afterward, as your gear dries, enjoy time on the sand at Atlantic Beach. Fort Macon State Park is 10 minutes by car from Morehead City; learn the interesting role it played in Civil War-era North Carolina and beyond. If you have time for one last meal before starting the return trip, try City Kitchen in the Town Creek Marina for seafood with a twist. Menu highlights include fish and chips with malt vinegar aioli and shrimp ravioli.

NEED TO KNOW

When To Go Olympus Dive Center operates charters year-round; summer brings warmer water, and thus a greater demand for diving —boats depart daily. The rest of the year, charters are weekends only. The next North Carolina Wreck and Shark Shootout is June 2-5, 2016 (evolutionunderwater.com).

Dive Conditions Conditions in North Carolina can vary wildly day to day. Visibility can jump from 30 to 80 feet within days. In the summer, expect water temperatures in the high 70s; come winter, water temps fall to the mid-50s.

Operators Olympus Dive Center (olympusdiving.com) is located waterfront in Morehead City; its dock is just outside the shop’s door. Nitrox is available for certifed divers.

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