[Okeechobee, FL–] Cows bellow, a limpkin screams and distant lightning intermittently illuminates the nighttime sky as captain Bobby Stafford idles his aluminum skiff north on the Kissimmee River. …
High Tea with Bimini’s Hammerhead Sharks
It looks pretty ferocious swimming straight at me – 13 feet of smooth cartilage and muscle topped by rows of jagged teeth and a wide mantle with unblinking black eyes on either end. But this great hammerhead shark could not care less about me or any of the other guest scuba divers kneeling in the sand a short distance from Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center in the Bahamas.
Instead, the animal’s gaze is trained on Grant Johnson and his aluminum box full of fish scraps.
It glides unhurriedly up to Johnson, who pushes a piece of fish toward it with a PVC staff. The shark gulps the morsel and moves on, giving the next hammerhead a turn at the feed trough. It goes on like that 25 feet deep on the sand for nearly two hours, as three more hammerheads–all bearing streamer tags in their dorsal fins–join the rotation.
The apprehension I felt early on soon gives way to awe and enchantment at having a front row seat as one of the ocean’s fiercest predators enjoys an afternoon snack.
It occurs to me that if more people could observe this underwater version of 4 p.m. high tea, then perhaps sharks wouldn’t suffer from such a widespread public relations problem. Johnson, who used to work at the Bimini Biological Research Station (known locally as the ‘shark lab’), serves as the animals’ local spokesman– educating guests on their importance to the marine ecosystem and trying to take the fear factor out of interacting with them.
Hammerheads are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as globally endangered. When their numbers plummet, the marine environment suffers. As apex predators, they cull the weak and sick from the world’s oceans and ensure fish stocks remain healthy and balanced.
Although hammerheads are protected in Florida, the Bahamas and some other areas, they travel great distances to other waters, as shown by data from satellite and streamer tags implanted by scientists. In many of these areas, they are subject to being killed indiscriminately.
An up-close encounter with these magnificent animals can change hearts and minds, inspiring the formerly uninitiated to want to conserve them. And that’s what Johnson and his colleagues are doing every day out on the waters surrounding Bimini.