In 1995 I moved toBoston, MA to study - it had been a very long time since my family hadbeen diving - my parents were still living in Bolivia (oneof the two landlocked countries in South America). The winters wereabsolutely brutal, and all I could do was dream of the warm Caribbean /Atlantic Oceans.
My room-mate at the timewas Justin Hull - he was a very big factor in getting my dad and I back tothe Bahamas, initially to do some spearfishing (Justin, we stilltalk about you to this day about that – thank you). Justin is originallyfrom Massachusetts but grew up in South Florida. His father was a yacht brokerand ocean man – he spent many years sailing the Bahamas and knows the area verywell. One winter while we were talking about fishing, Justin mentionedthat in the Abacos one could rent houses, boats, and still catch an abundanceof fish…he also said there were still a lot of sharks (little did we know).
In the summer of 1997my old man, Justin and I went to Green Turtle Cay for some seriousspearfishing. As a side thought, my father brought his trusted Nikonos V, probably thinking he would take some photos of the speared fish. Whatwe thought was going to be a laid back trip really became the turning point formy father’s passions – it was now an obsession.
At the time we had littleexperience with sharks. Coupled with the fact that we were spearfishing, we created some “interesting” situations. The Abacos has a lot of sharks, predominately Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks, we have also seenlemons and great hammerheads. On any given day we were usually in thecompany of 8-10 reef sharks and another 5 nurse sharks. They were guaranteedto be there and usually pretty quickly after spearing the first fish.
Caribbean Reef Shark (Bahamas)-W. Leander
The first few times wesaw agitated sharks, we usually got out of the water fairly quickly andchanged locations. Just like a pack of dogs, they would eventually follow us. Then I noticed something: My father was staying in the water longer, notspearing, but instead capturing on film these beautiful animals with his camera. I also realized that I was spending more and more time on the boat insteadof in the water. I have to admit; I was not comfortable being in thewater with the sharks. To put it bluntly: I was scared. I can clearlyremember the shouting matches between me and my dad as we were goinghome. It got to a point where he would decide to go out on his own, which later on really became the norm (as I had less and less vacation).
The Abacos became ourfavorite destination for the next nine years with my father and mother goingthere twice a year and staying for more than four weeks each time. Therewere times that my dad would leave in the mornings and not come back until theevening (only because it was getting dark). Endless hours were spent with sharks translating into some great stories to tell, including a couple of shark bites.
Over time it seemed thatboth the sharks and my father became more comfortable and confident with oneanother, this became evident by the photos he was taking and the scars henow has. His first shark pictures were taken from “far” away and later the wide angle lens was on continuously, to guaranty focus from up close and personal. My father even managed toget my mother in the water, she took some great photos of the Wolf interactingwith his friends.
“A combination ofexcitement and a small dose of fear. I would normally encounter sharkswhile spear fishing which were situations I would have to learn to manage. Onceyou have bleeding fish in the water, sharks become rather agitated and willdisplay more boldness when approaching you. Adrenaline rushes were rathercommon on those days. However, I quickly realized that the sharks wereinterested in the wounded fish, not in me.” – Wolfgang Leander
Caribbean Reef Shark (Bahamas)-W. Leander
During this time his love for the animals grew tremendously, he wouldliterally talk about them as if they were family. He always carried a littlealbum with photos of the sharks with him not to show others, but for him tolook at. He even had a love affair with “The Lady”, a large femaleCaribbean Reef Shark that was there year after year. She had become the star protagonist ofhis photos.
The Abacos, particularlyGreen Turtle Cay,hold a very special place for us, it was here thatOceanicDreams was born. It is the place that ignited a journey thatcontinues today.
“It was the placewhere I lost my heart to sharks. What was mere fascination before turned intofeelings of love. Thus, that place means a lot to me. I dived there for manyyears, mostly on my own. That way I could develop a unique relationshipwith sharks you could call intimate and very emotional.” – Wolfgang Leander onthe Abacos
Eventually my parentsmoved to Quito, Ecuador. This gave my dad easy access to the Galapagos, a place that used to be a Mecca for shark diving. Here my father somewhatexpanded his horizon and began to capture other ocean creatures rangingfrom mantas and sea lions to dolphins, but he always came back to his sharks.
“The underwaterscenery, the incredible diversity and abundance of marine life, the playfulseals, large pelagic fish, including Galapagos sharks, rays, mantas, the strongcurrents. The place is not for novice divers as it requires muchself-confidence coupled with solid diving experience. You hardly see anyfreedivers in the Galapagos. In that respect, I became quickly known as”el buceador apneista” (= the freediver). – Wolfgang Leander
Whereas the Bahamas gothim into the shark photography, the Galapagos would be the place thatstarted his concern and voice for the killing of sharks. We personallywitnessed the effects of illegal shark finning in the area. Dive siteswhere we had up to 20 Galapagos sharks would look like deserts thefollowing year. My dad has gone to the Galapagos over 10 times. It waswhen the shark fishermen took the science station hostage and threatened tokill the 100+ turtles that he decided not to go back anymore.
“I realized thatsharks and a few other species are not protected in that marine sanctuary.There is an unholy alliance between the fishermen, the authorities and the sharkfin mafia that is responsible for the massive decimation of the sharkpopulations in the Galapagos. I decided to boycott the islands. Actually thisfirst-hand experience of an all pervasive corruption that involved theEcuadorian government and the organized shark fin criminals turned me into ashark conservationist”.
Until then we had neverdived with large sharks, by that I mean great white sharks (I still have not to this day)and tiger sharks. My dad was the first to venture to the Bahamas and thenSouth Africa, like the Abacos, this was a life changing experience forhim, as it was for me. This was the first time that I can honestly saythat I completely lost all fear of sharks, ironic that diving with large tigersharks which are supposed to be “mindless killing machines and man eaters” hadthis effect on me. Tiger sharks became the new subjects for my father’sphotography. His interactions with them have been over the edge for thosewho do not know him, and touching for those who do. For the lastthree years he has focused all his energy on these magnificent sharks,”Doc” Gruber most appropriately calls the “Buddha sharks”.
“Tiger sharks are,to me, the quintessential sharks: They look (and are) very powerful, their sizeand body marks are distinctive, their eyes are inquisitive and dark which givethem an expression not found in other sharks. Their ‘character’ is in starkcontrast to their image as being the second ‘most dangerous’ sharks.
I have found tigersharks to be highly responsive to interacting with humans, and while they areformidable predators capable of hunting other sharks and dolphins, I would notdescribe them as dangerous to humans at all, irrespective of the fact thatoccasional accidents do happen. However, “playing” with themrequires two things: You have to respect and love these beautiful animals, andyou need to understand their corporal language before getting close tothem.
Today,no other shark ignites the kind of enthusiasm I feel when I swim with tigersharks.”
As I finished writingthis chapter I asked my father - What is next?
“White sharks, maybe, although that would not be my first experience with them. I alreadyhad an encounter with a 14 ft great white; it was brief but very close. Theshark was attracted to the boat by bait, and when it was about to take thelarge fish carcasse I slipped into the water. Although I knew the viz wasn’tgoing to be great, when I put my head down, I could hardly see anything beyond5 ft.
To see what theshark was doing after it thrashed his huge tail foaming up the surface I lookedup, and once I had my head back in the water, all of a sudden the shark waswithin the range of visibility. All I saw was a pointed nose, and thedistinctly large black eyes. Instinctively I held my hands against the shark’shead to push it away. Given the power of the “pointer” I could notavoid being hit on my left rib cage instead of the sternum which would have meknocked out.
Fortunately, I wasvery close to the boat, and although I swam back swiftly to be hauled in bypanicking friends, I thought I would not make it. I expected the shark to turnand grab me which is what it would have done in a “Shark Week”feature. Well, it didn’t come back for me which taught me yet another lessonabout these still enigmatic creatures. Although sharks are as littlepredictable as humans are, even large great whites are not the killer monstersthe media wants us to believe.”