Bull Sharks of Santa Lucia

Carcharhinus leucas. Better known as the Bull shark. Three to four meters in length with a body mass of up to three hundred kilograms. Some authorities consider this the most dangerous of all sharks, even more so than their notorious cousins the Great White and the Tiger. Of all the sharks in the seas the Bull is the most versatile. With a world wide distribution in temperate waters they are the only shark that can live comfortably in both salt and fresh water. These sharks have attacked people in the Amazon 4000 kilometers from the mouth of the river. Other attacks on humans have been documented in the Mississippi, Mekong, Ganges and Zambezi rivers as well as Lake Nicaragua. Numerous attacks have occurred in Australian rivers where the Bull shark is known locally as the Fresh Water Whaler. It is now believed that many of the coastal attacks in that country that have been attributed to Great Whites, particularly around Sidney harbor, are actually the work of Bull sharks. Generally a shallow water shark and quite comfortable in murky water, some of these attacks have occurred in less than a meter of water. It is speculated that it may have been a four meter long bull shark that killed diver William Covert in the Florida Keys in 1995. Further speculation has also suggested that perhaps he may have already drowned and the shark was just scavenging as Bull sharks are known to do with human corpses when they are floated down the Ganges River. Although it is not to say it hasn’t or couldn’t happen, upon returning home from my encounter with Bull sharks I was not able to find a single proven documentation of this type of shark ever having attacked a scuba diver.

"Hey amigo, you look like you have seen a ghost". The words belong to one Ehidrich Perez Acosta, better known by his nickname "Macow". My girlfriend Stacey and I are on a two week Cuban dive vacation and the highly personable Macow is one of our dive masters. We are both experienced divers trying not to show our apprehension. Neither of us have attempted anything like the dive that we are about to do. We will soon be diving on a shark feeding. These organized shark feeds are now common in the Caribbean. The participants are usually small reef sharks but nowhere else in the world am I aware of another shark dive with these monster bull sharks. This will be a baptism by fire. In all the diving at various locations in the Caribbean I have never even previously seen a shark.

"Hey Macow", I reply," are you absolutely sure this is safe."

"Si amigo. Very safe. No one get hurt. Except for Pedro. Shark bite off his arm last week and now he can no work with us."

This joke brings laughter from Diego and Roberto, the other two dive masters who will be feeding the sharks. They are obviously reveling in our insecurity. Here we are a group of very nervous divers all going on our first shark dive. These crazy Cubans will soon be hand feeding these dangerous sharks without the benefit of any protection, not even a pair of gloves. Yet they seem so calm and self assured. Just another day at work to them.

This is happening in Santa Lucia, a remote resort area on the north coast of Cuba. This is an area of only four resorts on a twenty-three kilometer beach. We flew from via Toronto stopping first at Veradero where the bulk of the tourist cattle departed and then continued to the airport at Camaguey. Here we were greeted by Eduardo, a former English language professor turned tour guide with whom we traveled by coach for an hour and a half to the Cuatro Vientos resort. This is a very international resort, mostly European, with the largest numbers seemingly coming from Italy, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Spain and Holland. Cuatro Vientros is four star rated and gets our thumbs up as a worthy Caribbean destination. We were a small group of Canadians and the only divers among us. Despite the internationalism conspicuously absent are the Americans. With their embargo of Cuba their are no flights here from the USA and American citizens face travel restrictions to come here. Eventually this no doubt will change and American-Cuban relations will someday normalize. We can then expect to see McDonald’s dotting the beach, but for now we are seeing Cuba as the way it was. It is no doubt a poor country caught in a time warp; the American embargo has been effective. Yet the people are as friendly as to be found anywhere. Cuba is also one of the safest Caribbean destinations . Crime is very low. Medical care and a high standard of education are available free to all citizens. Particularly the Cubans are are a proud people. They are proud of their political heritage and of their country’s history. The bar tender pours me a Cuba Libre, the national drink, essentially a rum and coke with lime added. He tells me that when Bacardi and Coca-Cola pulled out of Cuba with the coming of Castro that changed nothing. The Cubans just took over the plants and manufactured their own products and hence developed the national drink Cuba Libre. Enthralled with his story I ask him to pour me another one. I have fallen in love with Cuba and know that I will be back here many times again.

With this group of divers we are sitting on three small motor boats at an estuary where the sea meets a river. Each boat has a dive master in charge. Macow is our leader while Roberto and Diego are on the other boats. These shark dives can only be done when the tide is at it’s highest. The boat ride was about an hour from the Shark’s Friends dive operation beside our resort. We arrived a bit early and now have to wait awhile until the tide is right. This only adds to the tension. With the exception of the constant chattering of the Italians the rest of us are very somber and quiet. It is interesting to note how different cultures deal with apprehension. I have every faith in the dive masters. We have been diving with them all week and they are very good at what they do. Shark’s Friends is one of the better dive operations I have seen in the Caribbean. We brought our own equipment but as all theirs seems quite new and well maintained I wouldn’t have hesitated to rent from them. The price of our fifteen dive package was also quite reasonable. The diving on the reefs at Santa Lucia could be described as very good but not spectacular but this shark dive is in a class of it’s own. I check my Nikonos again. What a photo op this is going to be. Macow has advised me not to bring the strobe. "The strobe makes the sharks a little bit angry", he tells me. Heeding his advice it is a good idea to leave the strobe in the hotel room.

Macow and Diego jump into the water on their way to spear some fresh dinner for the sharks. The rest of us are told to wait about ten minutes and then follow Roberto to the feeding. When the time comes Stacey and I are among the first into the water. There is a swim in shallow water for about a hundred meters then we come to wreck laying bow to stern on a drop off. We descend the wreck to a sandbank at the bottom were we are instructed to lay on our stomachs, close together shoulder to shoulder. We are now in twenty-eight meters of water. Macow and Diego are just in front of us with their catches. Suddenly out of nowhere they appear. Six or seven huge bull sharks. With their stocky muscular shape these are clearly the pit bull terriers of the shark world. Not having the slender graceful shapes of other shark species these are built like bulls just as their name suggests. What is surprising is how slow moving and cautious these powerful animals are. At first they keep their distance but slowly begin to come closer to Macow and Diego who tease them with the freshly speared fish. They seem so gentle and timid, not the killers that they are supposed to be. My heart is in my throat is one swims in front of us no more than a couple of meters away. These sharks are moving so lethargically. There is no erratic feeding frenzy movements that we were expecting to see. I feel Stacey gripping my hand. I’m not her knight in shining armor. I’m probably even more nervous than she is. They swim closer and closer to the Cuban dive masters, within mere inches but still not taking the food. Finally one does take the food. Jaws are opened wide but the food is taken from Macow’s hand as gently as would my Labrador retriever at home. Astonishingly Macow pets the shark as it slowly swims past. We watch this incredible spectacle of two totally vulnerable Cuban dive masters hand feeding three to four meter long bull sharks. They have been doing this for eight years, three times per week, apparently without incident. There are those critical of shark feed dives but for me this is the most amazing dive I have ever been on. I will leave Cuba with a new awareness of these magnificent animals, with more sympathy and less of an irrational fear when diving in tropical waters that I had before.

The dive is nearly over. First Roberto gathers his divers and swims back to the wreck to begin the ascent. Diego has finished his feed and does likewise. Macow still has one fish left and is trying to pursue any one of the sharks to take it. It is only our group left. With the other groups gone we are now spread out. Stacey and I are alone unprotected on the far flank and the furthest away from Macow. Suddenly we see that one of these huge sharks is coming directly towards us. I am genuinely afraid but realize that the best thing to do is to stay where we are. Any signs of panic might excite this magnificent beast. My body feels numb as the shark swims towards us and then suddenly stops. It is so close that I could have reached out and touched it’s nose. Sensing that we have no food to offer, it casually turns and swims away. On the surface Stacey will tell me that she had no idea how close that shark came to us. When seeing it coming in our direction she closed her eyes and when she opened them again it was gone. I am just as comical. This would have made a great photo but in my awe of these creatures I forgot to take any photos at all despite having my Nikonos in front of me. Duuuhhhh!! Fortunately we will repeat this dive two more times on this vacation and some good photos will be taken.

Arriving back to the resort we are ecstatic as are all the other divers. We can hardly wait to do this again. But for now it is time to put away our dive gear and head to the swim up bar for a Cuba Libre so we may drink a toast to the Bull sharks of Santa Lucia.