The Islands in the Stream have an eclectic history from the Rat Pack to rum running, but recent notoriety has been all about the great hammerhead shark. Divers from across the globe trek to Bimini’s crystal clear waters to swim with these magnificent creatures. Social media timelines, magazine covers and episodes on Shark Week all feature this IUCN Red List ‘endangered species.’ I am very lucky because this shark diving hot spot happens to be in my backyard.

Jillian freediving and photographing sharks Image: Duncan Brake
Jillian freediving and photographing sharks Image: Duncan Brake

Bimini is a very sharky place, but as the winter months bring cooler water, the hammerheads move onto the shallow sand banks of the west side of South Bimini. The pristine waters and shallow depth create aquarium-like conditions, ideal for diving or freediving. I have dived with sharks all over the world, but nothing compares to slipping beneath the surface with these sharks.

Fear and fascination alike, attract us to sharks – their power and grace intrigue us, as they move in and out of the depths. For many, the great hammerhead elicits fear because of its size and the odd shaped head (cephalofoil) for which it is named.  The shape and size of the head provide an evolutionary advantage, creating more surface area for electroreceptors called the Ampullae of Lorenzini and positioning the eyes for maximum field of view. The overlap from what the sharks can see from their left and right eyes is three times higher than sharks with the traditional pointed snout (i.e lemon and blacktips).

Jillian photographing a great hammerhead Image: Duncan Brake
Jillian photographing a great hammerhead Image: Duncan Brake

The mouth, most often displayed agape, is open to allow water to move in and over the gills, which is the method of breathing, called ram ventilation, great hammerheads uses. Other sharks, like nurse sharks, can buccal pump, using their mouth muscles to draw the water in, while tiger sharks can switch between the two methods.

While I love scuba diving with these sharks, I also enjoy a quiet moment on the sand bottom on a single breath of air. The sharks circle around and come extremely close. They are bold, but not aggressive. It’s a moment to dance as we move up and down the water column, surfacing only long enough to collect another breath for another escape into their salty world.

Diving down and swimming next to an animal 6-7 feet longer than I am, is truly remarkable and there really is nothing like it.  I especially love looking into their eyes; not an empty black space people describe, but a curious and intelligent soul. A moment in the water can truly change the way people feel about them. Fear and nervousness are replaced by awe. It also catalyzes a better understanding and a level of respect, something these animals deserve.

Great hammerhead shark Image: Jillian Morris
Great hammerhead shark Image: Jillian Morris

There is no place else in the world like Bimini for encounters with great hammerheads and if swimming with them is on your Bucket List, this is the place!

Time to grab my mask and fins (and very warm wetsuit) and head out for the next shark adventure!

Jillian Morris Brake

Jillian Morris (“Shark Girl”) is a marine biologist, shark conservationist, professional videographer/photographer, educator, writer and is absolutely obsessed with sharks. She grew up on the water in Maine and has wrapped her life around the ocean. She is the founder and president of Sharks4Kids, a shark education nonprofit inspiring the next generation of shark advocates through education, outreach, and adventure.

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