For the past 30 years, scuba diving has been my foremost recreational passion. I dive as often as I can, and it’s still never enough. At the end of every dive trip, I find myself wishing for just one more day.
My friends know how much I enjoy being underwater, and they ask lots of questions. “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” “How deep do you go?” “Is it strange to breathe underwater?”
I’m not afraid of sharks, though I was certain I was going to die the first time I saw one. I was snorkeling in the Bahamas when I saw a nurse shark. I nearly walked on the water to get back on dry land! Turns out that was unnecessary — nurse sharks are passive and spend most of their time lying on the bottom. I’m now a dive master and instructor with more than 1,000 dives, and I love diving with sharks. They are extraordinary animals and are apex predators that have little interest in humans. In fact, it’s not easy to have a close encounter with a shark. Most are wary of divers, and the only way to see one up close is to wait patiently for it to approach. As a photographer, I’ve often waited 10 minutes for a wary shark to come within camera range. To paraphrase the movie title, they’re just not that into us.
How deep have I gone? My max was about 165 feet with a dive master. The vast majority of my dives, however, have been 80 feet or less.
Of all the questions I get, my favorite is, “What do you see down there?” I’m fascinated by the vast array of animals that live in the sea, and I became a photographer shortly after learning to dive because I wanted to share what I was seeing. My most extraordinary dives were with great white sharks and humpback whales.
It’s one thing to see a fish. It’s quite another to see an 18-foot shark. Great whites were vilified by the movie Jaws, and probably no creature on Earth strikes more fear in humans. But it’s not deserved. Are great whites capable of killing people? Clearly. Do they pose a threat to us? Only when we confuse them. If that sounds crazy, remember that most shark bites occur when people are dangling their arms and legs from surfboards, which look like seals; wading in murky water where it’s tough to identify prey; or handling bloody fish in the water, like surf fishing or spearfishing.
The truth is people are more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to people. A lot more dangerous. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, a total of 57 confirmed, unprovoked cases of shark bites occurred worldwide this past year, with nine fatalities. By contrast, humans kill roughly 100 million sharks each year.
For every human killed by a shark, we kill 11 million of them. This staggering number was reported by a Canadian university in 2013 following one of the most comprehensive studies ever compiled on illegal shark killing. Researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax were able to calculate that between 6 and 8 percent of sharks of all species are killed annually. This is environmentally problematic, as sharks take many years to reach sexual maturity and cannot reproduce fast enough to overcome such heavy overfishing. Their role in the ocean’s ecosystem is to keep all other species in balance, so we have to get serious about protecting shark populations.
I traveled to Guadalupe Island off the west coast of Mexico to cage dive with great whites, and when I dropped down into the cage I was buzzing with nervous excitement. Nothing happened. It was just a big empty swimming pool. I actually got bored. Then I turned to look over my shoulder and saw a giant. An 18-foot-long great white cruised silently past the cage, gave us a look, then moved off into the depths. No matter how many sharks we saw, it never got old. The silence was the most disconcerting aspect; these massive predators, capable of extreme violence, never made a sound. The biggest surprise was that their cold black eyes are actually protective membranes. Underneath the membrane, their eyes are blue! I never would have guessed that.
After that, I couldn’t imagine being in the water with anything bigger than a great white, but my perspective changed when I swam with a 45-foot humpback whale and her 15-foot calf. From the standpoint of scale, it was like swimming beside an 18-wheeler. The mom was wary; the baby was curious and playful. Both stared into my eyes as if trying to read my thoughts. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
My favorite childhood book was an illustrated version of Moby-Dick. I was fascinated by whales and dolphins, and I wanted to be a marine biologist until I realized they are more likely to test water samples than to work at SeaWorld. In a region of shallow ocean between the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos known as the Silver Banks, humpback mothers take their young calves in winter because they can grow without fear of deep ocean predators.
Some of the mother whales will allow snorkelers to get in the water with the baby present, provided the mothers don’t perceive a threat. Five or six of us would slip into the water and hope the mom would not leave the area; I distinctly recall one mother reaching out toward us with her long pectoral fin as if to establish the distance she wanted us to respect. The moms generally breathe about every 15 minutes, but the young offspring come to the surface about every five minutes. If the mother feels her calf is safe, she will allow it to interact with the snorkelers. It was amazing to have a baby whale swim to within 10 feet to have a good look. Whales have the most expressive eyes; this newly born creature — massive yet gentle — stared into my eyes as if it wanted to know me. I’ll remember that experience forever.
Great whites and humpbacks are once-in-a-lifetime encounters, of course. Many smaller animals inspire just as much wonder. Transparent jellyfish can be hard to see, but they’re beautiful when backlit by the sun. While dozens of species of jellyfish exist, most don’t sting. They don’t just float along; they actually swim with purpose. I always wonder if they have some destination in mind. For the life of me, I can’t imagine where they are trying to go.
I grew up fishing for bass and bream in Lake Murray, so I wasn’t expecting the dazzling colors and strange faces on a coral reef. So many species of fish exist — parrotfish, pufferfish, angelfish, barracuda, grouper, snapper, and hundreds more. Coral also comes in many shapes and sizes; far from inanimate rocks, they are colonies of very small organisms that work together to build structures and secure food for their community.
Plenty of weird is down there too, like reef squid and Spanish dancer — a vivid mollusk that only swims at night. Squid are extremely smart and curious; they will often approach and interact with divers. They can change colors at will to blend in with their surroundings and hide from predators.
I see lots of turtles, from massive loggerheads, whose heads are literally the size of a basketball, to tiny hawksbill turtles fighting long odds to reach maturity. Most of the turtles that divers encounter in the Atlantic and Caribbean are either hawksbill turtles or green sea turtles. They typically grow to about 3 feet in length, and they have distinct personalities just like people. Some are shy, others curious, and occasionally divers will encounter a turtle that wants to play, swimming through the group with no apparent fear.
Like most underwater creatures, they usually swim at a casual pace but have the ability to accelerate if threatened. When turtles are eating — they like sponges and algae — they are often completely unconcerned by the presence of divers. It’s possible to get up close and personal, so turtles are great subjects for photographers.
Of all the magnificent animals I encounter, my favorites are stingrays. They’re like underwater stealth fighters — hard to see when they’re buried in the sand and graceful flyers through the water. Stingrays are docile creatures, eating animals that live in the sand. They force water out of their mouths to stir up the sand, then grind up the animals they find and spit out the shells.
Moray eels are also fascinating. They look menacing because they constantly open and close their mouths, which are full of razor-sharp teeth. Even though this appears aggressive, the eels are really just breathing — they take water in their mouths and force it out through their gills. They are not aggressive and won’t bite unless you stick your finger in their faces, which is not a good idea, as their mouths are filled with nasty bacteria and their teeth are pointed inward towards the back of their mouths. Eels are more active at night, and they are beautiful swimmers. The underwater night shift is often more interesting than the day shift since a lot of the most unusual critters feed at night. Lobsters, crabs, octopus, starfish, and eels are all more active after dark. It’s true what they say: the freaks come out at night!
You will find a lot to see under water. If you’re interested in getting certified to dive, several shops in the Midlands offer instruction. I’ve earned all my certifications through Wateree Dive Center, which is located on St. Andrews Road in Columbia. You can also give scuba diving a try at many beach destinations by taking a “resort course.” These single-day experiences teach you how to use the equipment, then you go out for a guided dive with an instructor. Resort courses don’t require certification, so you can give diving a try without any commitment. Regardless of how you get started, I’ll bet you love it too! See you underwater …