The best moment of my recent dive trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands was something I had to be told about later. As I was getting nose to nose with a big lobster to get an intimate portrait, a five-foot Caribbean reef shark passed behind me, circled around and was glancing over my shoulder as I snapped away at the lobster. When I finally turned around I caught a glimpse of the shark swimming away from me, and I couldn't get a picture. I wish someone had gotten a picture of the shark looking over my shoulder, but I have an image in my mind that's as vivid as if I'd seen it for real.
Underwater photography is like that. Actually diving is like that. Many are the times I've seen barracuda and turtles and sharks shadowing another diver who never knew it was there.
We learn about these incidents back on the boat in the chaotic "debriefing" that divers conduct among themselves as they shuck their gear and peel off their wetsuits: "Did you see that hammerhead...?" "Man, that barracuda was checking you out..." "I have never seen so many Christmas tree worms in one place...." "Huh? I didn't see anything, worst dive I've ever been on..."
All you can do is shrug your shoulders and hope for better luck next time. A couple of years ago, I came up with a stock answer when I was asked if I'd seen "the shark" on the last dive. "Almost saw it," I replied. "Very close, but, no, I didn't see it."
|Caribbean Reef Shark|
For my fellow divers on the Turks and Caicos trip, the biggest thrill was one I knew about but didn't participate in. We had all gotten back on the boat after the fourth dive of the day and were organizing our gear when someone spotted a manta ray near the boat. Soon another one appeared, and the crew announced that the pool was open for anyone who wanted to snorkel with the mantas.
Almost everyone jumped in. I opted not to. I've got a host of reasons, none of which matter, but not least of which was I didn't think they'd stick around for long. As it turned out a third manta showed up, and the trio swam and barrel rolled around the boat for more than an hour as most of the divers followed and managed not to spook the rays. One of the crew, Lynn Greene, got a beautiful video sequence that you just have to see.
The mantas were the talk of the trip for the rest of the week, and I will admit I wished I'd gotten in with them, but it was still one of the best dive trips I've had anywhere, and certainly the best I've experienced in the Caribbean.
And sharks were the main reason.
I may not have gotten that one shark, but I did see reef sharks on most of the 23 dives I did over six days, and I was able to get pretty good photos of several of them. Any dive where you see sharks is a good dive. The only places I've seen more sharks are the Galapagos and Palau in the Pacific (I'm not counting shark feeding dives, where sharks are lured into unnatural feeding behavior for the amusement of divers, a questionable practice at best).
Much of the reef around Turks and Caicos is a marine park where fishing is prohibited. Such marine protected areas have proven to be valuable for the recovery of heavily pressured fish like grouper and sharks, which then re-populate nearby areas where fishing is permitted. That value is obvious in Turks and Caicos waters. Sharks are not the only beneficiaries. We also saw fairly good numbers of large groupers, eagle rays, turtles, barracuda and lobster, and then there were those mantas, of course.
And I was pleased to see fewer specimens of one other species.
Besides humans, the greatest threat to Caribbean reefs is the rapid spread of invasive lionfish. This native of the Indo-Pacific region has exploded throughout the tropical and temperate western Atlantic. They are prolific breeders and efficient, voracious predators of small and juvenile fish, including groupers.
The lionfish also have benefitted from the apparent absence of predators that will eat them. In the Pacific, where they belong, lionfish tend to be fairly shy ambush predators whose numbers are checked by larger predators, including groupers and sharks.
The lionfish in Turks and Caicos were not as numerous as their cousins in the Bahamas, Roatan and North Carolina in recent years, and they were not as large. I don't know if the groupers, sharks, rays and barracuda of Turks and Caicos have acquired a taste for lionfish, but that could be one reason for the healthy balance we saw there.
Most of what I read and hear -- and see with my own eyes -- about the state of the world ocean is extremely pessimistic, so the best part of the Turks and Caicos for me was seeing a reef that seems to be healthy and relatively well balanced, and the sharks were one of the major bits of evidence. It will take a lot more marine protected areas to level off the damage we are doing to the oceans and to ourselves, but this is a place that gives you hope it can happen.