Walt Stearns gets in the ‘real’ shark tank with Bahamas Master Liveaboard at the legendary Tiger Beach.
Photographs by Walt Stearns
The stage is set; the audience has arrived. Anticipation builds as they await the stars of the show. But this isn’t your usual theater. There are no seats, no spotlights, no stage curtain. Patrons kneel on a sand floor, positioned in a V-shaped formation… and they are 24ft under the water.
The preview to this show began minutes earlier, when divers gearing up on the swim platform of the Bahamas Master were greeted by several large lemon sharks and a group of reef sharks circling in the waters below. Anywhere else, these sightings might be the main attraction. But this is Tiger Beach, the world’s most-renowned destination for inwater encounters with tiger sharks.
Once all divers are settled in, the Bahamas Master’s shark wrangler rings the dinner bell. At first, it’s just the supporting cast that circles in anticipation of a free meal. Then, about 15 minutes into the dive, the first of the big girls arrive. It’s a hefty size 12-foot female tiger shark named Zora; identifiable by the presence of a fishhook lodged in the right corner of her mouth and a curious white Z-shape mark above the left pectoral fin. Her approach starts off slowly, as she cautiously weaves back and forth into the current as she picks up the scent of bait contained in the square steel box set in front of the shark wrangler.
Just as Zora begins to close the gap, a second tiger emerges on the scene. Slightly larger, the new interloper is Tequila, identifiable by a nickel-size white spot on her right flank below her dorsal fin.
Whatever attention the audience had for the ubiquitous reef or lemon shark activity vanishes in an instant! All eyes are now on the two big ladies’ mere yards away.
Bolstered by each other’s presence, the lady tigers zero in to see what’s on the menu. Like any good drama, the tempo soon accelerates. Two quickly became five, with three new additions to the dance troop -Anna, Lil’ Pretty and Princess.
There is no beach, just sharks
Tiger Beach is located on the western fringe of the Little Bahama Banks. There are plenty of tigers, but no beach — just an expansive underwater plateau with no land in sight. Water depths for these staged shark encounters can range from as little as 15ft to as much as 50ft. The aquatic terrain is also variable, transitioning from plain white sand to areas sporting seagrass beds or scattered coral heads. And, like most anywhere you go in the Bahamas, there are sharks… lots of sharks, everything from Caribbean reefs and lemons to blacktips and bulls.
Did you know?
Hear the word tiger and you think vertical stripes, but those stripes evolve over time. Baby tiger sharks are covered in roundish gray spots that merge into stripes as the sharks mature. After a certain age, the stripes start to fade; they’re barely visible in full-grown adults.
But as the site’s name implies, it is the tiger sharks that are the featured attraction here. And the trademark feature of Tiger Beach isn’t just the presence of the namesake species, it’s their size. These girls (so far, all tiger sharks seen here are female) run on the plus size, averaging 10 to 13 feet in length, with some even bigger!
One of those really big gals is Emma. As tiger sharks go, Emma is just about as big as they come, sporting an impressive thick profile and measuring just shy of 16 feet in length. In addition to size, her celebrity status is fueled by a reputation for reliable performances, which take place anywhere from late-fall well into early spring.
The recent invitation to join the Bahamas Master found me back at Tiger Beach in the middle of June 2022. I knew that the odds of seeing Emma were not the highest. But even when the biggest member of the show doesn’t make an appearance, there’s still plenty of thrills to be had from encounters with stocky predators in the 12-foot-plus range that come in close enough to be eye-to-eye. It’s sure to get your full attention, especially when you understand what these sharks are all about.
Sharks that require your full attention
The initial impression when someone first meets a tiger shark is often ‘my god they’re big’! Yes, they are quite large, with a body mass just slightly below that of the great white shark. The largest confirmed tiger on record was a massive 18-foot, 3,360 lbs pregnant female caught off the coast of Australia in 2015.
Like a great white, the tiger’s reputation for attacks on humans ranks near the top of the list of the world’s 10 most dangerous shark species. A short review of the International Shark Attack File’s database (which goes back some 60 years) will show tiger sharks have been implicated in over 138 unprovoked attacks around the world, with over 36 of them being fatal.
This isn’t because tiger sharks have an incessant taste for human flesh; it’s an inevitable result of having the widest range of dietary choices of any ocean-going macro predator. Pretty much everything from crustaceans to fish, other species of sharks, sea turtles, marine mammals to even seabirds are up for grabs.
Additionally, tigers are generally as indiscriminate as a vulture when it comes to running into something that is already dead. Even non-edible objects, such as automobile license plates, oil cans and old tires have made their way into the stomach of a tiger shark — earning them the less-than-glamorous title of the ‘garbage collectors’ of the shark world.
Like all predators of this ilk, they are more often in scavenger mode rather than attack mode as they seek out the easiest way to a meal. Where things can get problematic is when divers allow themselves to be beguiled by these sharks’ somewhat cautious puppy dog demeanor that’s on display as they cruise past, low to the bottom, sniffing for treats.
Did you know?
Tiger sharks have very broad diets: They eat everything from albatrosses, venomous sea snakes, and other sharks to man-made objects like paint cans, leather jackets, rubber tires, and even license plates! Remember ‘Jaws’?
The mistake that can turn fatal is not understanding that tigers are also highly opportunistic hunters that rely on stealth and patience while constantly looking for that window to strike. Their most-common tactic is to take a casual turn away and circle around to sneak up from behind when you least expect it. The number one rule the shark wranglers constantly bring up during the briefing before getting in the water is ‘never, ever take your eyes off them! Nor should you back down.
A second rule with the Bahamas Master, as well as several other dive operations that specialize in tiger shark dives, is that you don’t go in unless you are armed with a BAC (Big Ass Camera) or a BAS (Big Ass Stick). As big as they are, when it comes to handling direct confrontation, tiger sharks can be surprisingly big wimps. When put in a situation where a would-be prey stands its ground —in our case, refusing to back down while placing your BAC or BAS in its face — tigers are prone to taking the least path of resistance and pass you up. Okay, so diving with tigers sounds risky. Uh… well, yeah. Getting in the water to see one of the ocean’s largest predators up close – sometimes right in your face close – is certainly not for everyone.
But divers who muster the courage to do it for the first time generally discover it is not as dangerous as one might perceive. When you dive with an operation like Bahamas Master that routinely work with these sharks, you are going to be in good hands, especially when you follow their advice and instructions to the letter.
Bottom line is the experience and memories that you come away with will certainly be one of a kind. And from a photography standpoint, it beats being in a cage, though you still need to keep your head on a swivel.
More than just sharks
While tiger sharks are the top draw to this region of the Bahamas, there is more to discover on the western edge of the Little Bahama Bank. Fed continuously by the Gulf Stream’s north bound flow, reefs along the northwestern corner of the Bank are quite healthy, sporting vibrant growths of gorgonians, corals and sponges, all matched by an equally abundant collection of fish life.
Two of my personal favorite sites often included on the Bahamas Master Tiger Beach itinerary are Mount Olympus and the Sugar Wreck. Contrary to its name, Mount Olympus is not a mountain, but rather a series of 20- to 35-foot-high coral formations situated in 90ft to 120ft depths and running in tandem for three-quarters of a mile.
Crowning each of these large coral heads are thick colonies of gorgonians, small black coral trees and orange elephant ear sponges that grow in thick profusions. Because this area is often washed by currents that would make descending and ascending a mooring line rather taxing, dives are typically conducted as drifts.
Eye of the tiger
The tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is listed as a species of requiem shark capable of attaining lengths over 16 feet with a global distribution thoughout all tropical and temperate waters in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the Red Sea. While the name is derived from the pattern of dark stripes down the side of its body, the tiger shark’s pattern has a tendency to become increasingly less discernible as it reaches the upper point of its lifespan.
Behavior-wise, tigers are generally solitary by nature. The only time when two or more will converge in one place at the same time is when there is a large source of food available or to mate.
Tiger Beach is not a beach at all, but a location on the western fringe of the Little Bahama Banks. As the location’s name applies, Tigers are the ‘real show’. But they call the shots. They might meet a boat as soon as it anchors or take a day, perhaps two, before they make their grand entrance. When they do arrive, there’s no mistaking these large, stocky predators.
The average size for a full adult age female is 12 to 14 feet in length. Underwater, their thick profiles (combined with the water’s magnification) can make them seem even larger. While Emma, and another named Hook (yes, a lot of these tigers have names) are among the biggest among the lot, they are just two out of well over three dozen individuals documented to have to grace Tiger Beach in the past decade.
Did you know?
Tiger sharks are common in tropical and sub-tropical waters throughout the world. Large specimens can grow to as much as 20 to 25 feet in length and weigh more than 1,900 pounds.
Directly influenced by the Gulf Streams’ presence, underwater clarity along the edge of the banks often runs in the stellar 100-foot-plus category year-round. A complement to these expansive underwater vistas is the variety of marine life, both small and large. This often includes other members of the ‘gray suit’ fraternity from reef and blacktip, lemon and bulls, plus occasional lucky sightings of greater hammerhead. This part of the Bahamas is pretty sharky.
For easier fare, there’s the Sugar Wreck, which lies in the 15ft to 20ft range and is the area’s signature shallow dive. Sunk several decades back during a storm while enroute with a load of sugar from the Caribbean, the wreck’s steel hull has been beaten almost completely flat. The attraction to this wreck is that it is a fish magnet. By day, thick schools of grunts and small snapper stay plastered around every piece of structure provided by the wreck while large barracuda and roaming jacks prowl the perimeter for stragglers. At night, the wreck turns into a bedding-down spot for sea turtles.
Diving with the Bahamas Master
As I mentioned earlier, at Tiger Beach, you are far removed from any visible signs of land. This makes liveaboard-style dive boats the only practical means to explore this region.
Operating at Tiger Beach is the dive yacht Bahamas Master, which is operated by Master Liveaboards, a company with vessels in Truk Lagoon and Bikini Atoll, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and the Galapagos Islands.
Measuring 114 feet in length, the Bahamas Master is the largest liveaboard currently working this corner of the Bahamas. Amenities on board include 10 air-conditioned cabins for a total of 18 guests. Bathrooms for six of those cabins are shared between two cabins, while the Premium cabins on the forward upper deck feature private ensuite bathrooms.
The yacht’s two primary communal areas are split between the upper deck, which serves as the dining area in a covered al fresco format, a sundeck with lounges, and a lower deck salon area forward towards the bow that doubles as an indoor air-conditioned camera room. On both sides of the stairwell down are two large camera workstations, with 110v outlets for charging batteries and space for working on equipment between dives.
The Bahamas Master follows the traditional dive deck format, running aft to the swim step with bench seating with individual storage compartments, rinse tanks and hangers for wetsuits. For shark diving, it is mandatory that your entire body is covered from head to toe (which includes a hood and gloves) in a dark color.
In addition to the expected availability of rental scuba equipment and nitrox, the Bahamas Master provides support for divers who would like to dive rebreathers. Along with oxygen fills and sofnolime, CCR divers can also rent a 25 cu ft rebreather cylinder set and an aluminum 40 cu.ft bailout/ stage tank with rigging.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver North America #13.