Hi, I’m Jonathan Bird and welcome to my world! Sharks are perhaps the most misunderstood animals in the ocean. In spite of the fact that people are only very rarely attacked by sharks, they suffer with a bad reputation. While the world’s largest shark, the whale shark, is known to be harmless to people because it’s a filter feeder, other sharks have been known to attack people occasionally. The Tiger shark and the White shark are two of the largest so-called “man eaters,” and they have an equally large bad reputation for being extremely dangerous to people. But what if I told you that these are not the most dangerous sharks? In fact, statistically, the most dangerous shark in the world is probably the Bull shark. It might seem hard to believe. The Bull shark looks just like a reef shark, but a little bigger. It doesn’t seem all that intimidating. So what’s the big deal? As it turns out, Bull sharks are responsible for more documented attacks on people than any other species of shark. The famous blockbuster movie Jaws, about a man-eating Great White shark was the big-screen adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel of the same name.
It was actually inspired by a true story. In 1916, there were several people killed by one or more sharks off New Jersey in the span of two weeks. At the time, most people suspected a Great White shark. But one of the attacks occurred more then ten miles up a river, and white sharks are not known to venture that far from salt water. It’s much more likely that the attack came from a Bull shark. The Bull shark is the only species of shark that regularly moves between salt water and fresh water. In fact, it has been caught by fishermen more than 500 miles up the Mississippi River…in Illinois! Shark attacks are rare, and most often they are believed to be a case of mistaken identity since attacks on swimmers often occur in shallow, silty water where the shark has a hard time seeing its prey. Nonetheless, Bull sharks are considered extremely dangerous animals under some conditions. Which is why I was so excited when my friend Jorge Loria from Phantom Divers in Playa del Carmen invited me to come film these sharks! He’s hand-feeding them! I fly on down to Mexico, landing in Cancun, then heading south to Playa del Carmen—a beach-lover’s paradise, and my favorite place in the world for cenote diving! But this time I’m not diving the cenotes.
I’m heading out to a secret dive site in the ocean—hopefully filled with sharks. Big sharks. I make my way over to Phantom Divers to meet my old buddies Jorge and Charlie. “Hey Jorge! Charlie! How ya doing? You guys ready to film some sharks?” Charlie and Jorge have been feeding Bull sharks for a few years and they give me a few tips on what to expect and the best way to film it.
And of course, some safety tips! It’s very important, never lose sight of that bait. Don’t have the bait and be looking this way. You have got to be looking at the bait the whole time. Because it could be the shark comes the other way. Usually they come from the front. My wife Christine and I head down to the beach to climb aboard the Phantom Divers boat. Then it’s off to the dive site on a beautiful sunny Mexico day! (Music up) Before long we have reached dive site and Charlie suits up in his stainless steel shark suit. He’ll drop down a few minutes before the rest of us to get the chumming started in advance. This saves us some bottom time for filming. Now the rest of us get suited up and prepare to dive. As usual when diving with sharks, I cover up to I don’t have much skin showing.
Well, lets go see some sharks! I descend towards the bottom through crystal clear warm water and eventually end up on a sandy sea floor at a depth of 80 feet. A stingray glides past—it can smell the fish Charlie brought down. Jorge takes over for Charlie and hand feeds a growing school of hungry mouths. I stay back a ways so I won’t spook the sharks. I know it’s hard to believe, but our scuba bubbles are loud and scary to sharks. It doesn’t take long for the first couple of Bull sharks to arrive, but they keep their distance, not sure what to expect from us. A few minutes later, they approach Jorge closer to see where the yummy smell is coming from. But they are not ready to trust him enough to take the fish from his hands. Even the stingray has managed to procure a snack from Jorge. I’m starting to think these sharks are wimps! At last the first shark makes her move. She takes the fish right from Jorge’s hand.
The next shark actually misses the fish, and doesn’t have the maneuverability to turn around and get it, so she finally gives up and goes around again. Now that the sharks have figured out that we are not a threat, I can move a little closer to Jorge for filming, and the sharks won’t mind. Jorge’s steel mesh gloves protect him from the sharks’ teeth just in case his fingers get too close to their mouths. Cameraman Tim has floated up above the action for the Bird’s eye view. The sharks have a voracious appetite. They keep eating until we are out of fishy snacks. I can’t help but notice are monstrous they are compared to a diver. Bull sharks might look like reef sharks, but they get a lot bigger! At last we have reached our bottom time limit and it’s time to ascend towards the surface. While we do a safety decompression stop near the surface, the sharks come up to investigate. Clearly they have overcome their apprehension about us. In fact, it kind of seems like they don’t want to see us go.
Jorge has one last piece of fish and he offers it to the sharks as a parting gift. At the end of an exciting dive like this, I can’t help but be totally pumped! Whoa! Those sharks are huge! I can’t believe I’m going to get a chance to feed them. Later, back at the dive shop, I chat with Jorge and Charlie about what I’ll be doing tomorrow—wearing the chain mail shark suit! Have you ever worn chain mail before? No, never. Well, these things are very heavy, they are about 30 pounds for the full suit. So we’re going to put on the suit. It’s very important that you put your boots over the suit, because if not, on the boat it’s super slippery and you can hurt your ankle like I did yesterday.
Okay, good advice! So put the boots on, and when we go in the water, it’s very important that you put a lot of air in your BCD, so you can sink like a rock. When we get to the bottom, completely deflate that BCD and I’m going to start the feeding part, you know, so the sharks get close to us, and once we’ve got the action, I’ll hand the chum bucket to you. Me and Charlie will be right behind you. You’ll be fine man. I’ll be fine. I’m gonna wear chain mail man, that’s gonna be so cool! The next morning we head back to the same dive site, on another beautiful, flat calm day. Boy do I love diving in Mexico! Once again Charlie gets in first with his container of bait, to get the action started in advance, while I learn how to put on the chain mail. The chain mail suit is made of thousands of interlocking rings of stainless steel which form a kind of fabric.
It’s super flexible, but the sharp teeth of a shark can’t bite through it. Unfortunately it weighs 30 pounds, so I will sink like a rock when I hit the water if I’m not prepared. Jorge of course is diving with me, as is a shark biologist named Mauricio Padilla, who will be attempting to take a tissue sample from a shark! “One, two three!” I sink rapidly down to the bottom in my 30 pound shark suit.
When we arrive, Jorge hands me a piece of fish and now it’s my job to entice the sharks over. We were feeding yesterday so it doesn’t take them as long to come over. As I wave my piece of fish around, Mauricio is behind me, waiting for his chance to take his tissue sample. Soon a big Bull sharks comes up and takes a close look at the piece of fish I’m offering. She likes what she sees because she makes another pass around and takes it gently from my hand.
Jorge takes a turn next, while I grab another piece of bait. Then I feed again, and the shark makes a nice close pass to a few other divers that are watching. The sharks are calm and relaxed, just like us. All this time, Mauricio has been hanging back, watching the sharks and making notes. He knows which shark he needs the tissue sample from and now it’s time to make his move. He has with him a spear gun. But instead of a spear, it has a special tip designed to grab a tiny sample of skin and muscle from a shark. The heavy chain mail makes my job really easy, I’m planted on the bottom! Mauricio has to be patient. The shark has to be really close because its skin is so tough. He has a camera mounted on the speargun so he can identify the shark later. At last the right shark comes close…and Mauricio fires! The gun camera footage shows perfect aim.
The tissue sample came right from the thick skin at the base of the dorsal fin. The shark absolutely feels a pinch, but the sample does not harm the animal, and in fact she comes around and feeds again. Inside the tip of this instrument is a tiny sample the shark’s tissue that will be used to learn what these sharks normally feed upon, and if they are interbreeding with other populations of Bull sharks around the Caribbean. Later, a chat with Mauricio about his research project. Bull sharks are only one of the species he is studying in Mexico. He shows me the tissue sample we got. So this is the core, and you can see the muscle. That’s the red thing, that’s the muscle.
And also we have the skin. We are going to do two kinds of analysis. With the skin, genetic analysis, in order to know if this population is related with other populations. And with the muscle, we are going to do an analysis that is called Stable Isotope Analysis. With that, you can know if the sharks when they are here are feeding on Coronado or remoras or whatever. So how many have you taken so far? Eleven.
That’s probably not enough to learn much yet. No, we need at least 30. Mauricio’s sampling program, combined with some satellite tagging, is already shedding some light on the mysteries of the Bull shark. And Jorge’s hand feeding is helping to dispel some myths about these sharks. Well, there ya go. I fed the most dangerous sharks in the world. Man eaters? What do you think? I don’t think so. In fact, I had so much fun, I’m going to go see them again..
As found on Youtube