Clear, warm turquoise seas just offshore from Philipsburg's Great Bay, St. Maarten, hold a secret – a spot so special that the dive operators guard its location as carefully as they watch over the safety of the inhabitants – the exact co-ordinates of the shark dive. All they will say is that it is a boat trip out and 50 feet down.
The sea may sometimes be a bit lumpy, making it uncomfortable to kit up on the boat, but once in the water, and on the way down the drop line, the surge tends to be more manageable. The Dive Master will over weight the divers. They do this to help them stay in place and not bump around scaring everything within range and wrecking the dive for everyone else. There is often a current and that is why the dive operators have set up a semi circle of cinder blocks for divers to hang onto.
The dive leader goes down first to set up the feeding station and to start drawing the sharks in to feed, and by the time the divers reach the bottom, up to ten sharks may be circling the feeding station. With chain-mail protecting his hands and arms, the feeder takes out chunks of fish on the end of a long skewer. Using the food, he bring the sharks in close, where they can be studied and photographed by the divers, before he releases the fish into the shark's mouth. The sharks are brought in so close that the sun can be seen glinting gold on their skin and divers can observe the protective membranes closing over the shark's eyes.
There is a core group of about ten Caribbean Reef Sharks that hang around this area. The reefs are healthy, so the sharks do not need to have this appetizer, and will only come in and have a free snack if they choose to. Their territory can range from one to three miles and as long as they have enough food around the reefs, the sharks will stay in the area. They do not rely on the divers to feed them as there are only one or two shark dives a week in season and one per week in the off season.
The main reason for these dives is to educate people about sharks and in so doing ensure the sharks' protection and survival. About 500 million sharks are caught each year just for their fins, which are sold to the Asian market for shark fin soup. After the fisherman hacks off the fin, the live shark is dumped overboard where it will drown as it can no longer swim to breathe. Knowing this, we are protective of 'our' sharks and give the deep-sea fishermen a hard time when they catch and keep a shark instead of tag and release.
Joining the shark dive? Remember to take your dive certification and log book with you before visiting our 'friends' for a snack.
For information about the St. Maarten Shark Awareness Dive, visit: www.divestmaarten.com
Kerry Biddle-Chadwick is a freelance writer who has been writing for magazines in the Caribbean and online newspapers since 2006.