My first tiger shark
Years ago I mainly worked in the south of the Red Sea on a Liveaboard, which departed from Port Ghalib. As a rule we did trips to the Deep South (Saint Johns), The Brother Islands or Daedalus, but Rocky Island and Zabargad were still quite new to me. The week before we had traveled to these 2 Islands and had really fantastic diving, but when we got back to port we heard from another ship that they had seen tiger sharks on Rocky (what?!? are they in the Red Sea too?) and they had arrived just after us. And so the following week we traveled to Rocky again to see if we could find these giants. Now I am quite proficient and well experienced in diving with sharks and I know how to dive with them safely,
Many inexperienced divers and non-divers have made up their minds about sharks immediately because they have seen highly exaggerated and completely out of context Hollywood movies like Jaws. depicting sharks as purposeful and revenge-seeking killing machines. Nice movies, but the reality is hard to find and unfortunately the movies have influenced the opinion about sharks to such an extent that it even has adverse consequences for their survival. There are over 550 species of sharks, most of which are harmless and more afraid of us than we are of them because they too have many enemies. But the tiger shark is something else, they are at the top of the food chain and live mainly on deep plateaus and reefs, or so we think. And like many firsts I will never forget my first encounter with the tiger shark, because this shark is not only fantastically beautiful, but also so impressive that I had maybe 7 shades of purple in my suit when I saw her.
Yesterday morning we left Port Ghalib with 18 guests for Rocky Island and sailed almost all day and night, with the exception of the two dives we made along the way. It is now around 7 o’clock in the morning when the sailors put the first lines on the reef. My colleague Mohamed and I give the dive briefing in the salon where we pay special attention to the tiger shark. Mohamed talks about the shark’s behavior that is comparable to that of the Longimanus, which is nice because I know it very well. The tiger likes to approach you from behind, is curious about the unknown, clears the sea by eating sick and dead animals and can grow to 6-7 meters in length. Her size and wide build make her really impressive, Mohamed says, like a truck coming right at you! But whatever the shark does, stay where you are, stay together, preferably in a vertical position, remain as physically calm as possible and face the shark at all times. This way the animal knows that you are not prey and that is so safe with such large predators. Don’t hang on to the surface of the water when you get back to the boat, but get out of the water immediately to avoid splashing that attracts attention. Tigers in the Red Sea are known to be mainly spotted at considerable depths and hang around the same reef for 3-6 weeks before migrating further. We can’t guarantee that the tiger is there of course, but last week several boats spotted the tiger here so we hope for the best. After the briefing we will dive in 2 groups and take the zodiac to the west side of the reef. There you can find a shoulder at about 30 meters and the plan is to enter the water there at the bifurcation point of the current (the eye of the dive), over the shoulder towards the south and when the shoulder ends, slowly rise to 10 meters, to swim calmly towards our boat with the reef in view, but in the blue water. You should know that Longimanus has also been spotted, plus it is not uncommon to encounter a manta at this time of year. And so I set out with two zodiacs full of divers and I roll back first to check the current. We are right in the eye of the dive and so back on the surface I inform the sailors that the guests can enter the water here. They roll back and together we descend calmly and steadily to the shoulder at 30 meters. Now you should know that I had never seen a tiger shark underwater, although I am very experienced in diving with sharks and so I felt a nice tension in my stomach and kept looking behind us as the tiger likes to approach from behind. The water is still very blue and dark and I am surprised when I suddenly see a wattle of a shark 15 meters away. My god, where did it come from? Though I am very experienced in shark diving I still felt a nice tension in my stomach and kept looking behind us as the tiger likes to approach from behind. The water is very blue and dark and I am surprised when I suddenly see a truck of a shark 15 meters away. My god, where did it come from? Why didn’t I see that giant coming? Ohh Mohamed is right, like a truck coming at you… Wow! I tap my tank to get attention and point to the shark for everyone to see, looks like a pregnant lady or just a really chubby dude, hmmm. We hold our position in the water and the shark swims around a bit, but does not come towards us. I have to say that I was happy about that, she is very big and this is my first meeting and that was impressive enough.
When the shark is out of sight we continue the planned route and at the end of the shoulder we slowly ascend to 10 meters and I swim a bit away from the reef. I notice that I am very relieved about the tiger encounter, I was apparently more tense than I had thought of myself as a ‘tough’ guide chick, interesting. I glance back to see how my divers are doing and notice that Valerie is having a hard time maintaining her buoyancy, so I check in with her. As soon as I look her in the eye I notice that they are quite alert and questioning. I ask if she’s ‘ok’ and she indicates that she doesn’t know, by shrugging her shoulders. Ok let’s try, if it remains difficult we better dive right next to the reef I recon. And within minutes I grab Valerie’s hand to take her to the reef and the rest of our group follows. Now we briefed before the dive about the tiger shark and the Longimanus. We saw the first one, but you don’t normally see the second right next to the reef, because the Longimanus lives in the blue water and so the chance of finding it in this part of the dive is quite small. But whatever I do, whatever I point out on the reef, of course my guests only look expectantly in the blue water, well how do I explain that? While I think about that I check my air and look down at my pressure gauge… Huh? The background moves… And I hold my breath when I see the tiger pass 5 meters below us (What?!?) and immediately tap my tank again, shark… shark, I point. The tiger has come from behind, under us and is now in front of us, I think about 10 meters when she turns around. My god what a cunt! And she’s swimming right at us! What?!? My god what a monster, my heart beats through the roof, I hold my breath and see from my guests that I am not the only one. Fortunately we hold our position, even though I feel like I have 7 shades of purple in my suit myself. She comes really close and my reaction is to hang close to the reef, but she does the same! What? OMG it’s a reef shark, stupid I should have known that… The tiger passes me half a meter and swims right towards Peter, an older gentleman who is shooting plenty of video. The shark hangs directly in front of him, looks for a moment, then turns away and disappears into the blue water. Whaaaaa what a moment! And I feel my blood still pumping rapidly through my veins. Back under the boat we are joined by 3 white tip sharks (Longimanus) and take another ten minutes to enjoy that show before climbing aboard. On deck I put my tank down when I see Mohamed coming out of the water on the aft deck. I walk over to him enthusiastically and immediately tell him that we had the tiger. He and his group too, he laughs and while he looks at me questioningly he says: ‘And… what did you think?’ ‘Geez I said, I thought I was shitting my pants when she came straight at me…’ He starts laughing, ‘I told you it’s like a truck…’
In the three months after that I was allowed to dive on Rocky every week and almost every week we have seen tigers up to a max of 6 different ones on one dive. I continue to find them exciting and that intrigues me enormously, they are ultimately large predators and really machos of the sea. The shark we found turned out to be a lady who was getting fatter by the week, so anyway pregnant and after about 3 months the sharks left and have not been spotted on Rocky since then.
Tigers are fantastic, you can dive with them just fine as long as you know what you can and can’t do. Impressive for sure and who knows, you might also get 7 shades of purple in your suit just like me when you see them for the first time. There’s nothing wrong with being a little scared, that makes you alert and I use that to prepare even more thoroughly. Ultimately, Mother Nature is incredibly beautiful and what a blessing that I get to experience this.
Love life… Blow bubbles…