The shark whisperer.

If “Jaws” were based on facts, this article would have been written post mortem. Shark diver Jim Abernethy and the Tiger sharks of the Bahamas beg to differ – we joined them for some underwater adventure.
Photos & text: M.K.
  • The shark whisperer.

  • JimVs true domain.

    Let there be no misunderstanding: Sharks are potentially dangerous. Slipping into the water with them demands years of experience and expertise. Luckily, Jim Abernethy has both a plenty. In the diving business since 1981, Jim has hosted the likes of IMAX, National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, Animal Planet, and the Discovery Channel on his boat the Shear Water.

    Sharks are potentially dangerous. Slipping into the water with them demands years of experience and expertise.

    Moreover, Jim is no mere adrenalin junkie looking for a quick thrill but a man on a mission.

    Shark explosion.

    A man on a mission.

    His Stop Eating Shark Fin Soup shirt really says it all. The mission is to conserve them and change our perception of sharks in order to ensure their survival for our common future. His intimate interaction with sharks and his correlating suspension of physical laws usually applicable to divers makes comparisons with Aquaman unavoidable. Based in West Palm Beach, Jim’s true domain are the waters of the Bahamas, with their populace of Caribbean Reef sharks, Lemon, Bull and foremost Tiger sharks.

    Tigers are THE apex predators.

    Waters of the bahamas.

    Setting off from West Palm Beach, we crossed the rough waters of the Gulf Stream at night to wake up in the sunny northern Bahamas, ready to immerse ourselves into an environment dominated by the Tiger shark. This large animal can measure up to five metres in length and weigh up to 700 kg, and has a reputation of eating pretty much anything ranging from fish and crustaceans to sea turtles, dolphins and other sharks. Some have even devoured old cans, license plates and other inedible objects in their quest to feed, so how would a nice and fleshy human fare?

    The mission is to conserve them and change our perception of sharks.

    “Models” and “superstars”.

    No need for fear, explains Jim while at the same time strongly urging caution and great respect for the sharks. Watching him go through a thorough briefing for all involved, reminds me of someone speaking of meeting some good old friends.

    The sharks are his “Superstars” and “Models” and he is so fond of each and every one of them, that he has given them names – Emma being the absolute favourite.

    Risk factors.

    Despite his familiarity with the sharks, safety is a priority. A bite by a Lemon shark means the trauma kit and potentially nasty wounds, but a Tiger shark bite certainly means bleeding out, and Jim is adamant about everyone understanding this. To eliminate as many risk factors, all divers must wear dark colours and cover all extremities with hoods and gloves and keep a close eye on all Tigers.

    Despite lengths up to three meters, these are not at all mindless killing machines.

    Jim is equally concerned with the well being of the sharks as he is with that of his divers, which reassures me that the intent of his dives is not for mere commercial exploitation.

    Guarding the bait crates.

    Contagious enthusiasm.

    Crates of bait in the water release irresistible odours as the slick is ever expanding with the current. Soon the first dark shadows appear under the boat and when the dorsal fins start breaking the surface behind the boat, the pool is open. Jim plunges into the water on his yellow underwater scooter and repeatedly pops up back to the surface to either get more crates or simply to tell everyone how wonderful it is under the surface. His enthusiasm is contagious as I grab my camera, which will serve as my only protection from the sharks. There is a moment of unease when slipping off the stern, my first concern being not to land on a shark. By now around 30 Lemon and Caribbean Reef sharks circulate below us – but where are the Tigers?

    Myths and fantasies.

    Assuming a position as close to the bait crates as possible, I watch the sharks following the current to the source. All myths about a drop of blood creating a feeding frenzy are exposed as products of fantasies when the sharks calmly and even gently swim circles around me. They appear as curious as I am and seem not to mind a little rub to their bodies. Jim handles them firmly yet gently as he frees their gills of parasites, and the sharks seemingly accept him as a large cleaning fish. His playful manner displays his great expertise and the sharks repeatedly return for another go.

    Diving with sharks.

    Despite lengths up to three metres, these are not at all mindless killing machines and their peaceful grace is an eye-opening experience for all expecting to be eaten up.

    Look out! The Tigers are coming.

    The first Tiger of the day.

    Suddenly Jim fervently points down current. A much larger and darker shadow has appeared and while for now keeping its distance, it is definitely the first Tiger of the day. Soon four more appear, making ever closer passes. All eyes are now on the Tigers as they slowly but surely come in to investigate this group of strangers. Their majestic size is matched only by their calm and graceful movements. Inquisitively they move in, their large dark brown and black eyes screening their surroundings, displaying an uncanny awareness and thinking ability. A rub against the dome and gentle exploratory bites to the camera deliver the up-close pictures I came for. Carefully extending my hand, I nearly get to experience the full length on the underbelly of a large Tiger shark with my fingers. At no moment do I feel threatened by this car-sized apex predator, but instead the sense of experiencing something truly special overcomes me.

    Some sort of relationship.

    The beauty and perfect design of the sharks instil a sense of calm admiration and were it not under water, my jaw certainly would have dropped. By the time Emma appears, I have already shot tons of footage but she is a definite highlight. Jim speaks highly of her and seems to have formed some sort of relationship with her. She seems to recognise him as she slowly swims up to him for what looks like a welcome kiss. Seeing Jim’s face just centimetres away from her ferocious teeth is unreal but when he scratches her head and pets her like a dog, the established bond is complete. Emma and her fellow sharks are not only discernible by physical features but by their character as well.

    After spending time with these gorgeous creatures, the will to preserve them arises naturally.

    Some are very “friendly” while others are playful to the degree of snatching cameras and even taking some shots. Doesn’t sound like Jaws, does it?

    Some are very

    Gorgeous creatures.

    Perhaps the most valuable outcome of such encounters is that after spending time with these gorgeous creatures, the will to preserve them arises naturally. Although this shark whisperer has a limitless passion and drive, he is only one man. Therefore, each time divers leave the boat, Jim sends off shark ambassadors so dearly needed because the millions we kill every year do not come from an inexhaustible source. Moreover, the gruesome things humans do to them, like finning them alive and then throwing the bleeding shark back, would be unimaginable with land-based animals. Shrewdly, he asked to imagine the same scenario with cats and dogs. I promise a dive with Jim Abernethy will change how you see things.