The shark is a much-maligned, misunderstood creature; by the majority of humans on the planet, at least. Much of it is down to a primal fear of these apex predators. When in the water, we are in an alien environment; thousands of cubic metres of ocean below us, containing a variety of threats. The fact that sharks kill, on average, 70 people per year...compared to humans killing 100 million sharks a year, I would argue points to the human as the villain. The continued slaughter of these magnificent animals, simply for the tastes of wealthy Asian diners, means that within our lifetime sharks may be on the verge of extinction; and shark-fin soup will definitely be off the menu. I heard a tale from a Mexican diver who said there are no bull sharks in Playa del Carmen any longer. There was a healthy population until recently, when divers discovered the carcasses of twenty finned sharks lying dead at the bottom of a reef system a few miles offshore. Man's selfishness always ceases to amaze me.
Whenever the subject of diving comes up, I've lost count of the number of times people ask me whether I worry about sharks or not. Worry? Sharks are one of the main reasons I dive. Being in the ocean with a creature larger and more powerful than yourself is a humbling experience, and reinforces an essential respect for this aquatic environment; it's a privilege I'll never take for granted. And when it comes to attacks on humans, this is generally down to mistaken identity. A shark's eyesight is not its stongest sense, and it relies on exploratory bites to find out exactly what something is. Most attacks are a single bite and, when the shark realises the meat is not rich in the oils and fat they usually eat, the prey is discarded. Unfortunately for the human subject of the bite, this means losing a limb or bleeding to death. Most attacks occur on the surface, where a swimming human can appear to a shark as a fish in distress. Divers are rarely the subject of attacks; only the great white threatens us.
On one dive in Ras Mohammad National Park, I was to get close-up with what is considered one of the more dangerous sharks to humans, responsible for more attacks than all other sharks put together: the oceanic white tip. So far in my diving experience I have come across white-tip and black-tip reef sharks: slender, essentially timid creatures, not in the least frightening. The oceanic is what I would describe as a proper shark: more typically shark-shaped and muscular. A few days previous to our arrival, four snorkellers had been injured in two separate incidents by a suspected oceanic or mako shark. Swimming was banned until the authorities deemed it safe, and fishermen caught and killed two other species not suspected of the attack. Less than a week later, a German woman foolishly decided it was fine to go back in, and was mauled to death. Several causes have been mooted for the sharks being so close to the shore, among them the illegal dumping of sheep carcasses at sea, and the feeding of sharks by dive operations to entertain their customers. Sharks have come to associate us with food.
We were briefed. The dive was along a wall, dropping to the sea bed hundreds of metres below. The boat would drop us close to the reef and retreat, coming back in for us quickly at the end of the dive...the surface is no place to be with a rogue shark around. I certainly feel more vulnerable above water than I do immersed in it. Regrouping on the reef below the boat, we headed across the wreckage of the Yolanda to Shark Reef. As we swam with the wall on our left, I drifted out into the blue void, away from the group; this is always my favourite place to be, flying over the dim ocean floor below. There is also far more chance of seeing the bigger stuff out there.
It was literally minutes before someone started banging on their tank and rapidly tapping their forehead with the egde of their hand, fingers pointing upwards: the signal for a shark. I looked in the general direction they had pointed, and in my line of sight there was just a trio of divers, two female, one male. Then I saw it: a sleek apparition appearing from the deep blue haze, moving with purpose, tight flicks of its tail propelling it towards us. It reached the trio first; they huddled together for safety. I was hovering at around 18m, perfectly still. Looking to my left I could see the rest of the group hugging the reef. I was quite alone in bright blue space. The shark passed by the trio, they dropped deeper as it moved overhead. In curiosity it slowly approached me, head-on. I exhaled slowly and flicked my fins to rotate gently as it cruised by, presenting it with as small a profile as possible. Fascinated rather than frightened, I actually wanted to get closer. Dappled sunlight danced across its broad back as it edged nearer, and as it turned, less than five metres from me, I stared into the eyes of a killer: an incredibly beautiful one. And she stared back with an emotionless black eye. I don't think I have ever felt more alive than I did in that moment. Completing an effortlessly graceful loop, she was undisturbed by my presence; the group of black-and-white striped pilot fish shadowing her every move. I had a laugh to myself as the shark completed a figure-of-eight and increased speed towards the trio. The male of the three was patting the arm of one woman reassuringly, while the other cowered below him. The girl above was wide-eyed with fear, her orbs almost filling her mask. Easy for me to laugh as it headed away, obviously. And with that, she was gone, headed back out into the blue.
The dive over, we surfaced. The boat raced over, divers scrambling for the line thrown by a crewman. I've never seen a group of divers clamber back aboard a vessel so quickly in my life. I was nervously looking around below me until it was my turn to hug the ladder and drag myself clear of potential danger. The photographer and video team with us were comparing notes. There was some dispute as to whether it was an oceanic white-tip, or an even rarer silvertip: it had characteristics of both. Maybe a hybrid? One thing was certain: it was the same shark that had attacked the swimmers. The photographer, witness to the shark's arrival prior to those incidents, compared the images he had. A large nick in the dorsal fin confirmed it. This made the experience all the more exhilarating for me, I was just sad Nino couldn't have seen it. The authorities had banned any diver with less than 50 logged dives from diving anywhere bar Dahab, further up the coast. The closest we had got to diving together was waving to each other at a dive site there as he finished one dive with his instructor, and I began one with another group; hardly the experience he was looking for, but I hope he just takes it on the chin and continues diving.