Explore the coastal and inland waters of
Washington and BC
Explore the coastal and inland waters of
Washington and BC
Explore the coastal and inland waters of
Washington and BC
I am still not sure what to think of this trip. This expedition was not like any other diving live aboard I have been on. There were some absolutely terrific (the BEST!) shark encounters on this trip, and some tremendous disappointments. I am glad I did it, but not sure I would do it again. Who am I kidding? Iíll do it again - after all we are talking about cage-free diving with tiger sharks!
This trip intrigued me since diving Tiger Beach on the Aggressor Fleetís Carib Dancer eight months prior in May 2015. That trip was simply the best diving I had done to date. Pristine reefs, colorful reef fish, octopus, sea turtles, barracuda, wonderful corals and sponges, and loads of up close and personal encounters with lemon and Caribbean reef sharks. However, the highlight of the trip were two encounters with lone tiger sharks that came within armís reach. The experience was so religious that I became infatuated with getting back to Tiger Beach to experience more of the tiger sharks. I did some extensive research and selected the Dolphin Dreams as the live-aboard of choice as they are the self-acclaimed shark experts of Tiger Beach. Unlike the Carib Dancer, this outfit specializes in tiger shark and great hammerhead diving. Also unlike the Carib Dancer, they attract the tigers and hammerheads by feeding them. Although feeding the sharks doesnít bother me, unnecessarily handling of the animals does.
Booking the Trip
The Dolphin Dreams tiger shark dives excursions are normally booked over a year in advance. In fact, most of the schedule is sold to third party dive organizations. To get on this boat, you typically must contact one of these third party companies. So when the opportunity to fill a last minute cancellation with Shark Diver Magazine presented itself, I snatched it up. Three weeks later, I was in West Palm Beach boarding the Dolphin Dreams and headed for what I expected was six days of shark diving. Although this charter is about $1500 more expensive than the Aggressor boat, I recouped about $700 in savings from not having to buy round trip airline ticket from Florida to Grand Bahama, a nightís stay on Grand Bahama, park fees (which are included in the Dolphin Dreamís price) and $150 in cab fares to the boat. Theoretically, I would also pick up with an extra half day of diving. Theoretically.
The Dolphin Dreams does not pretend to be a luxury live-aboard dive boat. The boat was repowered and retrofitted in the mid 2000ís converting her from a shrimp trawler to a live-aboard diving vessel. She is a solid vessel as she is very wide (23í) for her length (82í) and boasts a thick, heavy steel hull. However, she is a little rough finish-wise. The guest cabins are all located below the main deck near the back of the boat where the ride is the smoothest, however, none of the cabins have doors - each just has a pull curtain. There are two community bathroom and showers on the boat as well - no private bathrooms. I have never understood why a dive boat with 12 passengers needs 8 bathrooms. Maybe if I was female, Iíd feel different.
The dive deck is relatively small and congested. It is not a big deal, but you canít gear up when someone is gear up on either side of you. As none of the dives are time sensitive, it is not a big issue. The boat only has one dive ladder, albeit and good, sturdy one.
The camera table is actually a converted picnic table. Good dedicated storage for expensive camera rigs on this boat is severely lacking - it would seem to make sense to build a real camera table that offers shelving underneath for safe camera storage.
The Dolphin Dreams caters to 12 divers and 5 crew and her twin screws push the vessel at a modest 7 knots. This boat does not make fresh water like most live-aboards, so water supply is limited. This just means you canít take hour long showers at the end of the day. She also has two air compressors, but no Nitrox. Honestly, Nitrox would be overkill as all the divers we did were less than 40 feet deep. This boat is purposeful and serves as a lesson in minimalism and practicality.
The Dolphin Dreams at moorage in West Palm Beach and West End.
The main cabin and dive deck.
The modest camera table and top deck, which served primarily as wetsuit and towel drying.
The crew suits the boat. They work hard, but are much less formal than luxury boats crews. Our two deck hands, Rich and Zach, were good - very social, enthusiastic, hard-working, and very accommodating. They ran a very loose but effective dive deck. Our cook, Gale, was simply amazing. Most of the food was of Costco origin and very well prepared. Gale single handedly managed all the meals - she was up by 6 AM and didnít seem to stop until 7 each night. She produced a delicious variety of hearty meals and snacks. Kudos to the crew.
I had some inhibition diving Tiger Beach in January. The shark diving boats attest that tiger sharks do not like the warm Bahamian waters in summer time, so winter is the best time for tiger shark encounters. However, there was only a 3 degree temp difference from this trip (78 degree water temps) from my May trip last year (81 degree water temps). Although tiger shark activity may be more predictable in winter, the weather is not as we quickly found after we left port from West Palm Beach Saturday evening. We were to arrive at Grand Bahama West End early Sunday morning to clear customs, but 10-12 foot seas meant we could not make port. We spent the majority of the first scheduled dive day anchored off a shoal that offered at least some protection and finally made it to Grand Bahama West End later that evening. Scratch the first day of diving.
We did not clear custom at West End until about 10 AM the next day, so it was after 1 PM before we were at Tiger Beach ready to dive. Another half day lost, but we managed to get in three dives. We did a check-out dive with no shark feeding, followed by a feeding dive and a night dive. The checkout dive produced one tiger that made several passes. The feeding dive produced three magnificent tiger sharks for the duration of the dive. The night dive was just fun - there were plenty of lemons and Caribbean sharks mulling about and a small reef to explore.
That evening I looked forward to a full day of tiger shark diving as the next day called for calm winds and sunny skies. It was not to be. Wind in the morning kept us at our night anchorage until noon. The wind eased a bit in the early afternoon, so we finally got two of the five scheduled dives on our second day - both feeding dives. The first dive afforded us absolutely lousy visibility underwater as the bottom was stirred up by the tide and weather. Adding insult to injury, no tiger sharks showed. We then jumped in one hour later. Some of the divers were discouraged by the first dive and elected not to do the second dive. However, the turned tide cleared the water and a 10í female tiger spent most of the dive with us. What a difference an hour makes!
We left that night for Bimini and spent the next two days in better protected waters diving with great hammerhead sharks. I did manage to get 5 dives in on both of these days, although one was a solo dive just exploring the garden eels and razor fish living on the sand flat. The hammerheads accommodated us in grand style for 5 of the 10 dives. Three of the dives produced no hammerheads, and two dives gave us very brief encounters with these magnificent sharks. The issue with hammerhead diving in this area is if the sharks donít show, you are essentially sitting amidst a sandy wasteland for an hour trying not to stir up the bottom.
After the two days with great hammerheads, we lost our last day of diving due to YET more wind.
I was hoping for 28 dives in this trip, and only got 15. Of these, three dives had tiger sharks and five dives had good hammerhead activity. As this trip costs about $4K, the cost per dive was very expensive.
We were privileged to experience six species of shark on this trip, which is the norm:
Caribbean reef sharks: In mind opinion, these sharks are one of the most photogenic species with their very sleek appearance, golden-grey complexion, bright white underside, and black highlights on the fins. These sharks are in great abundance and ranged from about 4-7 feet in length. It was not uncommon to have 20 or more of these sharks mulling about us during our dives at Tiger Beach. They are very well acclimated to divers, so would come very close anytime the bait scent box was in the water. I only saw this species at Tiger Beach and not at Bimini.
Atlantic nurse sharks: I saw several of these unique-looking sharks at Tiger Beach and Bimini. These bold sharks were not shy about bullying their way up to the bait box past lemon and Caribbean reef sharks - and even bull sharks. The size of the nurse sharks I saw were all about 4-5 feet in length.
Lemon sharks: I really appreciate the lemon shark. These are not the sleekest of sharks with their beady little eyes, large double dorsal, and lemon colored topside. However, they have no inhibition approaching divers and therefore present some wonderful photo opportunities. The lemons ranged from 5 to over 8 feet in length. Like the Caribbean reef shark, lemons were only present in the Tiger Beach area.
Bull sharks: Yes, the infamous bull sharks - all at Bimini with the hammerheads. The shark handlers do not feed these sharks and actually chase them away when they get too close. As a result, these sharks are very timid and typically stay at least 30 feet away from divers, although they will come within 10 feet or so if they suspect the diver is pre-occupied and not paying attention to them. The stout bull shark looks like a Caribbean reef shark on steroids. All the bull sharks I saw were females and about 6 feet in length.
Great hammerhead sharks: These are fantastic sharks with their unique shape and muscular build. We had four hammerheads on one dive, but generally had one to three hammerheads come in for feedings - when they showed. The two larger hammerheads were 10í females. The lone male was about 8í in length and looked significantly less burley. Two of the sharks had hooks in their head or mouth, and most of the sharks were tagged by local researchers.
Tiger sharks: Tiger sharks were definitely the headliner. All the tiger sharks in this area, or at least the ones that show for the feedings, are female. The tigers were about 10-11 feet in length - and as you might guess, tremendously impressive. Like the hammerheads, the came in relatively quick for our feedings, and left soon after the feeding ended. Just to be in this animalís presence was a true privilege. One interesting note regarding tiger sharks; the shark's apparent evil-looking deadpan black eye is anything but when you get up close and personal with these sharks. The iris is actually a dark brown with a very live black pupil. From any distance it looks like one large "empty" pupil.
I had a real moral dilemma with this trip. What I learned is the same half dozen or so tigers and hammerheads show up for these feedings. I thought it would be more random with different sharks showing up. What that tells me is these sharks are basically conditioned to come in for an easy meal. I am not sure I like that idea. However, the tigers and hammers do disappear for several months of the year and must fend for themselves, so I donít believe they become 100% reliant on human handouts.
I also donít approve of handling the sharks. Other than self-defense, I donít see any reason to violate the animals personal space and touch, grab, and try to control these animals. Some might argue the animal enjoys it, but I have never heard a report of a shark swimming up to and repeatedly rubbing up against a diver asking for affection when bait is not in the water. I was pleased to see there was not much actual handling of the shark by our shark handlers. However, in taking with our handlers there was certain a sense of bravado that goes along with ďcontrollingĒ the shark. I spent most of my dives on the outer perimeter of the feeds where the water quality was better and I could shoot images of the shark, not a human feeding or controlling a shark.
I would not do this trip again in winter months. Two full days and two half days cooped up on the boat not able to dive is near unbearable. The weather is too unpredictable and there is no back-up sheltered dive location. Iíd gladly jump in on a 65 foot reef if the 40-foot shark feeding areas are blown out, but that is not an option. I also donít mind having a dive or two that do not target sharks, giving me time to just explore the reef and take in all its other inhabitants. The reefs in this area are pristine and well worth diving.
Also note this type of diving is not like normal diving where you swim around and explore. The standard operating procedure is jump off the back of the boat and descend to the feeding circle. Once there, kneel in the sand and try not to stir it up. As always, some divers are better at not disturbing the bottom than others. I am always amazed how many underwater photographers donít take a bit more time to hone their frog-kick and buoyancy skills to prevent silting out their (and everyone elseís) shots. Because there is much less physical activity during these types of dives, it is very easy to get cold. It is also easy to get well over an hour of dive time from a tank since you are not moving around much. Most everyone dove 5mm wetsuits. Many of us wore a hood as well.
If you decide to charter on the Dolphin Dream, please note their website is not very accurate. You do not need to provide you own towels and a very good meal is provided on your day of arrival.
Another observation is the number of ďconditionedĒ tiger and hammerhead sharks is limited, and the sharks often have multiple boats competing for their attention. This is particularly true at Bimini where day boats frequent and it is not uncommon to have five or more boats attempting to attract the hammerheads. What this means is timing and luck come into play, evidenced by the fact that hammerheads did not show on several of our dives.
If the prospect of seeing big sharks up close in a cage free environment excites you greatly, this is worth doing at least once. Many of the people on are charter had been on the Dolphin Dreams at least twice. Having tiger sharks and great hammerheads repeatedly come within armís reach - or actually bump into you - is exhilarating and definitely a career diving highlight. If I was to go back, Iíd choose an expedition that focuses solely on the tiger sharks as I have seen the hammerheads in earnest. Iíd also do some additional research on weather and pick a time when the weather is more stable. Sharks or no sharks, what good is a dive trip if you canít get in the water?