What You Need to Know about Diving Tiger Beach
If you want to dive with and/or photograph tiger sharks you go to Tiger Beach. The small, shallow sand flat, an hour by boat from the West End of Grand Bahama Island, is the most reliable, consistent and, arguably, photographically pleasing spot to photograph these striped beauties on Earth. As such, many photographers have been there and shot it in many different ways. I had avoided going there for this very reason. I thought to myself “what could I possibly do different? It’s been shot to death!”
I didn’t realize that I was totally missing the point. Yes, it has been shot from, seemingly, every angle; however it was still a very rewarding dive trip both personally and photographically. Simply put, Tiger Beach is a special place and I can’t wait to go back again. I finally realized why many underwater photographers go back every year (I am very much a Tiger Beach rookie). So what makes it so special? First, the sharks (duh!) then the people and finally, the shots.
If the tigers were around they got all the attention, but lemon sharks are very worthy of their picture being taken too!
Many of the tiger sharks at Tiger Beach have achieved a certain level of fame among divers. There is Hook with her tragic, yet photogenic, bent lower jaw, Emma with her old, wrinkly skin and sheer size, Princess with her generally gentle demeanor and many others. Most of the tigers are female and, as you can tell, given girly names. Maybe this helps calm nervous divers down?
There is really no reason to be “nervous” when diving at tiger beach. The sharks are not there to eat people, but we should have a healthy dose of respect for them – after all they are big predators - much bigger than us. So what does that mean, “respect them”? Well, there are a few rules to follow while on these dives. This is not a comprehensive list, but to start off: don’t touch, ride or hug them (duh!), don’t turn your back to an approaching shark and if a shark is coming up behind a fellow diver let them know, stay still and try not to stir up the sand, heavily overweight yourself and be steady on the sandy bottom (currents have been known to rage). The sharks are being fed pieces of fish that are usually white or silver in color so wear a dark wetsuit and gloves and keep your hands to yourself. Unless you really know what you are doing it’s a good idea to have something solid in your hand like a camera or PVC pipe to gently redirect a close, curious shark. Finally, stay out of the chum slick.
A photographer gets some close-up tiger shark action. Many of the sharks at Tiger Beach have overcome their shyness towards divers making close-up shots the norm.
I imagine there are a few ways to set up the dive at tiger beach, but here’s how we did it. The feeder (an expert – don’t try this at home, kids) would bring a single milk crate with fish chunks to the sandy bottom twenty feet below facing down current. The guests (like me) would line up either behind or to the side of the feeder. We would form a “V” with the feeder in the middle and the chum going down the center. The sharks would swim down the center, following the chum slick, giving all the guests a great view. In our case the feeders would pull out a piece of fish and hand feed the shark once in a while when conditions were right.
At any one time we had between two and seven tigers. I have heard a lot more can show up -think 17 tiger sharks at once – which would mean you are watching your back more than your camera, so more is not necessarily better. The tigers are there year-round, but there seems to be less in the summer (July/August). However the weather is usually calmer in the summer and can be paired with spotted dolphin encounters… Doesn’t sound too bad.
While tiger sharks are the main attraction they aren’t the only sharks in town. We also saw scores of lemon and Caribbean reef sharks. We had a couple of nurse sharks come in and I’ve seen many images of great hammerheads coming from this area. Even if the tiger sharks don’t show up (which is rare) I imagine it would still be a lot of fun diving Tiger Beach. One highlight for me was seeing the lemon sharks stop, lay on the bottom and open their mouths while small wrasse clean the sharks’ mouth and gills.
A special moment for me was when this lemon shark pulled up literally right beside me and opened her mouth to be cleaned. What a gift!
I really liked when we parked the boat near the seaweed beds. The images that came out were a little different than your typical Tiger Beach shots.
The typical background at tiger beach is a clean blue water and sand which can make for great black and white images. You can also choose to work with only natural light due to the shallow, clear water.
You have a few choices in operators when you are planning a trip to Tiger Beach. It was traditionally done via liveaboard, but land-based operations are now common as well and are based out of West End. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages of both (and a healthy debate is going on that is worthy of another article or two), but I have only tried one land-based operation and I was impressed.
I went with Vinnie and Debra Canabal who own and operate Epic Diving in the Bahamas. Our group of 8 dove for the next five days setting off around 8am and returning after dark (it was October). We made one dive in the morning and one in the afternoon each lasting at least 2 hours and I took an average of 1000 images per day (more on that later).
Vinnie and Debbie were great hosts and really love these sharks. They taught me and everyone on board so much about the sharks and how best to interact with them. We had a few people onboard who were nervous about being so close, but once in the water they said all fear melted away – a common theme in shark diving.
Diving with the tiger sharks inspired much awe and admiration among all the divers. I heard many times “I was never scared, just fascinated”.
The shark may look scary in this image, but she was actually very polite. She came in slow and vacuumed in (NOT ferociously bit) the fish presented to her.
Tiger beach really gives you the time and opportunity to experiment. It is so shallow the that dives can be long, and the sharks will come right up to your dome port so I chose a fisheye lens (the ever popular Tokina 10-17mm to be exact). I started off going for natural history portraits which turned out to take longer than I thought mainly because there were so many bubbles by the bait crate – where the sharks tend to go.
Then there was time for long exposures, silhouettes, over sea grass (as opposed to sand), and everything else I could think of. I didn’t nail every shot, but got more than I thought I would. One of the easier shots to achieve was the dramatic mouth-open feeding shots. I didn’t spend a lot of time on them because that is not really the message I like to send about sharks, but I couldn’t resist sitting right behind the bait box for about 20 minutes.
The images that came out the best, in my opinion, were portraits with a slightly underexposed background to have the sharks really pop. Others will likely disagree, but that is a style I have come to like and try to emulate. I would use a fast shutter speed like 1/250 aperture around f/13 for sharp corners and then I would wait for sharks to get close! It sounds easy and at some points it felt that way too.
While waiting for the tiger sharks to show up (which typically only took 15 minutes) I would lay on the duck board at the stern of the boat and shoot the Caribbean reef sharks. This was actually the very first picture of the trip!
A Caribbean reef shark gliding by over the sea grass. When Tiger Beach was first established there were no Caribbean reefies. The site seems to get better with age!
At the end of the day anyone who goes to tiger beach is extremely lucky. It is an amazing place developed over many years and what is going on there today was impossible 20 years ago. The sharks are amazing, the water clear and the photo opportunities are limited only by your imagination. I will be working very hard to shed my Tiger Beach rookie status over the next, well, decades.
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