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A blacktip reef shark in St. Maarten. Photo by Daniel Reynolds Riveiro. Click on photo to enlarge.
A blacktip reef shark in St. Maarten

Swimming With Sharks on St. Maarten: Anything for a Story

Honestly, I wasn't worried about the sharks. What I was worried about, as I let the air out of my BCD and drifted down into the deep blue waters off the coast of St. Maarten, was that I might not get back to my cruise ship in time.

Scheduled departure time? 4:00 PM. Scheduled dive time? Three hours, starting at 1:00 PM.

I dourly debated about dropping the dive, but then... I mean, diving with sharks is a story. Getting stranded on an island because you missed your cruise ship is a story. This is how I make decisions.
           
Ocean Explorers is the oldest dive shop on St. Maarten, a Caribbean island that's also the smallest land mass controlled by two countries. Their shop is on the Dutch side (as opposed to the French side), in picturesque Simpson Bay. It's built on the beach itself, some 50 feet from where the cerulean water laps the sand. 

Ten of us had each paid $80 for the chance to swim cage-free and up close with sharks, a dive that is done only once a week by Ocean Explorers' resident shark swami, Jeferson Techera. Tall, dark and Brazilian, Techera gave us our briefing outside while islanders in suits and dresses streamed off a bus behind him to witness a baptism in the ocean. While we were giving our lives to Techera, someone was giving theirs to God.

“My biggest problems,” began Techera in thickly accented English, “are experienced divers.  They think they should not follow directions. I have easier time with beginners, believe me. But it is important to follow. First, when you are in the water, you will see a line. Go to it and follow it down.  Do not go off on your own.”

Who would go off on their own when surrounded by sharks? Well, actually, I might. If it would make a good story. 

I was the first in the water. I soon saw the line and followed along its angle towards the dim, shadow-draped seabed some 60 feet below, occasionally glancing back to see if anyone was behind me. We'd somehow crammed 13 people onto Ocean Explorers' 26-foot boat and donning gear while bobbing on the waves had required something of a choreographed dance. So while others were still strutting a tango of tanks and fins, I was all alone.

Having been on a shark dive in Thailand where not a single shark showed up, I figured the soonest I'd see one was when the food came out, if at all, and was thinking more about cruise ships than sharks when I suddenly saw one, its dark gray silhouette skimming the sand fifty feet below my fins. 

The author in SCUBA gear
The author in SCUBA gear

Techera had purposefully overweighted us so we'd stay settled during the shark feeding, meaning that while my hands were bringing up my underwater camera, the rest of me was dropping down away from the line. My attention went to my BCD as I added air in it, and when I looked back up I saw a shark swimming straight towards me.

Pause.

Although there are more than 400 species of sharks in the world, only a handful have ever killed a human being. According to the American Elasmobranch Society, white sharks (which includes Great Whites) top the Deadliest Shark Species list with 373 documented attacks. With 14 documented attacks, blacktip reef sharks are only number ten on that list. But they are on the list. And one was coming right at me.

Let me say something: you can intellectually know how harmless sharks are in the scheme of things (you can know, for instance, that you are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark), but the first time you see one swimming towards you, very specific parts of you will involuntarily tighten up.

Unpause.

Now I was worried about the sharks. I took a picture, of course, so that they could identify my killer later, and then I just stared. There were a few moments that a movie composer would definitely have filled with deep cellos and minor chords, but then the shark veered around me, giving me a wide berth. 

I let out the breath I hadn't realized I was holding. I looked up. No one else was in the water yet. I looked back down and spotted where the anchor line terminated: a large sand patch containing a couple of ammo cans and a semicircle of cinder blocks. Here is where Techera would start the show.

St. Maarten is the Dutch side of St. Martin, in the Dutch Antilles
St. Maarten is the Dutch side of St. Martin, in the Dutch Antilles

“So how'd you get into this?” I asked Techera while he slipped on a pair of chainmail sleeves and gloves. I wondered where I could get a pair of those. The Viking Store? The St. Maarten Renaissance Fair? Shark Feeders R Us?

“There was a guy who had been doing it for about a year,” said Techera, “and he learned to do it in the Bahamas. I started working with him here about a year after that. When we first started, we'd put food out on a huge pole, and the sharks still wouldn't come close. Now, well...”

Instead of finishing his sentence, he gave a toothy, goatee-ringed smile.

Twenty minutes later, I knew what “now, well” meant: six sharks circling around us while we chose blocks as our spots and lay down on our stomachs.  According to our briefing, this would allow them to come even closer.

I guess the best way to appease sharks is to be absolutely helpless. While comfortable, that position caused my heart to seize several times as massive sharks swam directly over me from behind. As they came progressively nearer, often just inches from my mask, I was surprised to see no trace of malevolence in their onyx eyes.

Even the most pro-shark Discovery program will call them “perfect killers” while showing shredded seals and copious camera attacks. But here, now, I just saw a fish: light gray on top, white underneath, fins edged in ebony and sublimely beautiful. I fell in love with them. Maybe that's why Ocean Explorers calls this a “Shark Awareness Dive”: you become aware of sharks in ways you never thought possible.

Swimming with sharks
Swimming with sharks

Techera had his work cut out for him. It was obvious that the sharks knew him and that he knew them. They swam through his legs and arms, and he affectionately slid his hands along their backs as they passed. They reminded me of dogs jumping onto their master and begging for a treat.

Techera had such a treat: about half a pound of thinly sliced fish.  Not much, as he pointed out back at the beach: “We don't want to change the shark's feeding habits,” he said. “We only give them a little bit and not very often. Just a snack.”

But those sharks definitely wanted that snack.  He had quickly put it into an ammo can, but they still tried to get at it, forcing him to push them aside again and again.  Let me make that extremely clear: for thirty minutes, I watched Techera push aside sharks that were bigger than him with his hands.

At one point, and I have this on video, Techera was lying on his belly with his hands clasped in front of him while he waited for the sharks to calm down. When one swam up to his face, he head butted it. Sorry Chuck Norris, Techera is my new definition of man.

Techera soon settled into a pattern. First, he would spear a sliver of fish from the ammo can with a kebab-like device and then plunge it into the sand before the sharks could get to it. They would dart in immediately, their bodies kicking up debris as they swam into each other and the ground.

When he sensed that the moment was right, he would pull the fish out and hold it in front of a shark, leading it along the semicircle so that we could see its teeth as it tried to clamp down on the meat. Then he would stab the kebab into the sand and wait for the sharks to settle down again.

I learned that when food's around, nothing else is in a shark's head. As they converged to feed, they forgot we were there, and they repeatedly smacked me with their bodies and tails. It was truly a visceral experience and so much better than the watch-from-a-distance one I had expected. 

Since I'd seen Techera pet them and since the sharks had repeatedly put themselves in contact with me, I longed to actually stroke one, even though we had been told not to touch them. So when one passed by, I held up the back of my hand, feeling its belly slide along my skin. I had heard that shark skin was rough, but it felt like silk. 

Techera saw me do it and wagged a finger at me. A little bit later, though, as some sharks were passing by, he shoved one into me, almost as a joke. It flailed to get out from between us, knocking my camera and pushing me back an inch. Back on the surface, I asked him if he did that on purpose. He gave a half-smile.  “Yes.”

As our boat sped back to the shop, Techera gave us a mission: “Now you see the sharks are not so dangerous. They are only just like dogs, right? But even though they are not so dangerous, people are scared of them, so they hunt and kill them and now they are becoming endangered. We do these dives so that people can learn more about sharks and try to help them.”

I nodded my head the entire time.

As our boat pulled up to the beach, I was allowed to be the first one off. And as I dragged my gear up to the freshwater buckets outside the shop, Luciana, co-owner of the shop and Techera's wife, told me that she had ordered a cab for me and that it was on its way.

Sharks and service. That's hard to beat. I was back at the cruise ship less than fifteen minutes later, soaking wet and with time to spare. Worries? Over.

And I had a story to tell.
                       

Daniel Reynolds Riveiro



Daniel Reynolds Riveiro has degrees in English and Religion. He couldn't decide between being a writer or a priest, so he became a teacher instead. This is his 9th year as a teacher, with time taken off for a stint in the Peace Corps and a gig directing a full length documentary on skinheads in Ukraine. He currently works at a school for at-risk youth in the Bronx and travels every chance he gets. His pieces have appeared in numerous publications, including Sports Source, Loud Magazine, Offbeat Travel, InTravel Magazine and International Living. Read his blog Bleed Travel.

 

 

Read more GoNOMAD storie by Daniel Reynolds Riveiro:

Transnistria: The Country That Doesn't Exist

A Visitor's Guide to the South Bronx

 

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