Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Oceanic Whitetip Shark Expedition, Led by Epic Diving, Cat Island, Bahamas, May 2012

I highly recommend this trip and this diving operator!

Hi folks:
I’ve posted a more complete version of this story along with many more photographs at my website:

 But here’s the text and a few photos.  I can’t make Blogger do what I want with the layout of the text and images, so it is frustrating.  

In May 2012, I journeyed to Cat Island in the Bahamas to dive with Epic Diving. The goal was to see and film oceanic whitetip sharks, one of the most beautiful sharks in the world.  Vincent and Debra Canabal of Epic Diving, along with their friend (and fellow underwater cinematographer) Joe Romeiro, run an intimate and professional operation to see and dive with oceanic whitetip sharks in the deep blue waters off Cat Island. 

Guests on these expeditions have the choice of staying at a nearby hotel, or together family-style in a luxurious vacation home on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  The five participants on this trip, my friends and renowned underwater filmmakers Howard and Michele Hall, Joseph Burkhart (an engineer from Wisconsin), and Briana Darcy (a precocious teenaged underwater photographer) all had the privilege of staying at this very comfortable residence, which normally serves as the vacation home of a doctor.  These photos show the back deck of the house and the incredible ocean views.  There are two huge suites that are perfect for couples, and two smaller rooms that can accommodate one or two divers each.  A good size for a trip with Epic Diving is six to eight divers. 

One of the great things about this trip is that it is land-based.  Oceanic whitetip sharks are only found in deep oceanic waters, but that kind of water is just a couple of miles off the southern tip of Cat Island, where we stayed.  I flew into Nassau, met up with Howard and Michele, spent five hours in the airport there, ate a surprisingly good lunch at the Wendy’s at the airport (their french fries are great!), then we had a 1.5 hour flight to The Bight Airport (TBI) near the middle of Cat Island, The Bahamas. 

Debra and Vincent Canabal are incredibly smart folks who have an astounding ability to juggle and manage their various careers and interests.  They’ve turned their passion for showing people the beauty of sharks into their diving operation Epic Diving.  In their spare time, Debra works as a neuroscientist and Vincent serves as an emergency room physician!  In addition to all this, both are very competent divers (obviously) and photographers, and they are raising a three-year-old boy amidst all this, a great kid named Lucas.  I am amazed by their enthusiasm and competence. 

Cat Island, and the house we stayed in, had been hit by a hurricane in August 2011.  When we arrived, the house was still being patched up, but it was a perfectly fine place to spend a week.  Epic Diving supplied all meals; the food was plentiful and pleasurable.  The house was a great place for a group of divers; we spent the evenings viewing each other’s photographs and video as you can see in one of the images. 

We spent the first three days weathered out by high winds, rough seas, and some rain.  The three days passed by quickly; Vincent had amazingly been able to get a satellite internet connection up and so all of us, with the exception of Joseph, spent most of our time on our computers getting work done.  The house is way out in the middle of nowhere, so be forewarned that there is not much to do out there. 

As a consolation prize, Epic Diving took us snorkeling in the nearby mangrove forests.  There’s a nice, wide bay full of mangroves within walking distance of the house.  Epic Diving takes a skiff from this bay out to their 40-foot boat.  I always enjoy snorkeling around mangroves and trying to get the ultimate photograph of these important habitats.  Mangroves serve to filter out sediment from the water and thereby contribute to the health of coral reefs.  Their tangled roots also serve as essential habitat for all kinds of juvenile fish. 

We took a chance and went out on the fourth day.  The water was rough, but we got some sharks.  Oceanic whitetip sharks are among the most beautiful sharks.  They remind me of jet fighter planes, with their large pectoral fins. 

All divers are required to cover their entire body with darkish material – gloves, a hood, and a full-length wetsuit or skin to cover legs and arms.  The sharks are attracted to anything white and pale, such as an uncovered calf.  I was reminded of this when the incident below happened. 

On the morning of the second and final day of diving, Vincent, Joseph, and I were in the water fairly early.  Normally, the sharks are sedately swimming around.  They would swim in circles around us and the bait bucket, which is a couple of milk crates filled with fish bait, suspended from a float.  The sharks normally would cruise around just out of range of our hands.  All of a sudden, everyone in the water could feel more tension; the sharks got excited and started swimming much more quickly than before.  Vincent heard a snapping sound (my hearing and memory are terrible); I saw a shape below us shaking, and scales flying.  A huge blue marlin had come upon us and hit a fish below us. 

This was an once-in-a-lifetime encounter, seeing an 800-lb blue marlin approach.  It was excited, showing its stripes; and it approached Vincent and me within 8 feet or so.  Both of us got great still images of this magnificent animal.  The marlin, clearly excited, swam up to the surface and followed the boat for a few seconds.  It hung there long enough for Joe to think about jumping in, and then it swam back down, and disappeared. 

I’ve always been amazed by the ability of sharks to turn on their internal accelerators when they wanted to, and I experienced this in this situation too.  As soon as the marlin appeared, the tension in the water increased, and the sharks all began moving quickly.  Normally, the sharks would never approach me closer than 5 feet or so.  As soon as my attention was directed elsewhere, however, I was bumped by sharks.  One of them hit my Ikelite strobe quickly and hard.  This strobe was light grey in color, and even more attrractive to the shark, I had put a silvery label with my name and address on the top of it.  The shark took advantage of this situation to quickly test the taste of my strobe while my attention was directed at the marlin. 

Our second and final day of diving with the sharks was a tremendous success.  We had six hours of diving with sharks until we called it a day.  Being able to dive in clear, blue, oceanic water like this is always a treat, but being able to dive in this oceanic water with oceanic whitetip sharks (not to mention a blue marlin and silky sharks) was a rare present.

Thanks to Debra and Vincent of Epic Diving for treating me to such a wonderful five days of relaxation and incredible diving with these beautiful animals.

Here's their contact information:


Michele Hall said...

Hey Norb...
A 13 months later, I just re-read your comments about our trip with Deborah and Vinnie and Epic Diving to dive with the Oceanic White Tips at Cat Island. Thanks for writing this up. Reading it again was a great reminder of the fun time we had that week... even with the bad weather.

I look forward to our next Adventure together... wherever / whenever that might be.
Take care, my friend.

Norbert Wu said...

Hi Michele -- Yep, that was an "Epic" trip. Loads of fun. Even with the bad weather at the beginning.