The Caribbean is shark gang: tiger sharks, bull sharks, hammerheads and black tips hang around in the warm waters of the seas of the region, and both terrorize and fascinate tourists. It is this fascination that leads the most adventurous among them to descend into these shark-infested waters in cage dives where they get to watch these magnificent predators up close.
There are those who find contact with sharks through the bars of a cage too remote. They long to actually swim with these fierce creatures, look them in the eye, touch them and feed them. If this is an idea that captures your imagination, you should prepare to learn about the Caribbean reef shark — one of the most popular species for shark feeding dives.
1. No other shark is as attracted to feeding dives
The Caribbean reef shark is the one species that is the most easily attracted to feeding attempts. Diving companies easily drive schools of these great, 10-foot predators by scattering bait around. Other species are rarely as quickly interested.
While these sharks are decidedly dangerous predators, they don’t tend to attack humans. Marine biologists have observed that this particular shark species tends to ignore humans, simply seeing them as deliverers of food in feeding dives, rather than food themselves. According to the International Shark Attack File, only four unprovoked attacks have so far been recorded worldwide. One such attack was recent attack was recorded by the diver who went through it (see: dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2583303/Video-shows-terrifying-moment-diver-Jason-Dimitri-fends-underwater-Caribbean-shark-attack.html).
2. You can learn to identify a Caribbean reef shark
With its gray-white coloring and the classic streamlined form associated with large sharks, the majestic Caribbean reef shark isn’t easy to tell apart from the sandbar shark, the silky shark or other large species local to the region. There are ways to identify them, though, if you know how.
When you approach a Caribbean reef shark, you’ll see whitish bands around the flanks. These are the most readily recognizable feature of the species. If you are in well-lit conditions, you should be able to see dark-colored margins to the caudal fin, and a prominent ridge close to it. It is sometimes easy to get healthy, full-grown Caribbean reef sharks mixed with bull sharks. The two species, while superficially similar, are different in an important way — bulls have shorter noses and wider dorsal fins.
3. Caribbean reef sharks have long been thought to enjoy “sleeping”
Caribbean reef sharks first became well-known around the world when National Geographic investigated a peculiar behavior observed in the species — sleeping. These sharks would descend to caves at the bottom of the sea, and float motionless for hours at a time. While some lethargic shark species have for long been known to remain still or to “sleep” in this way, the National Geographic story was the first time that people saw that active, aggressive sharks could do the same. They were called the Sleeping Sharks of Isla Mujeres, the area off the Yucatan where the sharks were studied.
As scientists continued to study the behavior, they came to the conclusion that the sharks didn’t actually sleep; it was behavior that was even more humanlike — they were on a narcotic high (see: elasmo-research.org/education/topics/b_40_winks.htm). In certain areas, cold water upwellings tended to free these sharks of some parasites, an action that caused them to feel a high. Unfortunately, this particular action isn’t seen in Caribbean reef sharks in any other part of the Caribbean.
4. These sharks have attitude
With most aggressive shark species, it’s easy to tell when they are about to strike — they move quickly and directly towards their prey, with obviously belligerent intent. Being highly intelligent, the Caribbean reef shark tends to dissemble.
When it aims for a particular fish, human or other prey, it tends to move towards it in a languid manner, gently wheeling and spiraling in its general direction, without obviously aiming for it. Once it gets reasonably close, it briefly accelerate past its prey before making a lightning-fast turn just when the prey believes that it isn’t the object of the pursuit. Scientists tend to liken the hunting style of the Caribbean reef shark to the technique adopted by a practiced boxer attempting to get an opponent to drop his guard before moving in for the kill.
5. They are sophisticated enough to have a trademark dance
When the average shark feels threatened, it either directly attacks or beats a retreat. The Caribbean reef shark does nothing as predictable. It launches into an elaborate threat dance routine — it zigzags around and dips its pectoral fins as if flexing them. The overall appearance is one of a recognizably rhythmic dance. Anyone who recognizes it needs to clear out as soon as possible.
6. Caribbean reef sharks are their own ecosystem
Caribbean reef sharks are large, terrifying predators that can eat practically anything in the sea. Yet, anywhere they go, they travel with a little posse of small fish swimming along close to their mouths. The sharks never snap them up.
These fish are part of the shark’s food-seeking system. They are able to sense the presence of food in some ways that the sharks cannot, and are able to lead the large predators to it. In return, the little fish get the scraps.
These sharks have other relationships with small fish for other purposes. The goby, the surgeonfish, the wrass and other small cleaner fishes set up base around an area, and signal their ability to offer cleaning services. Sharks swim up, communicate their willingness to be cleaned, and let the fish do their job. The cleaner fish eat what they find, and the sharks go away clean. It’s the perfect business relationship.