Q&A Interview: The truth about sharks in Cayman
As the group of scuba divers gathers on the sandy ocean floor, just off East End, the thick, steel-grey body of a Caribbean reef shark cuts into view.
It moves slowly and gracefully, driven by its powerful, sashaying tail.
The shark is just a few feet away from the camera’s lens when it veers upward towards the sunlight that strobes through the clear blue waters. As it moves out of the frame, another shark moves in. Soon the small dive group is swimming amid a shiver of at least seven sharks.
The large female, Vicki, is instantly recognisable from the distinctive notch in her dorsal fin. Scarlet, too, is identifiable from the way the oily dark colouring of her upper body bleeds like an ink stain into the white underneath.
Sheldon, a smaller male, has been fitted with an acoustic tag by researchers and is easy to spot.
This is the X-Dive, the latest innovation from Ocean Frontiers which has partnered with the Cayman Islands Shark Project and the Department of Environment to run educational dives at sites frequented by Cayman’s resident reef sharks.
It is not just about thrill-seeking, says dive operator Steve Broadbelt.
Participants are given an hour-long presentation from Shark Project researcher Johanna Kohler, where they learn about the animals and their behaviour.
Sharks are a common sighting on dives in the east – so much so that regular divers have identified and named some of the more familiar faces. In the winter months, Broadbelt says their behaviour is easier to predict, and dive groups have been seeing up to 13 sharks during the X-Dives.
“It was important to us to be shark ambassadors. We didn’t just want to take people on a dive and show where sharks live,” he said.
“We want people to walk away knowing a lot more about sharks than they did before their experience with us.”
Though recent shark sightings off Seven Mile Beach and at Stingray Sandbar caused some excitement on social media, research suggests there are hundreds of sharks in Cayman’s waters. Nine different species are found here, with Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks the most common.
It is relatively rare to see sharks on the Seven Mile Beach stretch, with East End and the north wall the areas where they are most commonly sighted.
Broadbelt said the sharks are curious and come close to the divers but are not aggressive. He said part of the appeal of taking divers to see them at such close quarters was to help change perceptions that they are to be feared.
Kohler said diving with sharks in a natural situation allowed people to see them as graceful, passive creatures, rather than the monsters of media myth.
“Sharks are greatly misunderstood. They have an unfair reputation for being dangerous and aggressive. They are wild animals and deserve our respect, but they are not the man-eating monsters that some media outlets portray them out to be.
“This persistent public perception is the biggest challenge of shark conservation efforts worldwide and locally. Diving with sharks and learning more about them can help to educate and change the public perception, which will undoubtedly help shark conservation generally.”
Sharks were actively fished in Cayman in the 1960s, which crashed the population within a decade, says Kohler.
They are not currently a common target species for anglers and fishing for sharks has been banned in Cayman since the passage of the National Conservation Law. Five years later, researchers have yet to see populations rebound significantly.
“It is early days; the protection measures have not yet yielded a major change in abundance which is most likely due to very slow reproductive and growth rates of most sharks,” said Kohler.
She said accidental catch was still a concern and the planned expansion of Cayman’s marine parks needs to be implemented to help the species rebound in the long term.
“Although our shark population seems to be stable over the past few years, we do not have enough sharks in Cayman for a healthy ecosystem and compared to pre-exploitation levels,” she said.
The Cayman Shark Project has used a mix of methods, including acoustic tags, remote under water cameras and reporting from divers to document and estimate the number and type of sharks around the island.
Kohler said, Currently the low numbers of sharks in Cayman waters means that abundance estimates are inherently difficult to calculate at this time.
As populations potentially recover with protection and longer data sets are established we anticipate more in-depth analysis in the future that will allow better estimate of shark populations resident in our waters.”