When a shark turns up on a dive the guide will often feel a mixture of emotions. Just like the other divers, the feeling of excitement will definitely be right up there, but for me, I often feel a sense of relief. The main part of my job is to keep our customers safe followed closely by helping them have a good time, and pointing out cool creatures goes a long way with that. Although sharks aren’t as hard to spot as a cute little macro dude, when their unmistakable shape comes looming out of the darkness I know their presence is gonna make someone’s day or even be the highlight of their
entire trip. Most divers nowadays aren’t afraid of seeing sharks underwater but whether they are or aren’t, a very popular question on our dive boats will be, “So what kind of sharks do you get out here then?” and here’s how I would answer that.
Fortunately for those who want to see them, there are a good deal of sharks that can be found in the Cayman Islands. Unlike some pictures you may have seen in other parts of the world we don’t get big schools of them in one place at one time but there are sites where divers are more likely to get lucky with an encounter than others. Some sharks are supposed to be here but from time to time we get lucky when something like a whale shark gets lost and finds itself in the area. To be perfectly honest, this is so rare that it is hardly worth mentioning but I find the fact that it has happened one of the exciting things about diving, you never know what you might find.
The Illusive Few
For no reason in particular, I’m gonna start with the sharks that we see the least. Silkys, oceanic white tips and tigers are all indigenous to the area but being pelagics they tend to prefer the open sea as opposed to hugging the coastline where divers usually are. In the time that I have been in the Cayman Islands there have been a few reputable sightings of tiger sharks and the closest I ever came to this was in my first week here almost seven years ago. We had a group of divers in who were associated with a centre in the States and generally all very proficient in the water. There was one lady however who was a bundle of nerves and kept thumbing the dive before making it to the bottom. On the third day I asked if I could accompany her one on one to try to help her have the confidence to get down and see something. The rest of the group went with the other guide and guess what happened? Yup, they all saw a tiger shark and all I got was the warm and fuzzy feeling of helping someone get a dive in.
Regular Big Boys
Sharks that we get to see a little more often are great hammerheads, blacktips and Caribbean reef sharks. Hammerheads are also pelagics but in my experience are found around the coastline much more often than the illusive few. I always imagined that I would find these guys down in the depths cruising the wall and although this can be true I think I have seen them just as many times in the shallows.
I think hammerheads have a sense of humour as they like to turn up at inopportune moments like when we had a bunch of kids in stingray city (picture 20 school children in twelve feet of water playing with stingrays when a 15 foot great hammerhead cruises through to see what’s going on.)
For a little while we were fortunate enough to have a sizable hammerhead hanging out in the front of Lighthouse Point. Divers who were lucky enough to see such a magnificent creature in about 15 feet of water will remember the experience forever. I on the other hand will always remember the paddle boarder who was also lucky enough to see the silhouette of the shark that was over twice his length in the water just below him. Paddle boards are normally slow forms of transport but that one was moving so fast I swear it went up on a plane.
I have to be careful when talking about people’s shark sightings as some are more reliable than others. There was a time for example when someone came up after a dive claiming to have seen a hammerhead. After a bit of animated discussion it turned out that the diver had only seen the back half of the shark (so not the actual hammer shaped part of it) and that was swimming away in the distance.
The things I like about reef sharks and blacktips (two sharks that are often mistaken for each other) is that although they also hang out on their own they can be found in small groups too. These guys can get up to a good size with reef sharks reaching lengths of up to 9’.
The most common sharks that we see on typical dive charters in Grand Cayman are nurse sharks. Like the blacktips and the reefs, these guys have another species that people confuse them for. Lemon sharks often get mistakenly identified as nurse sharks due to their similarities to the more popular shark. They both have the distinctive two dorsal fins and are a similar colour but the easiest way to spot the difference for me is by looking at their head.
Lemons are more…well… sharky. They have teeth and eyes more recognizable as that of a shark as opposed to the nurse which has a head a bit more like a catfish.
There have been a number of over friendly nurse sharks in the area over the years and a large part of this has been due to the lionfish episode. Due to divers hunting the invasive species, blood in the water will often bring out the big predators who want to know what is going on. In the past divers used to be encouraged to feed sharks with the lionfish they speared on a dive and with the nurse sharks this made us their new best friends.
Every now and then a nurse shark will become over friendly with divers as they associate the bubbly people with a free lunch. The practice of feeding sharks and other wildlife is now prohibited by the government due to it being dangerous to the diver, the shark and ultimately being useless in the area of teaching them to hunt the pest on their own.
So all in all that makes eight kinds of sharks that are most likely to be seen here in the Cayman Islands. If you are one of the rare people out there that has been sucked into the Hollywood way of demonizing sharks then don’t worry, they are all either friendly or shy and provided you’re not hunting lionfish you would be exceptionally unlucky to be bitten by one.