Bahamas Journal, Feb 20-26, 2003


23:21 - I finally have a moment to myself -- it's been a looong day! We awoke this morning docked in West End for customs and motored off once we had been cleared. By late morning we were anchored at Jewfish Mountain for a day of diving. Gliding around the site were 15-20 Caribbean reef sharks of varying size. Many were curious juveniles who were more than happy to buzz a dome port for a portrait. At around 65' there was a beautiful purple tube sponge surrounded by red and orange sponges, which was perfect for reef portraits of sharks. These were the sort of shots that Jeremy liked (the rest being "crap" :). He paid me a nice compliment by telling me, "normally I'm quite rude to photographers because I don't like their stuff, but I like yours; i like that you naturally shoot with interesting composition." I'm finding him to be an interesting guy. He's only taken two photographs so far. I guess he has enough of these sorts of shots, having authored three books on sharks.

At one point I tugged on some fish that was sticking out of our bait box and ended up pulling out a rather large piece by accident. The sharks came *really* close at that point (as I kicked away from the fish, which I had dropped) and I was bumped multiple times as they investigated me and my white strobes. My strobes were given light bites a few times.

I think I have my exposures down now. It's a great feeling knowing that I can likely get "the shot," should the moment present itself. Having said that, I utterly failed to shoot any presentable night dolphin shots this evening. We had some dolphin feeding on flying fish near the boat for a couple of hours, and a few of us jumped in to play with them. Geoff was in the water for a full hour in only a t-shirt and trunks! I should have pre-focused my camera, but instead relied on auto-focus assisted by a bright Hartenberger light to illuminate the way. I was able to get some good photos using this method last year, but this time the D60's notoriously poor autofocus mechanism failed to act fast enough, so I ended up with 40 blurry photos. :( Some of them looked like they could have been fantastic, had they been in focus. *sigh*

I did get a blurry photo of what looks like a sea snake. I yelled, "snake!" when I saw it, but was told by those watching over me from the boat that it was an eel. Everyone changed their minds when they saw the photo. It's neat looking (although blurry). Also near was a school of a couple hundred small squid that kept appearing directly beneath the boat (coming up from the depths to about 15-20', repeatedly).

I'm having a good time with the Brits and their Brit humor. Earlier, someone uttered the phrase, "you could see her tonsils through her rectum." You'd probably never hear an American string words together like that. :)

I've retired to my bunk and am typing away here, listening to Vienna Teng before going to bed. It's impossible for me to do any "personal" work out in the galley because of various distractions. :)


12:21 - Hammerhead!! Two great hammerheads (and a beautiful frigate bird) are circling the boat here at Mount Mokarran. One is probably just over 10', and the other is said to be about the same size (I just spent 45 minutes with one of them and didn't see the other one). Anna did a fantastic job wrangling the shark onto the dive platform, which gave all of us opportunities to get some chomping shots. He (the shark) was completely unafraid, gliding between us at arm's length.

15:05 - When I splashed back into the water the second time, the hammerhead whipped around and swam towards me with great purpose. I took a few blurry photos of him while beating his head lightly with my camera; next time I will be prepared to take proper photographs while I avoid being investigated too closely. Anna said that he came at me three times. :)

Down at the bottom there were bull sharks, reef sharks, and lemon sharks wandering around. Jimmy took some shots of a large pregnant lemon shark covered with remoras. I should have explored down there a bit more. One or two tiger sharks came in as well, but they weren't close enough to get photographs of.

22:49 - I was just browsing through some photographs I have here on my computer from the days just before I left on this trip; it seems strange that the people in those images are dressed in San Francisco attire, sitting in my place at a house concert. I sometimes think about how bipolar my life is and wish that I could just be settled/content sitting at home relaxing. Earlier today Brahms' c minor piano quartet lodged itself in my head, and memories of performing it with Livia, Barry, and Fred flashed by. I haven't touched my cello since December 26th. Every time I leave on one of these extended trips, I am away from the other things that make me happy (friends, playing music, etc.).

But I suppose it is ok, because I shot some fantastic hammerhead pictures today. :)


21:41 - As forecasted, the wind started blowing today. We drove around looking for calm seas for most of the day, eventually giving up and coming in to dock at Walker's Cay. Around the shark dive area bull sharks, lemon sharks, and nurse sharks swimming around close to shore. We're booked to swim with the bull sharks there at 8am tomorrow morning. The shark scientist Dr. Erich Ritter (the one who was recently bitten at the bull shark area) is here as well; he was giving a talk in a side room when we arrived. A few in our group have some shared history with Dr. Ritter and were interested in seeing the condition of his leg, but no one mustered up enough momentum to ask about it. We did, however, talk to the person who drove him away from the site to be evacuated. It is said that Dr. Ritter kept repeating, "it was my fault! it was my fault!" afterwards.

We've just eaten a wonderful dinner and are now watching "Blue Water, White Death," a documentary with Ron and Valerie Taylor about early shark diving.


6:24 - The wind is blowing 20-25 knots out of the northwest. We've been confined to the boat for most of the day, but a few of us did venture out for a blustery walk around the beautiful beach at the tip of the island. A small airplane left the smell of burning rubber while landing as we were walking back, and Dr. Erich Ritter came jogging down the runway -- in shorts. I'm amazed that he is able to jog with so much damage done to his leg! I won't describe it here, but I will say that he is lucky to be on his feet.

16:45 - The blokes are all outside trying to bait in a bull shark. John came inside a few minutes ago carrying a small, hollow, red tube. "Guess what was in this tube?" he asked. Yep. It was the handle to a mop pole. The rest of the pole -- with around $12K worth of camera gear attached -- had fallen off and was laying in the sand. Luckily, the water is shallow, and Captain Kurt managed to fish it out with a large hook. Boys will be boys, I suppose. :) Both Jimmy and John have been trying to get close-up footage of Bahama Mama (a large local bull shark) for awhile now.


16:09 - We left this morning and are now anchored at a site lovingly referred to as "Drop Over Dead Dog Snapper Rock." There are a few Caribbean reef sharks circling around, and some distance from the anchor line is a grouper spawning aggregation (at a sandy patch in 110' of water). Many pregnant groupers are there, along with a large school of Bermuda chubs (also spawning). The school of chubs followed me while I swam around the sandy area, but the grouper were rather paranoid, and I was unable to get close to them. The wind is still blowing pretty hard, and the swell on the surface made it difficult to get back onto the boat.

21:56 - We're anchored at Lilly Bank now, in calm water for the night. In the morning we return to Mount Mokkaran, the site of our first hammerhead sighting. All of us are praying for a large tiger shark. :)


17:14 - Mount Mokarran was too rough this morning, so we ended up anchoring at Mount Olympus, a gorgeous reef, by Bahamian standards. It is covered with nice sea fans and colorful sponges, but unfortunately the visibility was poor (because of particles in the water and a deep thermocline) so we continued to El Dorado for the remainder of the afternoon. There are some really large reef sharks at El Dorado. Jimmy snapped the metal ball off of Anna's Sea & Sea strobe arm mount during the first dive. Things like mounting balls really should be indestructible! I don't think my ULCS balls would have been that easy to break off. Anyway, we tried using the Pasco Fix magic glue that the Austrian guy at the Miami Boat Show sold us, and the glued-on ball stayed in place for most of the second dive, but broke again when Anna was adjusting her strobe position. We're going to glue it again tonight and let it cure all night.


22:05 - Two great hammerheads came in today, but neither of them were "players". A small 7' one swam circles around Jeremy and only came up for bait a few times before disappearing off into the murk. A larger 11-12' one (with disfigured pectoral fins, Jeremy says. he even drew an illustration for us.) was off further in the distance, circling the boat. Its dorsal fin was enormous! Jim and Anna have seen great hammerheads as long as 18', but this 11-12' specimen was the largest one I have ever seen. I followed it, drifting with the current until I was further from the boat than I wanted to be. Even though I knew I wasn't in any real danger, I had to suppress the slight panic that was welling up within me. (Imagine: the visibility is around 90' or so, but it's a milky view all around. You look up and scan the brightness above for the tell-tale shadow of the boat, and it is nowhere to be seen. A large hammerhead is circling just out of sight... :) Although I don't get "lost" that often, it's always like that for me during the moment I realize that I have no idea where the boat is.
At the bottom 90' below, four bull sharks (two large and two small), a few reef sharks, and two lemon sharks (one of them was 8-9' long!) patrolled, but they didn't seem to be as friendly as the sharks we've seen elsewhere. I was unable to get close enough to any of them to take a decent photo. I did, however, take a nice photo of the bow of the Shear Water from beneath the water, with thin ribbons of perfect light streaming downward from around it.

We're anchored here for the night. Jimmy says that there are often tiger sharks pacing around in the early morning after a night with bait left out. "I just hope that if one comes by it isn't big enough to try to eat the crate itself," he said. I'm planning on going in with him first thing in the morning. Hope there's something fun out there. :)

I had another "what the HELL am I doing with my life!?" moment this evening while I was sitting at dinner between two conversations. I have no idea how I'm going to figure it out. Part of me just wants to settle down with a "normal" job. There's tremendous security in that, and as a bonus I would be able to develop my local friendships in a way that would alleviate some of the frustration I've been feeling lately. Argh.


22:41 - The Coast Guard just stopped our boat to see if we were smuggling drugs. As they came close enough to see us, one of the shouted, "Is that Mr. Abernethy?" It helps to be known. :)

Today was a fantastic day of hanging out with sharks. Jimmy never woke me up in the morning; instead, I was shaken into consciousness by an increased swell that repeatedly threw the bow of the boat up and down. I spent most of the morning hanging out in the galley, waiting for an interesting shark to appear. By 11am, we had two hammerheads and a tiger on the bottom, investigating two crates of fish that had fallen off of the bait line. Unfortunately (for the rest of us), only Derek was in the water at that time, but one of the hammerheads turned out to be a player and circled around us until the sun went down. It was around 10' long. A smaller tiger shark was also in the water with us for much of the day, but it was extremely skittish and was chased away by the hammerhead whenever it came close to us. I saw it a few times off in the distance, but it never ventured close enough for me to get a photo. Several large bull sharks were at the bottom, along with a couple of nice looking lemon sharks (which carry a permanent, sinister smile on their faces). By the end of the day, they were getting close enough to us for photographs. It is apparently a great thing to get bull shark photos with relatively clear water. I've heard that they can be nasty, but haven't had any experience with them before this trip. At Walker's Cay, it is easy to get close to bull sharks, but the visibility there isn't as good unless you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to go in without hordes of other people.

Simon seems to attract hammerheads when he returns to the boat from the water. A few times now Anna has wrangled in hammerheads literally to the swim step while Simon was trying to get onto it. When it happened today, he looked up from the water and yelled, "Stop your damn wrangling, woman!" :)

The good barrister Derek wrangled for awhile today. I imagined him wearing a wig. He has 11 weeks of vacation a year, and he takes every day of it. Europeans REALLY know how to balance work and play properly!

Everyone almost literally jumped out of the water back onto the boat when five or six bull sharks came charging up from 80' to greet them at the surface. Not long after Jimmy dumped in an old, useless crate of fish, one of them came straight at me as well. I took a picture and kept my camera between me and it. :)

Another interesting event: a hammerhead stole one of our 69-cent styrofoam floats; it bit straight through the rope (eating the bait), and the float ball drifted off the stern in the current. At Anna's urging, Jimmy promptly donned fins & mask and dove in to retrieve it. The same gang of bulls who had earlier expressed interest in the others on the surface immediately charged up again to investigate. After all, the light-colored things in the water previously were fish carcasses. :) Jimmy thrashed around in circles, coming up a few times to yell, "Shit!" Jeremy happened to be coming back to the boat at that time (we promptly sent him back out to help), but a few moments later, Jimmy stuck his head up out of the water and yelled, "I need a camera!". Typical. :) Jeremy told us that he was thinking, "who's the idiot snorkeling with the bull sharks?" At Walker's Cay there is a strict rule that you must be totally encased in black to get in with the bulls. Erich Ritter was bare-legged when he was bitten there.

Fantastic trip! :)