Three Ways to Feed a Shark
Roatan has become a Niche Market for Tourists Fascinated by Sharks

February 1st, 2009
by Thomas Tomczyk

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Reef sharks gather over feeding site off Roatan airport. (photo: Cesar Rodas)

Reef sharks gather over feeding site off Roatan airport. (photo: Cesar Rodas)

About three miles south of Coxen Hole, Bay Islands’ biggest urban center, one can find one of the best diving places in the Bay Islands–the Cordelia Bank. Three to four times a week, two to three dives a day, between a dozen and 30 Caribbean reef sharks gather here to look, smell and interact with humans, and snack.

While the sharks come out of curiosity and appetite, the humans come here with Roatan’s Waihuka Adventure, a dive operation specializing in shark encounters. While Caribbean Gray shark is the most common shark seen on the dives, Hammerhead sharks, Silky sharks and Nurse sharks can sometimes be seen as well.

Each dive group brings what amounts to a shark snack – a four pound cocktail of fish heads and carcass filets. “This is like an appetizer to the sharks,” explains Maurillio Mirabella, owner of Waihuka, of his caution to not create a dependency for the sharks on “regular and full meals.” According to Mirabella the 500-600 lb, nine-foot-long shark needs to eat about 10% of their body mass every week. That is an average of over 70 lb a day.

Mirabella came to Roatan with friends in 1994 to construct West Bay’s Las Rocas Resort. In 2000, while spear fishing on the Cordelia Bank, he was followed to the surface by a shark. The experience changed his outlook on marine life. From that time on, says Mirabella, “I wanted to share my experience with other people.”

Sergio Tritto, 46, left his career in 2000 as a lawyer in Italy to move to Roatan and, with his business partner Mirabella, to launch Waihuka, the first and only island dive operation dedicated exclusively to diving with sharks.

The beginning was more like trial and error. The Italians would dive on the same site every day for months scattering chum-fish parts. “Within five to six months sharks became more confident and would come close,” explains Tritto.

Today the most dangerous part of the dive is opening the lid of the chum container, a five gallon, blue plastic bucket. Sharks know the routine and compete for position to be the first in grabbing the fish chunks. When a Waihuka diver opens the bucket secured with an improvised screwed-in shaft of a spear gun, a frenzy of fish competing for the chum breaks out immediately.

A shark can end up with its head stuck inside the bucket swimming blindly. Groupers, some as large as 1.5 meters, compete for the chum and are occasionally mauled and ripped apart by sharks. The situation is never predictable and you just never know what each dive will bring.

For the paying customers there is a routine to follow. They are shown videos, instructed on what to do and what not do and then they dive into the blue. At around 20 meters depth, divers kneel on sandy patches allowing the sharks to swim freely around them. “Sharks are like rats, you see one and then you see many,” says Tritto. Competing for fish scraps are not only sharks but groupers and snappers. A green moray eel has also been a regular visitor at the Cordelia shark dive site.

“It’s amazing to having them mill around you like that. They are docile, and we never saw any teeth,” said Judy Schlieman from Ottawa. Schlieman and her husband had taken an advanced open water course at TGI in West Bay and decided to cap the course off with some excitement.

Waihuka’s dive experience is reasonably priced, usually no more than $85; and they work with practically all Roatan dive shops, splitting the money from the dive clients. Tritto estimates that over 15,000 divers have come to see the Roatan sharks so far. All without a single accident to a dive client. “All clients leave smiling,” says Mirabella. Tritto, however, has been bitten by the sharks several times, once on the back of the head. With over 3,000 logged dives, Tritto sees that as a calculated risk of working with large, wild animals.

Two six-gill sharks swim by the Idabel electric submarine. (photo: Karl Stanley)

Two six-gill sharks swim by the Idabel electric submarine. (photo: Karl Stanley)

Diving with sharks is not a risk-free activity. In February 2008, a diver was killed by a shark in a cage-free encounter in the Bahamas, drawing world-wide attention to the risks involved with mixing sharks and divers.

Sometimes the danger of running a shark dive operation appears from other people, not fish. Competition to keep tourist divers happy and entertained is fierce.

The temptation and proximity of having a shark population only a mile south of the Roatan International airport has caused occasional conflict over who has access to the site where sharks are now used to coming.

Tritto explains that over the years, some dive instructors, oftentimes working without their dive shop’s knowledge or approval, would bring a group of dive clients to piggy-back on the Waihuka’s group.

In one such incident on January 14, dive instructor Willie DeBeer took a group of SueƱo del Mar tourists to the shark site, following a group of Waihuka clients who were already there. Mirabella saw the group coming and attempted to shut the diver’s oxygen tank off. An underwater scuffle ensued between Mirabella and DeBeer, and charges of attempted murder were filed with the Roatan fiscal office.

The incident highlighted tensions and competition over the shark resource. The Waihuka Adventure is one of few such operations in the Caribbean. St Maarten and the Bahamas have only a half dozen shark feeding, non-caged shark diving operations. Still, Roatan’s shark diving is unique and famous around the world. The Waihuka Adventure office proudly displays a laminated page of the New York Times travel section with an article about Roatan and photos of Mirabella. “What we sometime lack is the respect from local community,” says Tritto.

Open cage diving is not the only way to see sharks off Roatan. Roatan’s deep sea submarine Idabel, belonging to Karl Stanley, is another, possibly safer way of seeing sharks around Roatan. For the past four years Stanley has been taking tourists to a six-gill shark feeding site located a half mile off West End and 1,400 feet below the sea surface. This is the only such shark feeding operation open to tourists in the world.

The 16-foot to 18-foot six-gill sharks are scavengers and are attracted by the floating smell of rotting flesh. On the day of the dive Stanley wakes up early to be the first at the Coxen Hole market to bid for a pig’s head. He has sunk dead horses, dogs and even cat carcasses to the ocean bottom, all of them donated by neighbors or found on the side of the road. With time Stanley suspects that some sharks have begun to associate the sound of his yellow electric submarine with food, all kinds of food.

Shark enthusiasts have to pay $1,500 and sometimes wait for seven to eight hours for the giant six-gill sharks to appear. Occasionally a tiger shark, a hammerhead, or a lantern shark can be seen on these dives. “There are over 400 species of sharks and of them we know very little,” says Stanley. His shark dive experience is in many ways the safest way be so close to a shark. The fish have no way of biting the submarine, and there is no risk of decompression sickness.

A shark swims by a Waihuka dive client on Cordelia bank. (photo: Cesar Rodas )

A shark swims by a Waihuka dive client on Cordelia bank. (photo: Cesar Rodas )

The shark environment around the Bay Islands is changing and unfortunately changing for the worse. Stanley and Waihuka divers more and more often see sharks that are maimed by poachers. The fish swim with their fins sliced off or hooks in their mouths. These grim realities are becoming not only a concern for the Bay Islands’ shark population, but also for the image of Roatan as a dive destination and for the safety of Roatan’s divers. “One of the sharks had a metal hook and a 15 foot line. I was concerned I might be caught in it,” said Judy Schlieman.

Sharks are a prize welcomed not only by divers. Fishing sharks for their fins is practiced in waters around Roatan and in the Gulf of Honduras. According to Tritto, shark fishing isn’t illegal in Honduras, but requires a special fishing license that is just not granted.

While killing of sharks for sport is endangering their populations around the Bay Islands, it is also reducing the attractiveness of Roatan as a destination. Without sharks Roatan isn’t worth as much. [/private]

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