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Great Hammerheads – January 5 – January 11, 2014  

I awoke several times throughout the night so I suppose that regardless as to how often you travel it is still possible to get excited about leaving the Great White North to spend a week diving in the Bahamas, especially when it has been so cold in Canada. This trip has been specifically organized to film the elusive great hammerhead shark.  The alarm went off at 05:00 a.m. and I rolled out of bed to discover that several inches of snow had fallen throughout the night and it was still snowing quite heavily.  After swallowing a quick breakfast and loading the gear into the car it was time to set off for the airport.  The roads were quite slick and even though there were not many motorists; the progress was slowed by some overly cautious drivers.  The snowplows had not even cleared the 401 highway so passing other traffic proved to be an adventure all its own.  Once within the city limits things improved considerably but it took more than an hour to reach the valet parking lot.  As we entered the airport terminal area I was amazed to see passengers getting out of their cars and towing their luggage through the snow several hundred yards before the terminal.  The sheer number and backlog of cars made it almost impossible to pull up beside one of the terminal doors.  Fortunately the shuttle bus is afforded preferential treatment and I was able to disembark right by the Air Canada check-in area.  Even at this ungodly hour of the day the check-in area was completely packed with people and, since my flight was scheduled to leave at 08:30 a.m., I was waved into a priority line and only charged $25 for my first bag and $35 for the second.  They did not even weigh the bags so there was no overweight charge.  With boarding pass in hand the next stop was U.S. customs.  Again, due to the short allotment of time, I was ushered through a priority screening and then it was off to the gate.  We boarded on time but were further delayed since the wings of the plane had to be de-iced before departure.  Once in the air I settled in with headphones and the entertainment system to watch “We are the Millers”.  We arrived in West Palm Beach at 12:40 p.m. to a torrential downpour of rain.  After collecting luggage I hailed a taxi for the trip to the marina.  There were deep puddles everywhere as though it had been raining for days but apparently the storm had only lasted a couple of hours.  Upon arrival at the Dolphin Dream I met Timor who was the only other passenger to arrive before me.  After stowing my gear we headed out to find a restaurant and return his rental car.  By the time that we returned to the boat some of the other passengers had arrived and we learned that Jonathan had been bumped off his flight and would not be arriving until much later at night.  It probably does not matter much since Bimini is closed due to the storm and, at the moment, we are not certain that we will even be leaving port tonight.  At 07:30 we went to the Tiki bar for dinner and swapped stories over a couple of wobbly pops.  Jonathan and Julie finally arrived about 10:30 p.m., completely harried and exhausted from their experiences at the airport.  Now that we are all assembled we can set sail for West End in the Bahamas but the harbour at Bimini is still closed because of the huge storm.  I took a couple of Dramamines and went to bed.  Although I woke up several times throughout the night the crossing was fairly smooth and when the engines shut off in the morning signaling that we were docked, I got up and satiated my caffeine requirement.

One of the advantages of travelling with Jonathan is the quality of photographers and videographers on board.  Mauricio Handler, Scott Johnson and Jonathan make their living from filming underwater and are almost encyclopedic with their knowledge.  Some of the others on board I have not seen for several years so it is nice to catch up with everyone again.  After breakfast I assemble my camera equipment and dive gear in preparation for diving the following day.  Some people opted for a swim in the pool of the nearby resort while others generally contented themselves with setting up their camera equipment.  Jonathan and Mauricio spent a considerable amount of time determining the correct settings of the Epic Red camera and Rouge housing in order to film a segment of the Blue World.  When they had finally figured things out it was time to test the camera underwater to ensure that everything was set correctly.  Afterwards we all assembled on the top deck to watch the missile launch from Cape Kennedy.  The avid photographers climbed up onto the upper control deck of the boat in order to get a closer perspective while I comforted myself lounging on a bean bag chair a mere ten feet away.  However, it was all in vain as we were not even able to see the vapour trail.  After the stress of all the travelling travails of yesterday it is actually comforting to have a day to just relax and take things easy.  Since dinner is going to be later this evening we set off to the bar at the resort and wrapped ourselves around some rum concoctions that, although tasty, were quite heavily laced with the local liquor.  On the way back to the boat the rain started again and we were all quite soaked by the time we re-boarded.  We enjoyed a pot roast dinner where once again there was enough food to feed a small army.  The winds picked up and it was blowing quite considerably so those who had items hanging to dry scurried about to secure them.  Afterwards Jonathan entertained us with tall tales from some of his Blue World episodes and then it was time for bed.

We started the crossing to Bimini sometime during the night and although the seas were quite rough the Dolphin Dream is a very stable boat and nobody was affected by motion sickness.  I awoke several times throughout the night but sleep did not completely elude me.  In fact, I was surprised to see that it was past noon when I finally arose having slept right through breakfast.  We are still a couple of hours away from our diving location but are making good time with a one knot assist from the current.  However, those are big seas out there, cresting between 7 and 10 feet.  After a pizza lunch we were entertained by a pod of dolphins surfing our bow wave.  We arrived in Bimini about 04:30 p.m. but the seas were still rough causing about a 15 degree list side to side.  Since the anchor was not holding we moved to a different location with a sandy bottom where the water is considerably calmer.  The winds are still blowing quite strong and it is cold out there.  Maybe not as cold as Canada but long pants and jacket cold and we have not seen the sun except for a brief period while we were still in Florida.  There is little else to do but eat and drink although Jonathan keeps us entertained with his stories.  After a dinner of baked ham, potatoes and green beans we watched “Up Periscope” on the television and then it was time for bed.

A few of us were up before coffee was ready in anticipation of our first dive.  Sunrise happens at around 08:00 a.m. but the cloud cover is so thick that it is barely noticeable.  The winds have subsided and the seas are much calmer but we are far from ideal diving conditions.  In fact, it is still quite cold out there.  Hopefully weather conditions will continue to improve over the next few days.  After breakfast they started to chum the water and within a few minutes a tiger shark showed up to investigate but did not stay around.  A few of us donned our gear and entered the water but I had to cut the dive short since the housing controls stopped working.  It did not really matter though as there was nothing of value to film.  The motion of the boat had me feeling a bit queasy so I went below and lay down in my bunk.  I must have slept for a few hours and when I awoke the boat was abnormally quiet.  This is a pretty clear indication that Jonathan was probably underwater which likely indicated that there was something of value to film.  Divers were readying their gear to get into the water since a great hammerhead had shown up.  As soon as Jonathan’s group exited the water several of us jumped in and were rewarded with several close passes from the shark.  A pair of smaller nurse sharks was also swimming about but they kept their distance and by now we were starting to lose the light so we ended the dive.  It is amazing how quickly the frustration from the weather dissipates once our quarry appears and hopefully conditions will continue to improve.  After a lengthy surface interval several of us decided to do a night dive.  We entered the water and our lights illuminated the immediate area but there was nothing to shoot except for a few fish taking advantage of the chum.  Eventually a nurse shark showed up followed by a hermit crab scurrying across the sand and, while Jukka was filming the crab, the unmistakable silhouette of the great hammerhead shark showed up right beside him.  Jukka was too intent on keeping the crab in focus that he failed to notice the shark.  The rest of us reacted immediately but the shark calmly swam away.  She returned a couple more times but it was virtually impossible to get good footage since every time you panned the camera you would invariably end up facing the lights of one of the other videographers.    After exiting the water we dried off and it was time for dinner.  Today’s diving was a bit of a free for all with everybody getting into the water whenever they wanted.  Jonathan announced that for the next few days we would follow a schedule of photographers in the water for an hour followed by the videographers in the water for an hour.  That way the firing of strobes of the photographers will not affect the shooting of the videographers.  Still feeling a bit queasy I went to bed.

The following morning dawned with a few small breaks in the clouds and there were even hints of blue sky.  It is still windy and cold though.  After breakfast the photographers assembled their gear and dropped into the water.  Jonathan, Jules, Todd and Mauricio filmed stand-ups for a Blue World episode while we awaited our turn.  The first group was visited by a great hammerhead and a bull shark but nobody was able to get any good pictures.  After they completed their dive we entered the water and spent an hour on the bottom with absolutely nothing to see.  Jonathan busied himself with some more “B” shots on the bottom while I filmed a couple of very small peacock flounders.  At the end of our dive the bull shark showed up but I was already out of the water.  It was decided to move to a different location so Tim retrieved the tripod from the bottom and we weighed anchor.  Once again I slept through lunch.  The photographers were just exiting the water when I awoke so, after a quick bite of crab salad and shrimp cocktail, I busied myself getting ready for another dive.  Once again there was nothing to see for the first thirty minutes of the dive but then a great hammerhead appeared.  I was in a good position to drop down and get some footage but a thermo cline on the bottom four feet of the water obscured visibility.  The hammerhead made a few more passes but the visibility made shooting difficult.  Towards the end of the dive the bull shark also put in an appearance but would not approach any closer than about fifty feet so was impossible to shoot.  We are hopeful that the changing tide will improve the visibility and it would be nice if more sharks showed up.  There will be one more kick at the cat today but so far I have less than twenty-five minutes of footage.  After a short surface interval we were back in the water and although the bull shark, great hammerhead and nurse sharks all put in an appearance none of them approached closely enough to capture any footage.  I contented myself with getting a few frames of lionfish, a queen triggerfish and a pair of gray angelfish.  After surfacing and regaining the boat it was time for a hot shower and change into dry clothes.  It was then that they announced that the hammerhead had come in close and was hanging around.  My luck dictates that should I re-enter the water the hammerhead will probably leave.  True to form they had the best encounter of the trip so far with two great hammerheads circling them throughout the dive.  After dinner I retired early in anticipation of a full day tomorrow.

Finally we awoke to blue skies and the sun also put in an appearance.  After breakfast Jonathan, Mauricio, Jukka, Patrick and I set out with Sonny and had our best photo opportunities of the trip so far.  The great hammerhead came in close several times although there was a fifteen minute interval between passes.  We all managed to get some good shots.  After a lengthy surface interval it was back into the water and, although not quite as productive as our first dive we enjoyed a few encounters.  After lunch it was time for more of the same but although we spent more than an hour in the water the shark did not come close enough to film.  Our next surface interval was just about long enough to re-fill the tanks since we were rapidly losing the daylight.  Again, a forty-five minute dive yielded absolutely nothing.  Just as Mauricio was about to shut off his camera and exit the water one of the deckhands dropped the remaining contents of the chum bucket into the water.  Almost immediately the hammerhead shark put in an appearance and Mauricio was rewarded with an excellent photo opportunity.  This would indicate that the sharks are ever present and simply require appropriate enticement to approach.  After the dive I rushed into the shower and once suitably refreshed set about drying and stowing my camera equipment. Then it was time for dinner followed by some liquid libation.  The deck hands took care of all our diving gear, hanging it up to dry on the top deck.

The crossing back to Florida was uneventful and while we waited to be cleared through customs we gathered up all our belongings and prepared to disembark.  A couple of group photos were taken on the top deck and then, as taxis started to arrive, we said our goodbyes and headed to our respective destinations.  Tim, Jukka, Todd and I were booked into hotels near the airport since our flights are not until the following day.  We convinced the shuttle driver to take us to a sushi bar for lunch with a stop at a local liquor distribution outlet on the way.  Each of us picked up a bottle of wine which we immediately opened once back at the room and regaled each other with tall tales of previous dive trips and visions of future endeavors.  Dinner was an elegant affair at Monroe’s, perhaps the finest steak house that I have ever enjoyed.  Todd left for the airport very early in the morning and although I dragged my way through breakfast as unhurriedly as possible I was still faced with a long wait at the airport before being able to board the plane for my flight home.

The Good:
The Dolphin Dream is a very stable boat and, even with the rough seas, nobody got seasick.  The food was plentiful and varied and most of us probably gained weight.  Mauricio is a real prince of a man.  He not only assisted Jonathan with his stand-up shots on the rear deck as well as some B roll shots underwater using the Red camera and Rouge housing mounted on a tripod, but he also allowed Jonathan to shoot with his camera and housing for an entire day.  Not only generous with his equipment, he also critiqued Andrew’s photographs and gave him helpful pointers that are sure to improve his work.   

The Bad:
Although the maximum depth at our site was only 50 feet which would allow for 80 minutes of bottom time before reaching the no decompression limit, several divers were required to complete decompression obligations prior to surfacing.  Note to my fellow divers: There is no shot that is worth risking your health to obtain. 

The Ugly:
The weather was atrocious but winter storms are to be expected in January and we have no control over the environmental conditions.  We did not have as many interactions with the great hammerheads as we would have liked.  There could be a number of reasons for this and hopefully, in time, the sharks will show up with more regularity, in greater numbers and for longer durations.  In my experience filming great hammerheads is a lot like sex in marriage…extended durations of no action at all interspersed with brief interludes of excitement.     

 

 

Katyk Briceño
"Amazing!!! Beautiful!!" 
 
Daniel LaFrance  
"Beautiful, akin to an underwater spiritual experience of sorts."
 
Walter Marshall   
"Whenever I watch your videos I am just taken away." 
 
Shaun Diaz   
"Well done, very well done. Mysterious, gorgeous and deeply inspiring... The best part is I am not naming any of it. It is nature in its most perfect and beautiful form." 
 
Christie Lopez  
"David...the video is beautiful and so is the music!! I love the music!!!!" 
 
Brian Dodd
"I just wanted to thank you for the moments of peace and beauty these clips brought to my hectic life."