They are my very definition of a wild ocean. The most beautiful creature I have even seen underwater, and my favourite shark. Tiger sharks reminder me of awkward teenagers, they bump into things, they get frustrated when you make eye contact with them underwater and they have to go start their ambush sneak up again, they are full of personality. So timid, yet so powerful, it is something else to see a huge animal take caution towards you. I have spent most of time in the water with tigers baited to the dive sites with dead fish, and a little bit of time with tigers who are there to check us out on their own terms. In Australia, I was lucky enough to join one of John Rumney’s famous trips for tiger shark research and although I only saw them from the boat amidst the turtle flooded Raine island, I would forever be in awe of Australia’s own tiger sharks.
Our tigers tend to possess a wild spark lost in the ones from countries who allow interactions with their sharks on a regular basis. At tiger beach in the Bahamas on a shoot for my film ‘shark girl’ with Andy Casagrande and Stuart Cove, we had three tiger sharks on one dive (this is a sentence I repeat frequently when my friends tell me how exciting it was when they went to the supermarket and their favourite tea was on special). In this time Andy and I were protected by our cameras (as there should always be something between you and the tiger in case they want to ‘test’ something). Stuart had a piece of PVC piping. I find tigers a very comfortable shark to dive with, they move slow, they move cautious, it’s a nice change from the 30 to 40 Caribbean reef sharks buzzing around you looking for the next piece of bait. We would stay in the same place, sitting at about 6 meters, waiting for these three sharks to simultaneously disappear and re-appear.
Its almost as if they would run away, chat and plan, then come back from all different angles. It was fun to watch, and meant we had to constantly remain vigilant. I have no illusions about the dangers of sharks, which is why at a young age I took steps to teach myself everything I could possibly learn about them, and with that comes an understanding of their traits, and signals that tell you how they are feeling so you can act accordingly, get out of the water or feel its safe to say. This is why I also have my step fathers Australian military patch stating ‘knowledge dispels fear’ on the shoulder strap of my BCD. Tigers have been described as the ‘great whites of the tropics’. A surfer of Western Australia who recently lost his best friend to a great white protested the drumlines set in place as ridiculous, saying that tiger sharks are just ‘stingrays with teeth’, clearly they are an accepted way of life to ocean goers there.
Tiger sharks even have a place in Hawaiian mythology, considered to be sacred by some native Hawaiians as ‘aumakua, a deceased family member believed to be frequently manifested as animals such as sharks. They are worshipped, the appearance of an animal one regarded as an ‘aumakua is believed to be an omen (of good or ill). There are also many stories of them intervening to save their descendants from harm. It was extremely bad luck to harm a manifested ‘aumakua. The very first time I saw a tiger, it was a huge figure launching its wide body from the depths. I was at razor back reef in the Bahamas, an isolated reef surrounded by towering depths. The shark came close from underneath us swimming up but at the last minute turning to its side and revealing its stripes. It is that very distinctive feature, the strips, that turns your brain off underwater and your imagination on.
These animals are big, they can be fast, they are powerful, think of them hunting, prowling the depths, travelling large distances, imagine their lives underwater, its something I think about allot when I see them being hauled onto fisheries boat half dead with gun hole in their heads. Where has this shark been? What has it seen? What was its life before this abrupt end? I would recommend a tiger shark encounter for any relaxed and confident diver, especially because I cannot confidently tell you how long they will be in our oceans at the hands of current governments. There are many things I am grateful to my parents for, never letting me have a ridiculous amount of toys, never letting me have a push bike because of the dangers of cars, and especially, for my fathers decision to take me to tiger beach at a young age so I could witness the beauty of these macro predators. If you are looking for a single creature to define the last remaining wonder of our oceans, the tiger shark is it.