Swimming with bull sharks: Cuba’s underwater tourism bet | CNN

Playa Santa Lucía, Cuba

The shark turns and swims immediately at me.

There is barely open water between us, no cage to guard in opposition to the approaching bull shark, the species thought of by many scientists to be probably the most aggressive on the earth.

I’m starting to have second ideas about this project.

Before we entered the ocean, Oromelio “Oro” Rodriguez Salabarría, the Cuban scuba teacher subsequent to me, swore he by no means had a consumer bitten by a shark. Not even a mordisco or a nibble.

I had employed native guides and spent weeks dealing with completely different entities inside Cuba’s sprawling paperwork to rearrange a dive with these sharks. The government-run Shark Friends Dive Center, within the distant Cuban seaside city of Playa Santa Lucía, is the one place within the nation, one in every of a handful on the earth, the place divers can swim with bull sharks.

With greater than 350 tooth, a muscular look and the occasional propensity to assault boats and other people, bull sharks have a fearsome popularity. Still, assaults on people are uncommon – whereas individuals recurrently kill bull sharks for his or her fins, liver and pores and skin.

Increasingly, some governments although – together with right here in Cuba – need to defend sharks and capitalize on the excessive of a detailed encounter, not fearing sharks will scare guests off seashores, however will truly entice them. The Cuban authorities is selling bundle excursions the place guests expertise the island’s iconic previous automobiles and cigars adopted by a dive with the toothy predators.

“People come to Cuba from around the world to swim with the sharks,” stated Dan Whittle, senior director at Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit group that in 2015 labored with the Cuban authorities, native scientists and fisheries to implement larger protections for marine life on the island.

“A live shark in the water in some of these national parks is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he stated. He estimates that shark tourism in Cuba provides as much as hundreds of thousands of {dollars} yearly.

Before the pandemic, the dive center in Playa Santa Lucía used to attract shark buffs from around the world.

Oro, a gray-haired, gravelly voiced scuba teacher with greater than 20 years expertise guiding shark dives, is enthusiastic in regards to the enchantment. “It’s the myth of the shark being dangerous, a maneater, that it is aggressive,” Oro says.

“Then you manage to see a shark a meter and a half away and when you come out of the water, you say, ‘This the best dive of my life!’”

Tour operators within the Bahamas have already found what a giant enterprise shark diving may be. According to a examine in Biological Conservation, in 2014, divers visiting the Bahamas to swim with sharks contributed over $100 million to the native financial system there.

While shark tourism in Cuba is a a lot smaller operation, guides are hopeful that the island’s pristine reefs and elevated efforts to safeguard the roughly 100 species of native sharks will draw guests who up to now have been gradual to return for the reason that pandemic.

Cuba is looking to protect its sharks -- and capitalize on the high of a close encounter.
02 bull sharks

Shark Friends Dive Center Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Before Covid, the dive middle in Playa Santa Lucía used to draw shark buffs from around the globe, guides stated. Now shoppers are scant. Carrie Prevost, a Canadian vacationer, was one in every of solely a handful of current guests to decide to go swimming with the bull sharks.

“It’s a world I don’t belong in, and it’s very exciting to have opportunity to do this. I am both excited and nervous at the same time,” she instructed CNN.

As she suited up in dive gear for her first try to see the sharks, Prevost admitted that the theme music from the film “Jaws” was enjoying in her head.

“I watched the movie very young, and I was afraid to swim in pools, let alone the ocean, so this is a challenge to overcome,” she stated.

Marine biologists say that regardless of the widespread publicity that assaults on people can generate, sharks often don’t current any hazard and are crucial to keep up wholesome reefs and fish populations.

Shark diving guides have labored to coach the native inhabitants on this level, making the case to native fishermen that the sharks can convey a tangible financial profit.

“We tell residents not to kill them, not to fish for them. We are always working on that,” stated scuba information Lazaro Suarez Zayas. “The bull shark is not in danger of extinction, but it’s from this area, and we use it as a natural resource so we should protect them.”

Some guides, happy with their connection to the animals, say they imagine the sharks acknowledge them.

As quickly as he will get within the water for our dive with the sharks, Lazaro rapidly spears just a few snappers. He says he needs to attract within the sharks however not overstimulate them.

At a depth of greater than 80 toes underwater, we swim by the wreck of a Spanish ship that sank greater than a century in the past and Lazaro turns to me and makes the signal of a fin on high his head with one in every of his fingers.

At first, I don’t see something within the piercing blue water. Then a bull shark emerges into view.

We sit on the underside of the ocean ground because the shark circles round. It is longer than I’m. Another shark arrives and the 2 rapidly gobble up the fish that Lazaro dispatched. He feeds the fish immediately into the sharks’ mouths, withdrawing his hand on the final second earlier than their tooth shut down.

Bull sharks have a fearsome reputation, but attacks on humans are rare.

The bigger shark fixes its midnight black eyes on me and heads in my path. I bear in mind what the guides stated about not panicking, swimming off or thrashing in a means that may give the shark the impression I’m injured or straightforward prey.

Even as my pulse quickens, it’s laborious to not admire an animal so clearly in its component. The shark swims behind me. I swivel my head whereas motioning the “ok” signal to Lazaro and Oro.

It’s simply checking me out… I believe.

For just a few transient seconds, the circling shark holds my full consideration as if there have been nothing else on the earth. Will it assault or are available for an excellent nearer look? What can the guides actually do to guard me?

It is exhilarating to be simply toes away – simply because the guides promised me, that is already the most effective dives of my life. Thankfully, the fascination I really feel for the shark isn’t mutual.

After just a few shut passes, the shark loses curiosity and slowly swims away.

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