Published: March 2007

Eden for Sharks

Tiger Shark Prowl

Blue Waters of the Bahamas

Sharks are in decline worldwide, yet they abound in the Bahamas. What makes this blue-water archipelago a sanctuary?

By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Brian Skerry

There's no denying that sharks have an image problem. The serial-killer stare, the obscene grimace of warped teeth, the bloody feeding frenzies—it's no wonder they've been difficult to love as long as we've known them. And writers haven't always helped their cause.

"Pale ravener of horrible meat," Herman Melville wrote of the shark, with its "saw-pit of mouth," its "ghastly flank," its "Gorgonian head." On years-long voyages aboard whaling ships, the famous 19th-century teller of sea tales witnessed sharks devour the offal of butchered whales—"horrible meat"—which goes a long way toward explaining his uncharitable view.

The Bahamas might have changed his mind. Ernest Hemingway, who in the mid-1930s hid out in the islands with his typewriter and rods, was stirred to write of fish and fly lines and the steady pull of the sail. True, he railed against sharks that ravaged his catches faster than he could crank the reel. (He killed scores of them in reprisal, shooting them and burning their bodies on the beach.) But though he often vilified sharks, sometimes he wrote of them with reverence. Says Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, of a mako shark breaking the surface, "Everything about him was beautiful except his jaws. . . . He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite. . . . He is beautiful and noble and knows no fear of anything."

The Bahamas is still much as Hemingway experienced it, its waters clean and teeming and blue. Most of the archipelago—some 700 islands and cays scattered for 500 miles (800 kilometers) southeast of Florida—remains free of industrial development. Locals still make a living off Bahamian lobster, snapper, and conch; sportsmen still take bonefish from the sand flats and marlin and sailfish from the cold 6,000-foot-deep (1,800 meters) chasm called the Tongue of the Ocean.

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