The sharks, too, are still here. At a single dive spot called Tiger Beach, a dozen or so tiger sharks circle, not in the manner of vultures, but more like a mobile above a child's bed. Their dark, watchful eyes are the size of fists, and subtle spots and bands stain their skin like batik. After the great white, this species is said to be the world's most dangerous shark. It will eat anything—other sharks, license plates, tires. The big female that breaks formation and heads my way passes so close I can make out the pores that pepper her snout and enable her to sense the electromagnetic energy of living flesh. As she slides by, huge and silent, I reach out and run a hand over her side. It's like fine-grain sandpaper. Her movements stay steady and calm as she rejoins the circling sharks. For a fish with a vicious reputation, this one makes a disarming first impression.
Big tigers aren't the only sharks that flourish here. More than 40 other species cruise Bahamian waters, including lemons, great hammerheads, bulls, blacktips, makos, silkies, nurses; even migrating blues and massive whale sharks pass through. Others live here year-round, giving birth in the same quiet lagoons where they were born. And fishermen continue to curse the marauders that gut their quarry, leaving nothing to reel in but lips and gills.
The name Bahamas comes from the Spanish, Baja Mar, for "shallow seas." The archipelago rests atop a pair of limestone platforms, the Great and Little Bahama Banks, divided by channels that plunge as deep as 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). It's this combination of sheer drops and shallows, of rocky ledges and sandy shores, of coral reefs, grass flats, mangroves, and quiet lagoons, that nurtures life of all sizes. Clean Atlantic waters and a warm current from the Gulf blend to create a seafood feast that draws sharks from near and far. For now, this clean blue place is their Eden.
In a secluded pool hemmed by mangroves, baby lemon sharks roll in the shallows and nip at the surface of the windowpane water. "This place is extraordinary," says Samuel "Doc" Gruber, a biologist who runs a shark research station nearby. This tiny lagoon in the strand of Bahamian islands called Bimini is a natural shark nursery, a birthing and feeding area where young lemon sharks can eat and grow without being eaten themselves. Gruber was led here a couple of years ago by a shark stoolie of sorts, an adult female fitted with a tracking device.
As we wade through the lucid pool, small fish dart among mangrove roots that spider in all directions, and crabs skitter into hiding. The tidal forest is dense and deep green, sheltering birds that break the quiet now and then, one coughing up song like a truck engine that won't start. But mostly there's just breeze in our ears as the young sharks, hardly bigger than wine bottles, graze our ankles, sending chills up our spines.