What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
It would be hard to top some of the moments underwater with sharks, particularly with the big tigers. From the boat they looked ominous, those black threatening shapes against the white sand, circling the boat. But once we were in and dropped to the bottom, my trepidation oddly subsided. All I had was a short blunt stick between my tiny self and the 14-foot (four meters) tigers. But they were calm—and somewhat curious, though not overly so. So I ended up jabbing the stick into the sand to help keep me from drifting.
The sharks tended to keep their distance, though they were circling inward, ever so slowly. One might then turn from the "shark carousel" (as I thought of it) and head my way. But nothing about her demeanor would change, so neither would mine. I'd hold my breath, knowing that bubbles might scare her off when I wanted her closer. At arm's length she'd turn off her heading and ease by, so I could stroke her flank as she passed. Some sharks have a certain ugliness to them, I'll admit; but tigers, with their subtle black patterns and big black eyes, are quite lovely. And to be able to touch, with no fear, such an ill-reputed animal was quite an amazing experience.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
Although we did not feed the sharks directly, in order to get their interest and keep them near our boat for days at a time, we would string milk crates full of bait to the stern so the scent of fish would wash out to sea—creating a map to our location. The bait was stored in coolers on board the boat, and initially it smelled a little fishy, but not too bad. A week later, after sitting in the tropical heat day after day, whatever bait was left was completely rancid and it was nearly impossible to escape the smell. On the first two-week trip, I'd joined up at the beginning, was exposed to the smell early, and learned to tolerate it as it turned from bad to worse. But on another trip, I came aboard late, when the bait was already putrid. The odor was like a brick wall, omnipresent, unmoving, and unbearable. Add to that the rough seas we encountered as we crossed from Florida to the Bahamas, and you can imagine how I spent some of those first hours: in the head losing my lunch.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
Jimmy Abernethy, captain of the dive boat Shearwater, shark enthusiast and conservationist, and our dive guide, bubbles with excitement about life and is willing to try anything, especially new toys. Even sharks seem to be toys of sorts to him—in the way they inspire and thrill him. But he has another favorite toy that he introduced to me on our trips together: a homemade flying machine that he'd brought to allow photographer Brian Skerry to shoot aerials of the islands. It was basically an ultralight plane with a Zodiac boat attached to the bottom for water landings. It was an odd thing to see up in the sky—this foreign object, part boat, part plane, with Jimmy at the controls like a kid with a joystick. Even better was riding in the thing—despite the noise and fumes from the engine just behind my head. The view was gorgeous—the Bahamas from above shows off all its shades of blue and cream and white—and the warm ocean air and afternoon sun were delicious on the skin. From above you could also see rays and sharks in the clear waters below. Landings were like the last downhill on a carnival water ride—a thrill. So, quirky machine, delightful captain, and an utterly delightful ride.