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  • The Ultimate CLOSE Encounter

    Cuddle A Shark With Xanadu Undersea Adventures

    by Bill Harrigan, May 1997



    To my utter disbelief, Kieron Baudains, Xanadu's chief instructor and shark feeder, picks up a wild shark and carries it around in his arms. It happens like this: We are 45 feet down on the sandy bottom at Shark Alley off Grand Bahama. Kieron, better known as Key, is dressed in a steel mesh suit and surrounded by 18 or 20 sharks. The mesh suit is a prudent precaution, because there is nothing tame about these sharks; they are free-roaming Caribbean Reef Sharks, Carcharhinus perezi, mostly adult females five to eight feet in length. Ten of us are kneeling in a row with a splendid view of the sharks as Key handfeeds them pieces of fish. The sharks are cruising all around us but any initial trepidation we felt dissipated rapidly when we saw that the sharks weren't interested in us. This is an open water event but it is not an uncontrolled feeding frenzy.

    Key feeds a few of the sharks as he normally does, presenting the bait so we can practically look down their throats as they open their jaws wide, displaying an impressive set of sharp, white teeth. Then he does the most amazing thing. As one of the sharks swallows the fish, he guides its nose into his own torso, stroking its head and sides. The shark stops swimming and settles gently to the sand. It lies there in a trance-like state while Key continues to lightly stroke its head. He moves around to the side and, with one hand on its nose and the other behind its dorsal fin, picks up the shark. It comes slowly off the bottom as though levitated, motionless except for the slow swivel of its yellow and black eyes. With the seven foot shark in his arms, Key walks slowly along our line, giving each of us a chance to stroke its hide and examine it closely. Up this close, many details of the shark's anatomy are visible in incredible detail. For instance, we can see how the nictitating membrane, an opaque 'eyelid' that protects the shark's eye momentarily while it feeds, actually rotates upward to cover the eye. We can also see the tiny ampullae of Lorenzini that form its electromagnet sensory organ, used for navigation and detection of prey. We can even reach out and feel the sandpapery roughness of the shark's skin. As Key passes the last diver, the shark gives one shake of its head and swims off at its usual speed, neither lethargic nor agitated.

    a xanadu exclusive

    This remarkable experience is not an aquarium trick or an illusion, although the shark almost looks like a hypnotized volunteer in a magician's act. Putting sharks in the Xanadu Trance was developed by the shark feeders at Xanadu Undersea Adventures and so far they are the only ones who can do it. Key credits the security of the full mesh suit with allowing the feeders to interact more with the sharks. As the feeders became more comfortable, the sharks seemed to relax as well. After watching the sharks' behavior closely for several years, the feeders realized that at least some of the sharks responded positively to touch. Why do they become motionless? This is a new discovery and previous research does not provide a definitive answer. However, Caribbean Reef Sharks are one of the few shark species frequently observed resting motionless on the bottom. Perhaps the Xanadu feeders succeed because these sharks are naturally inclined to relax so completely. This condition may in fact be very similar to their sleeping state. The answer may also involve the tiny electromagnetic/magnetic fields that surround the mesh of the stainless steel suit, which may affect the sharks' sensory system. Whatever the answer, the shark dive at Xanadu Undersea Adventures is an extraordinary opportunity to admire the sleek, purposeful beauty of these magnificent predators.

    DIVING VARIETY

    Ultra close-up shark encounters are not the only undersea adventures at Xanadu. There are several excellent wreck dives, including Theo's Wreck, which lies on its port side in 100 feet of water only a ten minute boat ride from the shop. Sunk in 1982, this 238 foot freighter is also the home of Pickles, an enormous Green Moray with an affinity for divers. The Badger is a shallow wreck sunk at the end of last year. It sits upright on the bottom in only 45 feet, looking ghostly with its clean hull and hovering squadron of Barracuda.

    The Ledge is one of several new Xanadu dive sites. The reef drops vertically from 65 to 95 feet here, undercut in some places with ledges that often shelter resting sharks or turtles. Blair House, between 50 and 80 feet, is almost completely fused across the top, resulting in a tangle of tunnels, caverns and swim-throughs. Lobsters and morays are often seen on the reef but the clouds of tiny Silversides are the most impressive sight. Constrained by the cavern walls, they shoot back and forth across your light like a rainstorm of chrome. The Tunnels, Pigmy Caves and Crystal Caves are three other dives that feature short tunnels. The formations are liberally decorated with both hard and soft corals, which provide habitat for many species of fish.

    There are plenty of excellent shallow reefs on Grand Bahama, including Silver Point, where the maximum depth is 20 feet. Schools of grunts, snappers and jacks are always in residence, along with some very large pufferfish. Another shallow reef, Magic Kingdom is a favorite for night dives and macro photography.

    FAMILY AFFAIR

    The professional standards at Xanadu Undersea Adventures are high but the atmosphere is relaxed. Owners Daisy and Louis Chan play an active role in running the operation and they encourage the staff to take a family style approach. With a highly talented staff to help each other and assist customers, the result is flexible fun for everyone. The first person you meet when you come through the door is store manager Shanna Kemp. The instructors are headed up by Key Baudains, a PADI master scuba diver trainer, SSI divecon instructor and TDI nitrox instructor. Key, of course, is also one of two shark feeders at Xanadu. His cousin, Paul Baudains, is the other feeder and is also a PADI divemaster and TDI nitrox instructor. Paul can handle the sharks with the same incredible intimacy as Key. Bahamian Sean Adderly is an SSI instructor and knows the Grand Bahama reefs like the proverbial back of his hand. Elliott Kourany is a PADI master scuba diver trainer in addition to being an SSI divecon instructor and TDI nitrox instructor. Veronique Marquez-du Manoir brings multi-lingual capabilities to Xanadu, along with her credentials as a PADI instructor. Everyone who dives with Xanadu appreciates the help they get from PADI divemaster Rosa Mearns. This talented group can provide instruction from resort courses to divemaster under the auspices of both PADI and SSI. In addition to being the only nitrox fill station on the island, Xanadu offers TDI certifications in nitrox and advanced nitrox.

    Divers with a steady hand and an appetite for adventure can also take Xanadu's special Shark Feeder course. This two day training session includes an introductory shark dive, a pool session in the mesh suit, a course on shark behavior and feeding techniques and a chance to feed the sharks yourself. Staff members are also on hand to videotape the event and act as safety divers.

    three boats

    Xanadu Undersea Adventures operates three medium sized dive boats, to avoid crowding and provide maximum flexibility. The 39 foot custom built Adventure One is set up for a maximum of about 15 divers. This boat is fast and comfortable and will get you to most dive sites in 15 or 20 minutes. Seating is provided in sun or shade and the open transom makes getting in and out easy. In between dives the Xanadu staff changes your gear over to a fresh tank for you. Islander is a 35 foot boat set up for groups of 10 to 12 divers. Cruise speed is about 12 knots, with a smooth and easy motion through the water. The third boat, Cara Mia, is a 30 foot deep-V Intrepid used for smaller groups and special charters.

    XANADU BEACH RESORT
    AND MARINA

    A resort, beach and dive operation all in the same location, Xanadu Beach Resort and Marina offers a variety of accommodations with outstanding views, including single rooms, suites and two bedroom villas. The manicured grounds feature tennis courts, pool, three restaurants, a nursery and a convenience store. The resort hosts a beachside Bahamian fish fry every Wednesday and Friday from March to September. The private beach is perfect for sunning and playing and has a straw market for picking up souvenirs. The western orientation of the beach makes it perfect for enjoying spectacular sunsets.

    TRAVEL INFORMATION

    There are not many tropical dive destinations as easy to get to as Freeport, Grand Bahama. From Miami it's only a 30 minute hop by plane. Gulfstream International Airlines, a United Airlines marketing partner, flies direct to Freeport several times a day from West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Either a passport or a certified birth certificate along with a photo ID may be used to enter The Bahamas. U.S. and Bahamian dollars are used interchangeably, so there is no need to exchange money. The electrical current is the same as in the U.S. as well, so no adapters or transformers are necessary.

    For more information on Xanadu, call (800) 327-8150. From outside the U.S., call (242) 352-3811 or fax (242) 352-4731. The mailing address for Xanadu Undersea Adventures is P.O. Box F-40118, Freeport, Grand Bahama and the e-mail address is nealwatson@aol. com.

    Ben Thomas Joins Dacor: Anticipating a strong year ahead, Dacor has split its Florida territory and added Ben Thomas to the team. Ben has 17 years of sales experience in three states, including serving as vice president of sales for Dixie Divers.

    As Dacor's regional market manager for northern Florida he will service retail customers from Interstate 4 north and Tallahassee east.

    Dacor is a full line manufacturer of premium, high tech diving equipment. The company has forged a quality reputation from 43 years of innovation and has introduced more than a dozen new products in its 1997 line.

    For further information, contact Ben Thomas at (561) 336-7042 or fax (561) 336-7043.