The Great Xanadu Shark Show
By Marty Snyderman
Fifty feet below the crystal sea, only a mile off beach-strewn Grand Bahama Island, is an undersea spectacle so surreal that it must be seen to be believed. Staged by Xanadu Undersea Adventures, majestic reef sharks circle a silver-skinned matador-a diver disguised beneath a chain-mail suit, cradling a plastic tube filled with small whole fish and fish scraps. The huge Caribbean Reef Sharks (Carcharinus perezi), most of them six to eight feet long, are indeed impressive with their shiny gray suits contrasting against the snow-white sandy bottom.
Our shark feeder is controlling the show. Only 10 feet away are eight guest divers, kneeling on the bottom, arms folded against their chests, dutifully following the careful instructions given at the dive shop. Hovering overhead are two safety divers armed with PVC shark prods.
Xanadu Undersea Adventures
Xanadu Undersea Adventures is a full-service dive operation dockside at the Xanadu Beach Resort Marina on the north shore of Grand Bahama (Freeport) Island.
The Xanadu Beach Resort offers single rooms, suites and two-bedroom villas. There are restaurants, tennis courts, pool, convenience store and a beautiful beach.
Gulfstream International Airlines, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines, flies to Freeport several times daily from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. As an alternative, The Cat, a 140-foot jet-powered catamaran leaves from Miami Cruise Ship Port to Freeport three days a week. The Cat cruises at 50 knots and the trip takes about an hour and a half. This is perfect for a three- to four-day visit, which allows you to dive your final day, as you are not flying from the island.
Contact Neal Watson's Undersea Adventures at (800) 327-8150, (954) 462-3400; fax (954) 462-4100 or send e-mail to email@example.com. You can find the website at www.nealwat son.com or write to P.O. Box 21766, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33335.
Above water, our professional shark feeder had appeared less severe, and decidedly feminine. Veronica Neibur, a certified instructor and protege of chief shark feeder Doug Young, gave us the details of a safe shark experience, spiced with a sense of humor that took the edge off our nervousness.
Once our group is properly positioned underwater, Veronica periodically takes a morsel from the tube and hand feeds the sharks, one at a time. She is protected by the chain-mail armor, which covers her from head to toe; only a small amount of face between hood, mask and regulator is exposed. Amazingly, the sharks pay no attention to the other divers. They know Veronica's the one with the goods-and they're smart enough not to bite the hand that feeds them. Well, not always.
The beautiful sharks are not only huge, but there are around 20 of the suckers. I had to count three times to be sure because they were always moving, always circling.
I have witnessed nearly every shark encounter staged in tropical seas, including the five or six now taking place throughout the Bahamas. Each is spectacular and somewhat individual, but this one in particular has a special twist: an unexpected response to the caress of a chain-mail glove has induced a special behavior named the Xanadu trance.
This trance state elevates the Grand Bahama shark encounter to an incredible new level of experience. The feeder strokes the snout, face and top of the head. Not all the sharks respond to the sensation; almost all that do are females, which are predominantly larger than the males. The shark's nictitating membrane momentarily rotates upward to cover the eye, giving the impression that the eyes are rolling back into the head. The shark then becomes absolutely motionless and settles gently to the sand. The trance lasts from a few seconds to more than a minute, during which time the feeder can handle the shark as though it were a plastic toy.
The feeder may cradle the shark in her lap or, as it lies motionless on the bottom, she may hug it or even kiss it. Then she carefully lifts the entranced shark horizontally and carries it over to the wide-eyed group of divers, who one by one can feel the sandpaper skin and examine anatomical features. Finally, she may balance the shark in one or two hands, holding it vertically above her head. Eventually, the shark gives a shake of its head and merely swims away. Neither lethargic nor agitated, the "plastic" shark is real again.
Back on the surface, I don't even pretend that I am not totally impressed and surprised. Neal Watson, the owner of Undersea Adventures, with which the Xanadu Dive Operation is affiliated, is aboard. Entrepreneur, Guiness Book of World Records holder and clown prince of diving, Neal greets my bubbling enthusiasm with roars of laughter. The Xanadu Trance is over the edge.
The Xanadu Shark Show is staged as pure entertainment, but the trance induced by the feeders is a real scientific journey, albeit one that adds another mystery to the realm of the shark, provoking more questions than answers. These general encounters have dispelled more myths about sharks during the last 10 years than we would have ever imagined. Sharks and divers can inhabit the same space without harming each other, even when sharks are feeding. Finally, sharks are predictable, at least much more predictable than we once thought.
The shark feeders credit the chain-mail suit for allowing more intimate contact with sharks. The trance state cannot be induced with a rubber glove, leading to the theory that the metal mesh modifies the electrical field surrounding the shark. Sensory organs known as ampullae of Lorenzini (tiny pits around the shark's snout) are extremely sensitive to this electrical field. Interestingly, it is only the female shark which can be trance-induced easily, leading us to believe that the stimulation may be sexually biased. Whatever the mechanism, the result facilitates the study of sharks like never before, not to mention creating a fantastic photo opportunity.
The focus of my short visit here has been the sharks, but Grand Bahama is not a one-dimensional dive vacation. There is much more, including the outstanding Theo's Shipwreck, reefs, walls, other wreck sites and numerous marine-life encounters. Offshore the waters are pocked with blue holes, caves and caverns, including the unforgettable dripstone-lined formations inside famous Ben's Cave.
Concerning the Xanadu shark experience: the sharks have proven to be a steady attraction, but a storm, commercial fishermen or, of course, the sharks themselves could modify or change this incredible experience without notice.