Marathon's Shark Nursery

by Geri Murphy

I had barely settled to the seafloor and cleared my mask when I sighted a Muppet faced apparition swimming toward me. With beady eyes and puffy cheeks, this creature looked more like a Cabbage Patch doll than a shark. Yep, it was my old friend the Nurse Shark; one of the most docile and weird looking specimens of the world's 350 shark species.

As I glanced around the reef, I saw another and then another; all lazily zigzagging among the coral heads and seafans of this Florida Keys reef. I had heard rumors of a shark dive in the Keys and now I was witnessing proof positive.

Capt. Bob Tilman, owner and operator of The Diving Site in Marathon, had discovered these remarkable sharks and developed a new dive site specifically for observing, photographing and occasionally feeding these marvelous creatures. Congregating Nurse Sharks is a comparatively rare phenomenon that had only been witnessed previously in Belize.

Christened Samantha's Reef, the Keys site is a lovely, shallow coral reef 20 to 25 feet deep. It consists of a flat sand and coral gravel bottom surrounded by coral ridges and ledges. It takes about 35 to 40 minutes to reach by boat. The day we visited the site, underwater visibility was close to 100 feet.

The reef is inhabited by a group of four to six Nurse Sharks, all of which appear to be females, and range in size from three and a half to five feet long. The site appears to be a protected nursery area where sharks are born and grow large enough to fend for themselves. These juvenile sharks are extremely friendly. When offered Ballyhoo or squid, they will approach the feeder without fear and can be stroked or petted.

Ordinarily nocturnal bottom feeders, these young Nurse Sharks have adapted to their new found food source and will feed any time of the day. They have no problem taking food from any depth, rising from the seafloor to inhale gobs of it.

Capt. Tilman operates the 40 foot boat Seafari, which can carry up to 24 divers but generally runs with 12 to 18. Powered by a single screw diesel, the vessel cruises at 13 knots. It is equipped with a stern dive platform, dive ladder and freshwater shower. During the summer season, Tilman operates three trips daily; a morning two tank dive, an afternoon two tank dive and a night one tank dive.

Other dives offered by Capt. Tilman include visits to Sombrero Reef, Coffin's Patch and Delta Shoals. Another popular dive is a trip to the Thunderbolt, a 188 foot steel hulled cable layer sunk in 115 feet of water.

Captain Tilman purchased The Diving Site in 1976 and has operated this full service dive center for the past 21 years. It offers PADI open water classes, Discover Scuba sessions, equipment rentals and repair services. The Diving Site is at Mile Marker 53.5 on the ocean side of U.S. Highway 1. It is at the north end of Marathon, right in the heart of the Florida Keys.

For more information about diving in the Marathon and Middle Keys area, contact:

The Diving Site
12399 Overseas Hwy., MM 53.5, Marathon, FL 33050
Capt. Bob Tilman
(305) 289-1021 - (800) 634-3935

Abyss Pro Dive Center at Holiday Inn
13175 Overseas Hwy., MM 54, Marathon, FL 33050
Bill Ferrell
(305) 743-2126 - (800) 457-0134

Abyss Pro Dive Center at Hawk's Cay Resort
Duck Key Drive, MM 61, Duck Key, FL 33050
Mike and Elizabeth Giglio
(305) 289-4433 - (800) 432-2242

Captain Hook's Dive Center
11833 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050
Kathy and Rich Fortmann
(305) 743-2444 - (800) CPT-HOOK

CJ's Dive Center
2250 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050
Howard Southwick
(305) 289-9433 - (800) 210-9433

Fantasea Divers
2600 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050
Steven Ralli
(305) 289-1780 - (800) 223-4563

Hall's Diving Center & Career Institute
1994 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050
Bob Brayman
(305) 743-5929 - (800) 331-HALL

Hurricane Aqua-Center
10800 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050
Ed Davidson
(305) 743-2400

Marathon Divers
12221 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050
Jack and Rita Ferguson
(305) 289-1141 - (800) 724-5798

Middle Keys Scuba Center
11511 Overseas Hwy., MM 53, Marathon, FL 33050
Richard Boileau
(305) 743-2902