By Pat Ford
Photos: Pat Ford
Several months ago Hunter Ledbetter asked me if I’d like to help him out on a photo shoot in Jupiter. Since Hunter is somewhat famous for photo shoots with beautiful models, I jumped at the chance. The details were a bit vague at first, but we’d be riding along with Bryce Rohrer, owner and operator of Florida Shark Diving. I had heard of Florida Shark Diving but never got organized enough to actually dive with them so this was a big bonus.
The first few days we scheduled had to be canceled due to high winds but on our third try the weather gods smiled on us and we were good to go. We met Bryce and dive master, Mike Dornellas, at the U-Tiki Marina on Jupiter Inlet at 9 am. The sun was out and winds were under 10k, and a dozen of Hunter’s free diving models appeared right on time. Free divers take their trips very seriously…no one is late for a dive trip!
The program was explained as follows: we were looking for sharks! We’d run a dozen or so miles outside of Florida state waters to a depth of almost 200 feet. Bryce had several frozen bonito to lure the sharks into viewing range. They had a safety line and a shorter line to a nylon crate holding the chopped up bonito. Mike was in charge of breaking off small chunks of bonito to bring the sharks in as close as possible. The girls could hang on the safety line and dive down to get closer to the sharks if the wished. Hunter, Mike and I all had cameras and would try to shoot as much of the action as possible. We could expect to see most any species of shark that inhabits Florida waters. We didn’t get to pick which fish flavor would appear on a given day but it didn’t really matter….it was all good.
We hadn’t been drifting very long until Mike reported that we had a half dozen bull sharks in the chum line. I’m not particularly fond of bull sharks even though I’ve spent a lot of time diving with them in Bimini. They’re a bit creepy to be polite as well as very dangerous if the get excited. Bryce assured us that there was nothing to be concerned about as long as you didn’t do some thing radically stupid…such as getting in the water? Well that didn’t meet his criteria of ‘stupid’ enough to get yourself hurt and he added that the bull sharks were actually very skittish. If you dove down at them, they would see you as a predator and run. If I wanted to get some decent photos, I should dive down way ahead of them and come up below them. If I got deeper than the sharks and just let myself float up with them, they would think I was just a mutant critter that was also interested in a free snack and ignore me. The only glitch was that I’d have to free dive down about 30-40 feet to get below the sharks and I’m not an experienced free diver…I like those things that you put on your back that hold AIR! Some of the girls put me to shame but after a while I got the hang of it… sort of. Mike on the other hand was part fish and had no trouble deep diving and holding his breath about twice as long as I could. The bulls treated him like a brother and repeatedly swam right up to him to pose for photos. I got into fairly decent position a few times and had several sharks swim right up to me, but just the noise of the camera shutter would send them running. They were just as timid as predicted and seemed content to snack on the small pieces of bonito that Mike would portion out to them. It’s always best to keep the chum in small chunks with bull sharks. If you drift back a whole fish to them they can get pretty excited and competitive which is not good. You want to keep them calm and happy.
During the course of the morning we saw maybe a dozen bull sharks and one sandbar shark. As the weather gets nicer, the bull sharks thin out and silkies, duskys, hammerheads and tigers appear on a regular basis along with Mahi and an occasional wahoo or other game fish…you never really know what’s going to show up on a specific day, but the summer days are the best.
Bryce runs both morning and afternoon trips whenever the weather cooperates. Check out Floridasharkdiving.com for all the details and don’t forget to bring your GoPro or underwater camera. It’s an amazing experience that will last a lifetime. I’ll be a frequent passenger this summer for sure.