LOVE THE BEAST:
The warm waters of the Caribbean along Mexico’s Riviera Maya teem with amazing wildlife, but between November and March this coastline plays host to its most impressive and potentially deadly guest: the bull shark. Here, there’s a man who wants to take you down to the seabed to face these menacing creatures as they feed, and teach you that they’re not to be feared, but embraced.
“Twenty years ago, Playa del Carmen was a small town with few tourists and [only] four or five dive shops. In the winter, when I used to spear fish, the sharks would come up next to me and try to steal the fish I caught. In those early years, I didn’t notice how much the tourists were amazed by the sharks. It took me time to realise it was a better business than selling ceviche.” And so Jorge Loria brought bull-shark diving to Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
Today, Playa del Carmen has more than 60 dive shops, and Loria is the director of Phantom Divers, a tour company that specialises in diving with this species of shark, which, alongside the great white and tiger shark, is considered one of the most dangerous known to man.
“We control the dive with food,” explains Loria. “If the sharks start getting aggressive, we seal the bucket so no blood comes out, and then they calm down. If we want more action, we start letting fish out.”
For the diver tasked with feeding the sharks, a little more protection is needed. “I have three tooth-marks on my hand,” says Loria. “After that, I said, ‘OK, chain mail is the solution.’” The mesh protects against what he calls a ‘test’ or ‘mistake’ bite – “It’s not the same as an attack bite. When they’re going for a turtle, it has a different force” – but the greatest defence is experience.
“When the sharks become nervous, their movements become quicker and they put down their pectoral fins. Someone who sees them every day can tell the difference; a tourist cannot.” As such, anyone going on the excursion requires decent scuba experience. “They don’t need to be super pro-divers, but we don’t babysit. Everyone needs to be able to go down, do a safety stop and come back up by themselves. And they must be able to follow the plan and respect the rules: keep your hand to yourself, because the shark could mistake it and have a bite.”
Accidental chomps aside, Loria says the sharks are not to be feared, and the aim of his dives is to teach that lesson. “In the last 30 years, we’ve lost 80 per cent of the world’s shark population. You know why? Because everybody thinks if there are no sharks in the water they’re going to be safer. We need to change people’s minds in order to start protecting them, and the only way we can do this is by getting them to dive with the sharks and learn first-hand what they really are.
“When people come here, you can see the nervousness in their faces. In the briefing, they listen very carefully, and they behave underwater. When we finish the dive, we ask them how it made them feel, and the answer most often repeated is that the experience was peaceful.”