Swimming with bull sharks: Cuba’s underwater tourism bet

Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

The shark turns and swims right at me.

There is only open water between us, no cages to protect against the oncoming bull shark, the species many scientists consider the world’s most aggressive.

I’m starting to have second thoughts about this mission.

Before we entered the ocean, Oromelio “Oro” Rodriguez Salabarría, the Cuban scuba instructor next to me, swore he had never had a client bitten by a shark. Not a bite or a nibble.

I had hired local guides and spent weeks dealing with various entities within Cuba’s extensive bureaucracy to arrange a dive with these sharks. The state-run Shark Friends Dive Center, in the remote Cuban beach town of Playa Santa Lucía, is the only place in the country, one of the few in the world, where divers can swim with bull sharks.

With more than 350 teeth, a muscular appearance and an occasional tendency to attack boats and people, bull sharks have a fearsome reputation. However, attacks on humans are rare – while humans regularly kill bull sharks for their fins, liver and skin.

Increasingly, however, some governments – including Cuba – are trying to protect sharks and capitalize on the high of a close encounter, no longer fearing that sharks will scare visitors off beaches, but actually attracting them. The Cuban government promotes organized tours where visitors experience the island’s iconic old cars and cigars, followed by a swim with the toothy predators.

“People come to Cuba from all over the world to swim with the sharks,” said Dan Whittle, senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that in 2015 partnered with the Cuban government, local scientists and fisheries to implement greater protection for marine life on the island.

“A live shark in the water in some of these national parks is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. He estimates that shark tourism in Cuba is worth millions of dollars a year.

Oro, a gray-haired, gravel-voiced dive instructor with more than 20 years of experience guiding shark dives, is thrilled with the response. “It’s the myth that the shark is dangerous, a manipulator, that it’s aggressive,” says Oro.

“Then you manage to see a shark five feet away and when you get out of the water, you’re like, ‘That’s the best dive of my life!’

Tour operators in the Bahamas have already discovered what a big business shark diving can be. According to a study in Biological Conservation, in 2014, divers who visited the Bahamas to swim with sharks contributed more than $100 million to the local economy there.

While shark tourism in Cuba is a much smaller business, guides hope the island’s pristine reefs and increased efforts to protect the roughly 100 species of native sharks will attract visitors who have so far been slow to return from the pandemic.

Cuba is seeking to protect its sharks -- and benefit from the high of a close encounter.

02 bull sharks

Shark Friends Dive Center Playa Santa Lucia, Cuba

Before Covid, the diving center at Playa Santa Lucía attracted shark enthusiasts from all over the world, guides said. Now customers are few. Carrie Prevost, a Canadian tourist, was one of the few recent visitors who chose to swim with the bull sharks.

“It’s a world I don’t belong in and it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to do that. I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” she told CNN.

As she donned her scuba gear for her first attempt to see the sharks, Prevost admitted that the song from the movie “Jaws” was playing in her head.

“I saw the film very young and was scared to swim in pools, let alone the ocean, so it’s a challenge to overcome,” he said.

Marine biologists say that despite the widespread publicity that attacks on humans can generate, sharks usually pose no danger and are essential to maintaining healthy reef and fish populations.

Shark dive guides have worked to educate the local population on this point, telling local fishermen that sharks can bring tangible economic benefits.

“We tell the residents not to kill them, not to fish them. We are always working on it,” said dive guide Lazaro Suarez Zayas. “The bull shark is not endangered, but it comes from this area and we use it as a natural resource, so we need to protect it.”

Some guides, proud of their connection with the animals, say they believe the sharks recognize them.

Once in the water for our shark dive, Lazaro quickly throws in some snappers. He says he wants to attract the sharks but not overstimulate them.

More than 80 feet underwater, we’re swimming next to the wreck of a Spanish ship that sank more than a century ago, and Lazaro turns to me and makes the sign of a fin above his head with one of his hands of.

At first, I see nothing in the piercing blue water. A bull shark then appears.

We sit on the ocean floor as the shark circles. It’s more than me. Another shark arrives and the two quickly devour the fish sent by Lazarus. He feeds the fish directly into the sharks’ mouths, pulling his hand away at the last moment before their teeth close.

Bull sharks have a fearsome reputation, but attacks on humans are rare.

The larger shark fixes its midnight black eyes on me and heads in my direction. I remember what the guides said about not panicking, swimming or eating in a way that would give the shark the impression that I was injured or easy prey.

Even as my pulse quickens, it’s hard not to admire an animal so clearly in its element. The shark swims behind me. I turn my head while waving the ‘ok’ sign at Lazarus and Mt.

He’s just controlling me… I think.

For a few seconds, the circling shark holds my attention like nothing else in the world. Will he attack or come in for an even closer look? What can drivers really do to protect me?

It’s exciting to be just a few meters away – as the guides promised me, this is already one of the best dives of my life. Fortunately, my fascination with the shark is not mutual.

After a few close passes, the shark loses interest and slowly swims away.

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