Freediving with Great Hammerheads
by Jillian Morris Brake
Based in Bimini, Jillian is a marine biologist, shark advocate, scuba instructor, explorer, educator and unabashedly obsessed with sharks. She is also a fourth element ambassador.
There is something truly magical about slipping beneath the surface on a single breath of air. Don’t get me wrong, I love scuba diving, especially for photography and filming. Freediving, however, offers a more connected experience. While it’s a much briefer encounter, I always feel a greater intensity in my connection to the water. Maybe it’s because I know the moments will pass quickly or maybe it’s because the lack of gear brings me closer to actually being part of the underwater world.
Image courtesy of Ko Chuan Yang
I spend a lot of time diving with sharks, but freediving with great hammerheads is my absolute favorite. These sharks are remarkable and spending even a moment with them is incredible. Bimini has become world famous for the opportunity to dive or freedive with this species in shallow, crystal clear waters. It’s also unique because we get numerous individuals on a single dive (up to 10 or 11). The sharks are identified and named as part of ongoing research being done by the Bimini Sharklab.
Most people do not think of sharks as having personalities, but they do! We can often recognize which shark is approaching even before we can see their identifying features. Their behaviors help us identify them, with some being very bold and others approaching more slowly or from the surface. We also use their markings such as ventral coloration and patterns or notches out of fins to identify them. It’s always exciting to see the regulars return each year and sad when they do not. The Bahamas is a shark sanctuary meaning it’s illegal to catch and kill sharks here. This species is migratory though, traveling outside the sanctuary where they are targeted in various fisheries.
Image courtesy of Sophie Hart
My favorite shark is called Scylla. I did my first dive with her in November of 2013 and have had some really special moments in the water with her since. She left Bimini and enjoyed a couple of seasons at Tiger Beach off Grand Bahama. Her ventral pattern is very unique and has made her quite popular. She has definitely been on Shark Week! She returned to Bimini at the end of 2019 and I actually teared up on my first dive with her. Gliding along next to a 3-to-4-meter animal is one of the most incredible feelings. We are in their world on their terms, able to share a brief connection. I often put the camera down in order to truly embrace the moment.
Many people are fearful of great hammerheads because of the way they look, but to my knowledge, there has never been a recorded human fatality from a hammerhead. We should be fearful for these sharks as they are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. This means if we do not learn about them and put larger protection in place, they will become extinct. I hope that by sharing my images, videos and knowledge, I can be a voice for these animals. I can help change fear to fascination and encourage others to do the same. Yes, it’s awesome to have a cool photo of myself swimming with my favorite shark (Scylla), but I also hope it shows people that with respect, we can have incredible encounters with these misunderstood animals. I hope it inspires others to dive in and then share their own ocean or shark experience!
Jillian wears the fourth element RF1 wetsuit
BE IN THE MOMENT
Banner image courtesy of Sophie Hart