The Big Gulp

A Caribbean Reef Shark approaches during a shark feed.
A Caribbean Reef Shark approaches during a shark feed in Exumas, Bahamas

Note: A version of this encounter was originally published in the April 2008 print edition of Scuba Diving magazine.

Day after day, fish that eat fish, known as piscivores, have a pretty tough time of it. Their primary prey, small fishes, are hard-wired wary, and over the eons have adapted strategies to counter nearly every trick. Unless something unusual happens to upset the equation, the edge generally goes to the prey. This is why great marine piscivores have become opportunistic predators programmed to take advantage of anything out of the ordinary that just might swing the pendulum in their favor. A case in point: shark feeds. 

A shark feed not only creates an unusual situation, but better yet, from the predators’ perspective it bestows a surplus of food – a rare phenomenon in tropical waters. Now I don’t intend to list a litany of pros and cons in regard to fish feeding, or present myself as a studied expert on the matter, but personally I find shark feeds a hoot—an authentic underwater kick in the britches. I have participated in six or so different feeding events around the equator and found them all to be less than moderately dangerous. And from what I’ve learned about fish behavior, the free lunches provide nothing less than a boon for the fish. Remember, the participating species are opportunistic predators; if their semi-regular offering of complimentary food suddenly disappears these super predators certainly aren’t going to starve. 

Sharks and other fishes are attracted to a frozen fish ball, a.k.a., the chumsicle.
Bahamas shark feed: Fish surround the frozen ball of fish scraps, the “chumsicle”, that is lowered down a cable.

As much as I marvel at the sleek beauty of the main attraction, in the case something like 60 Caribbean Reef Sharks, I find the behavior of the satellite participants every bit as entertaining. This was certainly the case at a shark feed inside the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas several years ago. Although Caribbean Reef Sharks, Horse-eye jacks and ubiquitous Yellowtail Snappers supplied the teeming biomass, the resident population of large Black and Nassau Grouper stole the show with a fitting demonstration of what the term opportunistic predator means. 

As the sharks tore in to the suspended chumsicle (a frozen block of fish scraps) and Yellowtails darted about wildly snatching freed pieces, a 30-pound grouper screened by a sea fan bided its time near the bottom. Now and again, the wily grouper would dash up and grab an unsuspecting Yellowtail that had let its guard down. But the big winner of the day was an even larger Black Grouper that timed its wait until just the right instant before rocketing through the melee to engulf what remained of the thawing bait ball.  

A Black Grouper charges in and steals the frozen bait ball, the chumsicle
Black Grouper charges in and scarfs the remaining chumsicle.

Read more about Shark Feeding: