Shark tales: Divers talk about thrill of swimming with predators

Divers talk about thrill of swimming with predators Divers talk about thrill of swimming with predators

Beautiful. Graceful. Amazing. Western Colorado divers used these glowing adjectives to describe their underwater encounters with sharks.

Although the Centennial State isn’t exactly shark country, it is home to a number of people fascinated by the animals, including certified divers Joe Adams, Leota Sweetman-McPeek, Matt Maier and Kelly Potter.

With Discovery Channel’s Shark Week set to begin Sunday, Aug. 12, the Blu-ray release of “Jaws” on Tuesday, Aug. 14, and recent headlines about shark bounties and a domestic attack, these divers shared their stories about what it is like to swim among one of Earth’s most feared predators.

‘They were huge’

The stories are true. South Africa’s great white sharks “have so many teeth,” said Kelly Potter, a Woody Creek resident.

Potter, 35, dove with great whites during a spring 2007 trip to South Africa. Well, it wasn’t technically a dive because she was locked in a cage submerged off the side of a boat.

“I mean, they were huge,” Potter said. “It was amazing how graceful and docile they seemed.”

Potter’s “swim” with great whites started on a boat with “maybe 15 people” aboard, including a biologist, who was an expert on shark behavior.

Before she jumped in the cage, trip organizers chummed the water with bait. She remembered four sharks between 10 and 15 feet long circling the boat.

“They swam up the side of the boat,” Potter said. “It was really amazing.”

Then, she got into the cage. The ocean was cold.

“You’re in a cage. What’s going to happen?” Potter asked. “I mean, such is life.”

“Sharks have predator and scavenger mode,” she said. “They were in scavenger mode” and weren’t overly aggressive as they swam around biting at bits of tuna.

However, things shifted after Potter returned to the boat. On the way back to shore, the biologist dragged behind the boat a piece of wood cut into the shape of a seal.

“A shark came up and grabbed at this wooden seal, and that’s when you saw the power of this fish. It came out of nowhere and bit (the wooden seal) in half. It breached probably half way out. It was super amazing to see this huge shark that didn’t appear violent in action swimming powerfully,” she said.

While incredible, this wasn’t Potter’s only shark story. She was bitten by a small nurse shark years ago in Belize in an incident that required a Band-Aid.

“It wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been,” said Potter, who was bitten after trying to pet a nurse shark. “But it did bleed.”

‘Sharks are like ghosts’


To see a shark in the open ocean is to be lucky, Grand Junction diver Joe Adams said.

Adams, who owns Joe’s Scuba Shack, 2575 U.S. Highway 6&50, Unit C, has been on nearly 600 dives around the world but has seen a shark on “only like 10 percent of those.”

“Sharks are like ghosts,” he said. “I’ve seen more turtles than I’ve seen sharks.”

Adams, 50, has seen reef, nurse and bull sharks. The first shark he ever saw was a black-tip reef shark in 2004 while he was on a dive in the Cayman Islands. It was about 8 feet long and 25 feet away from him.

“They are the most amazing things to watch,” Adams said of sharks. “They are so gorgeous and peaceful. You can just see the power.”

Adams also swam among a 15-foot nurse shark in the Bahamas — “nurse sharks are almost like playful puppies” — and a 14-foot bull shark in Fiji — “reef sharks left the scene when the bull sharks arrived.”

Shark encounters are memorable no matter how many times they happen, Adams said.

“People come up after seeing them, and it’s all they talk about,” he said.

Despite being an avid diver and a certified dive instructor, two sharks have eluded him: hammerheads and whale sharks.

He is coordinating a March 2013 trip to the Cayman Islands out of Joe’s Scuba Shack. No telling if he’ll get to see hammerheads on that trip, but sharks, certainly.

‘Definitely an apex predator’


Crazy. That’s how Matt Maier described one of his first encounters with sharks years ago off the coast of Honduras.

He saw a group of nearly 40 reef sharks between 10 and 15 feet long “hitting bait.”

“I have never sucked down a tank that fast in my life,” said Maier, who lives in Carbondale.

Maier, 39, has been diving since 2003 and has seen a number of sharks in his nearly 100 dives since completing his certification.

Admittedly, Maier was “a little apprehensive” about diving with sharks, which is why he went to Honduras “to realize it wasn’t a horror movie.”

In a May trip he specifically went to the Gordon Rocks area of the Galapagos where the current is strong and the visibility is low, but it offered the chance to see “big schools of hammerheads.”

He got his wish. Although he didn’t see large groups of hammerheads, he saw a few.

The first sighting was about 10:45 a.m., in an area where large hammerheads congregate to have smaller fish clean off parasites that build up on the sharks’ skin.

“It’s really interesting behavior. ... It’s essentially a big car wash,” said Maier, who saw four hammerheads, with the largest measuring nearly 14 feet.

He next caught a glimpse of a hammerhead at 1:30 p.m. that same day after bottoming out at 65 feet against a collapsed volcanic formation. The visibility was only about 15 feet when “a big female came right over my head ... All I caught was her tail, which was 6 feet, so she must have been a behemoth ... Her tail was almost as big as I am.”

Maier had to trust the word of the dive master, who saw the entire shark, that indeed it was a monster of a hammerhead.

“I’m so sad I didn’t see (the whole shark),” he said.

Nearly 10 years after first diving with sharks, Maier said that he’s glad he has gotten over any fears of being in the open ocean with sharks.

“They are definitely an apex predator,” he said. “When they come into a situation the entire dynamic of the reef changes. It’s amazing the power they command.”

‘They are so beautiful’

Leota Sweetman-McPeek, featured on this week’s cover, doesn’t dive off the Bahamas for the sharks, but she’s happy they are there.

The retired Central High School librarian plans to leave Sunday, Aug. 12, to dive with Stuart Cove’s in what has become an annual event for the 62-year-old and her brother, Richard Sweetman of Denver.

“Water is unbelievably calming,” Sweetman-McPeek said. “There is no way to describe it.”

And sharks just happen to be a part of the ocean she finds so welcoming.

Sweetman-McPeek described Caribbean reef sharks she’s seen as more interested in eating “what’s already dead.”

On her dives with Stuart Cove’s, she has counted nearly 40 reef sharks between 6 and 7 feet. They are feisty during afternoon feeds and snap at each other but “don’t really care anything for people,” she said.

“They are so beautiful,” she said. “They are so graceful. When they are feeding, you can see how fast they swim.”


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