Virgin Waters: What I Learned Stand Up Paddleboarding With 10ft Sharks

stand up paddling with tiger sharks

Principal Photos and Story by Owen Waters

standup paddling british virgin islands
Photo by CN Media

When I opened a resort in Anegada, the only coral atoll island in the British Virgin Islands chain of Anegada, my friends who are familiar with the waters there only talked about sharks. In my research just about every type of aggressive shark would would be at this island that has the third worlds largest surrounding barrier reef.

As I read about the habits I had no idea that my presence on a stand up paddleboard would not only put me as part of the food chain, predator and bizarre element to locals as I paddled along the reefs. I also began to realize that I was an alien species to most of the marine life. It was the first time they would have seen a paddleboard let alone a human paddling and the reactions of the marine life taught me more in 3 months than a decade in the water in the Caribbean.

As I read about the habits I had no idea that my presence on a stand up paddleboard would not only put me as part of the food chain…

Anegada Island is a stand up paddleboarders dream. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it is a waterman’s dream because as much as it is remote, in the middle of the ocean it is pretty uninhabited and that means most of the time you are out on the water on your own. If anything goes wrong chasing surf, wind or in this case sharks you are gone, and literally gone, myth, legend, disappeared.

One weekend a search and rescue part combed the internal bush and salt ponds to put to rest a disappearance 12 months earlier and came across hundreds of cow bones from the wild roaming animals that perished in heat to deduce all tracks to the ocean and from there draw simple conclusions.

arial view british virgin islands 2
Photo by CN Media

Anegada’s highest point is a 15ft palm tree on approach and getting to it by sea you can be a few degrees off and on your way to Bermuda. White sand and blue aquatic water meets you on approach and it is the Caribbean you dream of. No beach bars, no businesses at all really and just miles and miles of powder sand beaches.

With over 400 shipwrecks alongside it’s Northern reef side sailors abandoned vessels and shipmates since the 1500’s to put themselves at the mercy of settlers ashore, not always in favor of survivors laying claim to their own cargo washing up behind them.

One Captain wrote of atrocities to survivors never experienced anywhere, Anegada these days has a steady population of 200 souls. As big as any of the other Islands in the British Virgin Islands its wild night stars and heated days with trade winds that blow one side of the island to the other it has gelled with the local people and settlers and the sea surrounding has given warning and myth to local people and settlers.

I windsurfed up to my buddy’s rib to and witnessed a giant sea turtle get attacked by an 8ft tiger shark

On my initial research my concern was with the oversized sharks out around the reefs. My first trip ten years back I windsurfed up to my buddy’s rib to and witnessed a giant sea turtle get attacked by an 8ft tiger shark which struck the poor creature from directly underneath it. The turtle was the sight we wanted to see, and in studying further we found out that they can swim in circles tighter than most sharks and then make their break.

The law of Anegada is pretty straight forward; the norm does not always favor the side of positive and its good to be prepared. From that experience with seeing the shark attack as many people living there have also seen, a localization of predators has developed of where they are and not surprisingly lending a fisherman’s ear over a beer when I arrived on the island ten years later the loose lipped sea dog was full of animation and knowledge of where predators are.

stand up paddling with tiger sharks
Photo by Armando Jenik

Hammerheads by the East side, fooled by fishing for Conch shells over hundreds of years the smell in the water has made them stay. Cow Wreck Beach where the Steamship sank in the 20’s with all the bones and the rot, dem sharks been hanging around there for a long time. Big tigers Mon! Big Tigers and Bull Sharks to the West End where the reef opens. Don’t go out by Soldier point, you lose your life mesun. You surf, you die here man, one cut and the shark come. When we want shark, we take a bag of fish and we cut it, wait ten minutes and they come, big ones. You dead blood in the watta. Blood bring shark, nature’s way and you no seal, or turtle mistake, you blood and that all the shark need. You show fear you done quicker, be safe as you go on the water, you brave man but don’t be stupid, when get dark you go home, no praying can help you after dark.”

And so, with my warnings and pretty much every generalization about sharks summed up over a beer my girlfriend walked the beach the next morning to tell me about sharks, big ones just cruising alongside the shoreline inside the reef.

I have seen some really big shit out there and most people have to just be careful okay. There aren’t any services that could help you in time

I asked my friend at the conversation and fisheries about migration of the marine life in Anegada. She told me they were mostly concerned on the bird life and the Iguanas but she heeded warning, “Look it isn’t over fished out there, and it’s really out there, I have seen some really big shit out there and most people have to just be careful okay. There aren’t any services that could help you in time.”

I chatted with my pal who kites out there plenty; he told me if he’d to be eaten it would have happened by now. Weeks later coming in together from a session we marked on some Nurse Sharks leaving the area after spending time mating within the reef in packs of 40 or so, “ Big hey?” “Yeah, 10 ft man, that’s not right, they shouldn’t be 10ft, that’s enough to be worried about.”

stand up paddleboarding in British Virgin Islands

And with anticipation I spent 3 months paddling alongside the reefs. First upwind to Windlass Bight where we first found the Nurse Sharks mating only feet from the shore to find the turtle sanctuary where like mermaids on my own up to 15 turtles would surface as I stood there stationery on my board looking up at the blazing sky. The turtle grass mixed in with conch shells is the haven for the turtles; sharks are not far away, big Nurse lives around there, mostly for the conch. He circles the perimeter as the turtles get excited by your presence, feel he is there and he will know you have recognized him and leave it at that.

Tt came straight to me, my position on a downwind run it came to me aggressively head on with pectoral and dorsal fins erect in attack mode

From upwind the adventures that started out in training took me downwind going faster and faster on my 14ft Bark Dominator, fast, and pacing hard and then upwind to downwind for around 12 mile sessions.

My first tiger shark was a juvenile sitting on a coral head, the midday sun hid at first and then from my vantage point on the board I spotted its tail hanging over and it came straight to me, my position on a downwind run it came to me aggressively head on with pectoral and dorsal fins erect in attack mode and then as it passed the board seemed to relax and then headed away in an arc not to come back.

Likely it was to seek shelter again, Tiger sharks favor ambush and in its defensive run at me as if to see if I was a threat to it, identifying me and the board as neither and not reacting in any way as a species it was familiar with it returned to its normality, no doubt me becoming as significant as a floating oil drum.

using gopro with sup

That experience was the trigger and the confidence builder for me, for my girlfriend and for fellow paddlers who came out to experience the water. Rays, sting rays and spotted eagle rays glided around, turtles came in and around the nose of our boards like dolphins to boats and we continued to look for sharks. For the most part we found them and they found us.

Nurse Sharks cruised up and down, a big one on the shoreline jetted under my girlfriend’s board and to me broadside at full speed, enough for me to put my paddle in last minute to deflect the creature in case it was confused. And it went on its way.

Towards the West Point where the wind and reef ends and then the wind blows the opposite direction at the point is a collection of tidal pools at low tide where we found nurse sharks resting in deep pools as we skated over shallow sections deep enough for the fins.

The areas surrounded by urchins and conch shells would make too shallow for snorkeling, swimming or wading and it seemed to us with the quietness and grace of paddle boarding our sport the only craft able to take advantage to see the nature.

With confidence I paddled around and began to keep pace with the sharks cruising speeds, with a sense of them knowing I was there and having established myself as none threat we paddled together

As the reef opened again I found lemon sharks, nurse sharks and tigers basking in shallow’s, no doubt enjoying a quiet moment away from the ferocity outside the reefs. On several occasions the sharks repeated the tiger experience and with confidence I paddled around and began to keep pace with the sharks cruising speeds, with a sense of them knowing I was there and having established myself as none threat we paddled together, moving in the water at the same speed till the shark then went to its next natural attention.

Paddling is one of the most amazing journeys in the water. The experiences I had and shared with those closest to me I could not have done with any other sport; such is the gift of paddle boarding. The aquatic memories I could not have planned or even paid to set up to be at such one and confidence with the Atlantic Ocean and a species that most of us fear inherently. When you next stand up paddle on the Ocean, consider yourself as part of the marine life, and hope, know that when you see marine life or are aware that marine life is with you, for our part as part of the SUP community we are species within.

Owen's bio photoOwen Waters is a professional writer and waterman. In his journey on the water, he has traveled to many worlds and currently lives with his wife in Northern Ireland enjoying the Atlantic in its wildest form.

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