Dodging Death with Silvain Sirois and the Greenland Sharks of Baie Comeau   Leave a comment

I am sitting in a coffee shop in Moncton, New Brunswick, waiting for Eli (the editor of Shark Diver Magazine) to arrive from Texas. At 3am we are slated to board a fishing boat and head out into the middle of the Bay of Fundy. Our objective is to be the first to get good images and footage of a live Porbeagle shark in the wild. I have no idea if it will be possible but it definitely wont be possible if we dont try.

On the long drive here from British Columbia, I stopped in San Diego (a bit of a detour but well worth it for the shark pictures that I got), and then in Ontario (again well worth it to see my boys Aron and Luke), and finally in Baie Comeau, Quebec to look for Greenland Sharks with my old friend Maris Kazmers (actually he’s not that old). Kaz introduced me to Silvain Sirois who pioneered the Greenland Shark encounter at Baie Comeau which is on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence river estuary. I only had time for two days of diving but as it happened that was enough. Silvain is a Greenland Shark magnet and on the first dive we encountered 4 enormous Greenland Sharks ranging from 8 to 11 feet long.

The encounters were brief (lasting from a few seconds to a minute of two) but it was enough to get a sense of this enigmatic creature.

The sharks were very slow moving, docile animals that reminded me of the sixgills which I have spent so many dives chasing near my home town of Victoria in British Columbia. However, the similarities are superficial because Greenland Sharks are members of the Sleeper Shark family which is more closely related to dogfish than cow sharks.

The water on that first day was only a degree or two above freezing. The initial shock of jumping into ice water was a rude awakening but it cleared my head quite effectively. I followed Silvain down the line and we were soon approached by the first shark. The encounter was brief and afterwards I kicked off on my own, reasoning that if I was alone I would have a better chance of a long encounter before the next shark got spooked. After drifting through the fog for a few minutes a pair of Greenland Sharks materialized in front of me. I tried to compose a shot of both sharks but they quickly separated and I followed the closer of the two down into the depths. Frustratingly, my camera auto-focus had difficulty locking onto the dark shark as it sank deeper and deeper into the twilit, frigid water.

I followed it as far down as I dared, breathing hard and adding air to my suit as I descended. I was getting low on gas and at 100ft I was about ready to break off the encounter when catastrophe struck. My regulator began to belch air uncontrollably. The combination of icy conditions, overexertion, and rapid descent had caused my first stage to freeze open. As the air puffed out my cheeks like a chipmunks, I tried to staunch the flow with my tongue but it was no use. Within a minute or so the tank was empty and I was left with very few options.

Because I knew that I had slipped into decompression I was reluctant to kick for the surface and risk getting bent or worse. From the first second of the free flow I had begun swimming back towards the area where I believed the group to be. Navigation was tricky over the featureless sand but I was convinced that I was making progress. I forced myself to stay calm and settled into a slow but steady frog kick. I have an advantage over most people in these situations because my adrenalin gland doesnt work very well. It makes me a bit slow sometimes but the upside is that I practically never panic.

After about 70ft of airless travel I could feel the carbon dioxide building in my lungs. The mist cleared in front of me and 30ft ahead I spotted the second group of divers heading into the darkness. Off to my left Kaz was following the fourth Greenland Shark and I had the momentary urge to change direction and try for a quick shot. Putting this irrational idea out of my mind, I headed onward. I let out a few squeaks along the way to attract some attention but the divers could not locate the direction of the noises and continued moving away.

By this time I had been kicking along for about a minute on a single breath with a bulky drysuit and a 44 pound weight belt. My lungs were beginning to scream and the surface beckoned with the promise of oxygen and warmth but I resisted the urge to bolt knowing that it would be a short reprieve.

Switching to a flutter kick I crossed the 20ft in a short burst of hypoxic speed and gently reached down behind the closest diver and plucked their octopus off of its clip. One long deep breath followed by another and another. Predictably the surprised open water diver spun around and tried to pull the regulator away. Comfortable now, I stayed at arms reach and waited for them to think the situation through. I took a few more breaths and swam away towards another diver who had been watching. Prepared, he offered me his octopus and I motioned for the three of us to ascend towards Silvain. I then thanked them with a wave, handed back the donated regulator, and kicked the last few feet holding my breath so that Silvain could clearly see that I had no reg.

He looked utterly shocked but found his spare reg and we headed for the ascent line. Fortunately he had enough air for me to complete my deco stops without any violations so I arrived on the surface a little embarrassed but unscathed.

The next day we tried again but the viz had dropped significantly and I was the only diver to fleetingly see a shark in the soupy water. Looking back on the whole experience I am left with these thoughts and words of advice:

Firstly, thank you to all three divers who donated air.

Secondly, if you don’t want to dive with a buddy that is up to you but its your funeral if all hell breaks loose.

Thirdly, don’t over breathe your reg in icy water especially if it has not been environmentally serviced for those conditions.

Lastly, (as usual) it isn’t the sharks that are dangerous.

 

 

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

 

Host of Elasmodiver.com the web’s leading source of new shark pictures and information.

 

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Posted September 13, 2007 by Andy Murch in Nature, Photography, Sharks

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