Archive for April 2009

Life and Death in the Sea of Cortez   Leave a comment

After striking out with the fishermen in La Paz we headed north. For the past few days we have been camping on the beach near the dusty little town of Mulege about a third of the way up Baja’s east coast. Initially we thought that this would be a place that we could shoot all the species of round stingrays that are common in this region but after chatting in my terrible Spanish to the longline fishermen that work the bay I managed to convince one Captain (Martén) to let me accompany him and his crew on one of their longlining trips.

The boats mostly bring in tiny Pacific sharpnose sharks and (over the winter) juvenile smooth and scalloped hammerheads. When I told the fishermen that I wanted to jump in the water with the sharks they thought that I was a little crazy but they were ok with it as long as I didn’t get in the way.

We set out early in the morning but it took a long time for them to get any sharks. In total they put out four kilometers of longlines containing 1400 hooks baited with chunks of yellow striped fish that looked like some kind of grunts. For their effort, the fishermen landed 7 sharks weighing a total of around 20kg. I asked José, the other fisherman who has been in the industry a long time, what it was like in the old days. He told me that 20 years ago on his best days he could land over 1700kg of sharks.

Rows of shark hooks ready to be baited

I spent my time swimming around the panga shooting the sharks as they came up the line. It was a depressing thing to document. The sharks were still alive but beyond recovery by the time they were tossed into the bottom of the boat.

I took some shots of the carcasses and then sat there wondering if I was really cut out for this kind of thing. I believe that getting images of long liners doing their work is important from a conservationists perspective but to sit idly by while sharks are left suffocating in the bilge of a panga is a tough gig.

80cm long Pacific sharpnose sharks piled in the bottom of the panga

While I sat there, José pulled up a very lively sub-adult sharpnose shark and tossed it at the others. It immediately started flapping around so I figured this one still had a chance. I asked Marten what he thought this shark weighed and he said around 1.5kg. They had already told me that they get just over a dollar per kilo from the traders that periodically show up to buy the sharks so I explained as best I could that I would like to buy this particular shark. They got the idea and from the bemused look on their faces they obviously thought that I was completely loco but they agreed to sell me the shark and I grabbed it gently in front of its tail and dropped it back in the water before it could beat itself senseless on the deck planking. Two bucks for the life of a shark! What would it cost to keep these fishermen home for good?

Possibly these are the first images of a free swimming Pacific sharpnose shark

I know that I didn’t really achieve anything by liberating one little Pacific sharpnose shark but maybe my token act had some effect even if it was a small one. After I released the shark we talked as best we could in broken Spanish about the problems that sharks are facing and their important place in the ecosystem. They already understood the big picture maybe even better than me. I asked them what they would do if they couldn’t fish for sharks and they shrugged and said that they would fish for something else. Doing anything other than fishing seemed to be a bizarre concept that they did not want to entertain. If any real change is to take place it will have to come from the next generation.

Marten’s son in Law Aaron proudly holds up a sharpnose shark

After bidding farewell to the fishermen Claire and I went for a long hike along the rocky shore north of Mulege. Just before sunset we spotted some birds in the distance and went to investigate. What we found was a shoreline littered with discarded shark and ray heads. It was a tragic site. They were mostly Pacific sharpnose sharks and small smooth hammerheads but there were also a number of guitarfishes and the carcass of a butterfly ray. All in all it was a grim day.

Discarded shark heads littering the shoreline north of Mulege

The next day we returned with our cameras to photograph the grizzly remains and then spent the afternoon chasing round stingrays in the shallows next to our campsite.

In 5ft of water the stingrays were everywhere. It was a refreshing change to see so much life after so much death. We must have seen two or three hundred rays. Mostly round stingrays and a few Cortez stingrays.

The rays were very skittish and exploded out of the sand and darted away as we approached their hiding places but one older male round stingray let me get really close. I followed him around for a good half an hour and just as I was planning to head for shore he ducked down and latched onto a female ray that was sleeping under the sand. For the next 5 minutes I was able to watch an amazing spectacle as the male ray struggled to subdue his mate. The female put up a valiant fight as they spiraled around and around each other oblivious to the flashes emitting from my camera system.

That night I slept a lot better. The balance of species may be shifting but at least there is still life in the Sea of Cortez.

Stingray porn – a male Round stingray (Urobatis halleri) latches onto the tail of a female before mating

We were planning to look for Mexican Bullhead Sharks further north in Baja but it appears that they are so rare that no one I have spoken to has ever seen one. So we have decided to spend a couple of days slowly driving north and then cross the border into Southern California. San Diego here we come.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Shark Pictures

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Leaving La Paz   Leave a comment

For the last few days we’ve been based in La Paz trying to hook up with the artesanal shark fishermen that ply the waters on the north side of the bay. Last time we were here I managed to get some good shots of smooth hammerhead sharks but this time the fishermen are even more illusive than the sharks and we have had a great deal of difficulty tracking them down. I was hoping that we could document them while they fish for Pacific sharpnose sharks. This is their main target species that lives year round in La Paz bay and elsewhere along the coast. It is a fairly abundant little shark but it still needs to be carefully monitored to make sure that the sharpnose stocks do not fall to critical levels.

The fishermen average about 5 sharks per trip at this time of year but they take considerably more in winter. The sharks are too small (max one meter) for the Asian fin market but the locals relish the meat and the sharks fetch around 60 pesos (4US$) per kilo at the fish market. That makes their trips worthwhile even if there are not that many sharks around.

We’re planning to try one more time tomorrow to catch them at their fishing camp and then give up and move north.

The Easter holidays (Semana Santa) ramp up over the next few days. Easter is a massive event in Mexico and in Baja anyone with a tent heads to the beach. That means that the beaches around the main population centers down near La Paz will be zoos for the next few days. We want to get as far north as possible in the hopes that we’ll miss the flood of Mexican holiday makers but the chances are that wherever we end up we’ll probably still be swept up in the festivities. That’s ok; ‘when in Rome’ and all that.

I haven’t been in the water much since our last blog but I’ve still been talking sharks. A few days ago we met up with Documentary Maker Mike Hoover at the La Paz opera of all places. I haven’t seen Mike since our last trip to Guadalupe Island. Mike is a fascinating guy. His career in the film industry has been colorful, exciting and tragic in equal measures but his resilience and no nonsense astute personality are what I like about him the most. He is best known for his frontline work in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion and his cutting edge mountaineering films (among others) that have been well received by audiences around the world for decades. He has also worked on blockbusters like Forest Gump, Crimson Tide and The River Wild. More recently, he has been involved with numerous films about Great white sharks aboard his expedition ship the Captain Jack which is how I met Mike for the first time last year.

This time we only managed a short conversation before the singing started so I hope that I get another chance to talk and work with him soon.

Our next stop will be a day’s drive north on one of the white sand beaches around Bahia Conception. There are many beaches that we have never had the time to visit and some that are old favorites. All of them are home to hundreds of tiny Round and Cortez stingrays so we’ll be strapping on the snorkels once again and chasing rays until the sun goes down.

We wanted to keep this tour as fluid as possible but everyone we plan to visit has schedules so we’re slowly having to nail down dates for each adventure. The good news is that we have had a great response from all our friends and some once in a lifetime offers to do some very exciting diving. It now looks like we may be able to take a crack at sevengills in the wild with our shark tagging buddy Walter Heim. And, when we finally get to the Mississippi Delta we have an invitation to join a field trip with Dr Eric Hoffmayer from the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. The GCRL is conducting an abundance and distribution study on coastal sharks and rays so that means that we will get to photograph lots of hard to find species like finetooth, Atlantic sharpnose, juvenile bulls and who knows what other sharks, not to mention all the illusive ray species that inhabit that part of the coast – I’ll be in elasmogeek heaven.

You can now follow our schedule at the following link:

http://www.elasmodiver.com/northamericansharkdivingtour.htm#Itinerary

For the sharks

Andy Murch

Shark Pictures

Mobula Rays Don't Play Nice.   Leave a comment

We have just left the sleepy village of Cabo Pulmo which is at the end of a very bumpy ‘washboard’ dirt track in Baja California Sur.

We were there to shoot mobula rays but unfortunately mobulas do not like to be photographed. There were certainly plenty there to shoot (they were schooling in their thousands) but as soon as we slipped into the water they would descend as deep as they could and stop breaching until we were so exhausted from chasing them that we had to get back on the panga. Then, they would start jumping again a few hundred meters away. It was fantastic to be in the water with such an enormous biomass of animals moving below us in formation but utterly frustrating to not have the chance to get close enough to record the encounter. If I was a better free-diver I might have been able to swim around at 40 or 50 ft and nail the shot but breath hold diving is not one of my strong points. If anyone out there wants to try the same thing next season I have one piece of advice; bring a rebreather. I believe that it is the only tool that can really do the job. We did manage to take a few snap shots of them both breaching and some murky shots of them gliding by in the darkness but none that are print worthy.

While we were out on the panga we tracked a humpback for a while and shot some pretty tail pics and then swum with sea lions and played with a giant school of big eye jacks but all told it was meager pickings for jaded shark divers.

The highlight and most productive session in Cabo Pulmo came right on our door step. While snorkeling off the beach where we were camping we came across a very accommodating banded guitarfish. It picked up and swam a little at first but eventually it got used to the flashes and let me shoot frame after frame. The pics are some of the best I have of this ray.

Camping on the beach outside town was a great way to start this adventure. There were no ‘facilities’ so it was a big change from crewing and living on a megayacht! All went well until I drove a little too close to the sea and my VW camper van got bogged down. After much wheel spinning things went from bad to worse. I’ve played this game on ice and snow but I’ve never been stuck in sand before. Unlike snow, sand just gets deeper. We started digging and thought we were making progress but the wheels continued to spin and then I realized that the wheels were no longer touching. We had sunk so low that the floor pan of the van was sitting on the sand! After about an hour more digging and a push from some passers by we finally managed to reverse back onto the hard pack. It was a tense couple of hours!

Claire digging us out (I helped too)

A VW shaped hole in Los Frailles beach!

North of Cabo Pulmo we tried navigating another dirt road and almost exactly the same thing happened but this time we were able to get a tow from a passing truck. Kimberley currency (cold beer) got us out of that fix.

I don’t think that VW had this kind of off roading in mind when they came up with the Eurovan! Fortunately, what goes around comes around and we were able to squeeze a family of six onto the bed in the back of the van to give them a lift into Cabo Pulmo when their rental car broke down. My van (which is missing a bushing on the front axle) groaned and clanked most of the way but we finally arrived in the village in one piece.

Next stop will be the artesanal shark fishing camps north of La Paz (along another dirt road). We’re not sure what reception we will get or how much we’ll be able to communicate with the fishermen in our rudimentary Spanish. Hopefully they will let us accompany them on their fishing trips but more about this in the next update.

Since we posted this blog about the trip we have had many emails from friends old and new asking when we will be in each area. It’s great to know that we will have the chance to catch up with so many people and we’re looking forward to every encounter. Unfortunately it is really tricky to estimate exactly when we’ll get to the next town let alone when we’ll be in Miami or Massachusetts! But, don’t let that put you off if you want to catch up with us. we’re going to cram as much diving and socializing into this tour as we physically can.

It now looks like we will get a chance to go out with a Mexican researcher on the Pacific coast of Baja that works with smoothhound sharks. We also got an invite to socialize with shark tagging veteran Walter Heim and maybe hunt for sevengills in San Diego. That would be amazing if we can pull it off.

Sean Van Sommeran of PSRF up in Elkhorn Slough also agreed to give us the skinny on Gray Smoothhounds where he conducts his research so our west coast agenda is looking fantastic.

A quick thank you to our friends in Cabo Pulmo: Muchas Gracias Javier and Juan for trying everything they could think of to help us get the mobula shots. If anyone wants to take up the gauntlet and carry on where we left off, these brothers will get you to the mobulas. The rest is up to you. You can contact Javier at: Javycastro@yahoo.com.mx he says Fidel is his uncle but I didn’t notice a resemblance.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Shark Pictures

North American Shark Diving (Farewell) Tour   Leave a comment

We’re leaving. The owner of the boat we were working on turned out to be a tyrant and life is simply too short to waste time tiptoeing around angry people. Consequently we are free. We have a little money saved and we’re hell bent on embarking on the craziest, most ambitious road trip that we have ever dreamed up.

After this epic adventure we will fly to Australia, get married and spend the foreseeable future photographing the hundreds of shark and ray species that call Australia home so this trip is our last chance to take in the incredible sights and diverse elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) that North America has to offer.

Our starting point is the southern tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. We have our ailing VW camper loaded to the gills with diving and camera gear and enough tunes on our IPods to last for 37 days. Our first stop driving north will be Cabo Pulmo. Home of diamond and longtail stingrays, banded guitarfish, schools of pacific cownose rays and (at present) jumping mobula rays that seasonally converge on this isolated reef system in their thousands.

Next stop La Paz to join shark researcher Mauricio Hoyos for one more visit with the artisanal shark fishermen that ply the bay for smooth hammerheads and Pacific sharpnose sharks. Then up to the beaches south of Mulege; Urolophid central. Camping on the beaches by night and snorkeling with round, cortez, and bullseye stingrays by day.

We’ll skip through the rest of the sleepy towns in the lower Sea of Cortez and cross the desert into Northern Baja. Then cut back east to the remote village of Bahia de los Angeles where I have a hunch we can find Mexican bullhead sharks near the sea lion colonies.

After that it’s time to cross the border. First stop in Cali is San Diego. Leopard sharks at the marine room in La Jolla, possibly soupfins in the cove, and horn sharks at night in La Jolla Canyon. Its all shore diving so we can dive our hearts out and still have enough cash for a feed. Gotta shoot the harbour seals too.

North to Santa Barbara. Camp at Refugio Beach north of the city and hunt for swell sharks in the kelp forests. 15 minutes further north, Tajegis Beach is one of the few places where angel sharks are reliably found but the vis is often horrendous.

After Tajegis we’ll drive along Big Sur and resurface in Monterey. Hit the aquarium (the sevengill sharks are awesome) and then go play with the seals and sea lions and look for big skates. Then cruise north as far as San Fransisco.

San Fran pier fishermen report that they catch brown smoothhound sharks by the bushel (mostly at night). We’d like to do some exploratory dives under the piers to see if they’re approachable. SF Bay may be like diving in coffee so if anyone has some experience diving there, I’m all ears.

Then its adios west coast. Death Valley, Grand Canyon (hey, Claire is an Australian tourist) and then Texas. Maybe dive the gulf on the way to Venice, Louisiana. Splash out in Venice for some big critter diving. Scalloped hammerheads, duskies and silky sharks are common on the humps about 70 miles from shore. It will be a real highlight because we’ll be hooking up with the Shark Diver Magazine crew: Eli Martinez, Paul Spielvogel and Nathan Meadows. Haven’t seen the whole gang since we shot Summer of the Sharks so it’ll be a great reunion.

Mississippi beckons with the promise of numerous little sharks in the estuary. Finetooth sharks and Atlantic sharpnose sharks among others. I don’t have any contacts in the Gulf of Mexico so if anyone reading this blog can introduce me to some friendly researchers willing to let a coupla shark photographers tag along on a field trip please let me know.

Next stop Panama City, Florida. Camp at the state park within camera schlepping distance of the pier. This is a great place to shoot Atlantic stingrays and occasionally bluntnose stingrays too.

We have to stop at Crystal River on our way down through Florida. I know that manatees are not sharks but come on, manatees! they’re so cool! Down to Tampa, visit Mote Marine, kick up a few prehistoric mako teeth on Venice Beach and then head through the Everglades to Miami.

Would love to go look for smalltooth sawfish but they’re pretty tricky to find. Through the keys for a couple of days to dive with nurse sharks, southern stingrays and yellow spotted stingrays then we’ll head up the east coast.

We will probably drop in on some old friends in West Palm Beach that regularly go spear fishing among bull and lemon sharks and then we’ll say goodbye to the oppressive heat of Florida and drive directly up to the outer banks of North Carolina where sandtigers rule the wrecks.

Further north still, in and around Maine, there are plenty of blue sharks and spiny dogfish to keep us entertained. If possible we’ll try to stay posted on the basking shark migration. If they’re in town when we head up the New England coast we’ll have to find a way to get out to where they are feeding.

Our final stop in the US will be in Massachusetts. The beaches around the Cape Ann Peninsula are home to winter skates in the winter and little skates in the summer. I’m not sure when the transition takes place but if we’re lucky we’ll be able to shoot both species. Cape Ann also has a population of Atlantic torpedo rays but so far I haven’t seen any.

By the time we cross the border it should be warm enough in eastern Canada to go diving without having to break the ice first 🙂 Before we get there, I’ll check in with the porbeagle shark fishermen to see what they are up to. I’ve done two trips to the Bay of Fundy and the water is always like green tea so I am hoping that this time I can shoot porbeagles in NS where the water is much clearer.

Then northeastward to Gaspe to shoot harbour seals (they’re different to the californian ones) and then a ferry north across the Saint Lawrence River to chase Greenland Sharks in Baie Comeau.

That pretty much sums it up. After that we’ll drive west to Ontario and sell my camper (assuming it makes it that far) and fly to Western Australia. We figure that should take around three months unless we stop to work along the way. If we’re frugal, we have enough cash to keep the van fueled up and pay for groceries, tank fills, the occasional dive charter, truck stop showers and the odd campground.

Along the way we will try to hook up with as many of our old friends as possible. We’re also looking forward to bumping into other shark divers, shark researchers, and anyone else out there that wants to talk shark. We’ll be updating our blog once or twice a week with pictures and stories of our encounters both underwater and above and posting them on a new page on Elasmodiver.com where you can follow our progress: northamericansharkdivingtour

Our first stop Cabo Pulmo is totally off the grid at the end of a long dirt road but as soon as we make it into a town we’ll upload the first progress report. Well, it’s 1.30am and we’re leaving in the morning so I guess I better call it a night.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Shark Pictures