Archive for September 2009

Shark Projects   Leave a comment

Shark Projects

September 25th 2009

Now that the shark tour is officially over, I am back on Vancouver Island formulating a game plan for next year. My fall schedule is looking a bit grim regarding actual time in the water with sharks but there are so many exciting projects that need my attention that I’ll be too busy to go diving anyway. Here are a few of the things that I am working on:

Predators in Peril

An exhibition featuring a selection of dynamic shark and ray images designed to draw attention to the critical position of critically endangered elasmobranch species. This will initially start locally but if it is well received I will try to turn it into a traveling exhibition. It is a great opportunity for me to get on my soap box in a friendly setting to reinforce the message that shark stocks are in decline and need to be protected at a global level.

There are a lot of obstacles holding the project back such as: set up, printing, framing, venue hire and advertising expenses but we have high hopes for pulling this together by the spring of next year.

Shark-Shop.com

A retail website affiliated with Elasmodiver that will ultimately become our portal for marketing limited edition prints and other elasmodiver goodies. This is not that big a project but its way beyond my web savvy so if anyone wants to lend a hand…

The Shark Dive Operator Initiative

The original mandate of Elasmodiver was to create an exhaustive shark and ray field guide on the internet where divers could look up a particular species that they were interested in and immediately find out where they could dive with it. Well, eight years later I’m nowhere near finished but I think that I’ve made a pretty good start.

One of the factors holding the project up is that I still don’t know where each and every elasmobranch is hiding and when dive operators are talking about their dive sites on the internet, they don’t usually bother saying that stingray species A is sometimes found swimming around at dive site B. Consequently, I’ve decided to approach the problem from another angle.

The Shark Dive Operator Initiative (I’m still working on the name) is an email campaign to get every dive shop or dive operator that we can find on the internet (not just those that run organized shark dives) to fill out a quick survey answering which shark and ray species they see in their neighborhood.

Once we get the results, their contact info and a brief outline of what you might encounter with them will get added to the Dive Operator Directory. I’m guessing that most dive operators will be pretty happy to have a link from one of the largest shark diving resources on the internet so the survey should get a good response. In return, we’ll get priceless information for our database and maybe even some location ideas for upcoming shark tours. It is a mammoth project. Why any sane person would attempt it I don’t know…

Elasmodiver Expanded

No surprises here. I’m swamped with new shark and ray images from the 2009 tour and it is going to take me months to add them all onto Elasmodiver. There are at least 6 new species profiles to be added to the Field Guide (like the Atlantic Guitarfish shown here) as well as location pics, some new ‘shark diving hot spot’ features and lots more that I don’t even want to think about right now.

Shark Diver Magazine Issue 21

Some of you may have heard that Eli was so inspired by the North American Shark Diving Tour that he decided to dedicate the next issue of the mag almost exclusively to our adventures. That was a nice gesture on his part but the reality is that after I agreed in principle, I soon realized that I would have to rewrite and expand upon my entire road trip blog so that it would read well in a magazine. And, sort, clean and edit lots and lots of pics so that Eli can cherry pick his favorites. It is very time consuming but its kinda fun reliving all the high points and writing about them from a more retrospective point of view.

From what I’ve seen so far, the mag is going to look awesome. Here are a couple of screen shots that Eli sent me. That’s Claire surrounded by silky sharks on the cover:

Elasmodiver on Facebook

Elasmodiver now has a Facebook Page:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Elasmodivercom/130919737853

A month or two ago a friend of mine started an Andy Murch Shark Photographer Group on Facebook. That was going well but I couldn’t figure out how to keep everyone updated unless they actually visited the group to see what had changed. So now there is a simple page that anyone can join. Once you join Elasmodiver (or become a fan of it) on Facebook you’ll get all my website updates zapped straight to your Facebook status updates page – much easier for me to manage.

Speaking of Facebook,

Lately it has seemed like there are so many shark group postings and worthy causes that its difficult to know which ones to support. I am sure that they are probably all worthy causes. The Shark Safe Network is trying to get likeminded organizations to work together. In their own words:

The Shark Safe Network provides a framework to combine and focus the efforts of committed individuals and shark conservation groups towards specific shark conservation campaigns. If you have a passion to protect sharks, Shark Safe Network helps you to get involved and make a difference – by participating in a current campaign or by launching your own campaign in your community.

Shark Safe Network provides the information, tools, raw materials and support. You provide the passion!!

The goal of every Shark Safe Network campaign is to reduce and ultimately eliminate wasteful and unsustainable activities and products that threaten sharks’ survival. Shark Safe Network invites and welcomes participation from any and all organizations and individuals, provided that all campaigns are conducted according the Shark Safe Network campaign principles.

And we always keep in mind that helping sharks = helping people. When you consider any of the issues that threaten sharks today, there is also a corresponding negative impact on humans and the planet.

Shark Safe Network is all about getting involved and doing something that counts. Join the Shark Safe Network and you will make a difference!

Many organizations have already endorsed the initiative so if you’re looking for an effective way to make a difference, take a closer look at what the SharkSafeNetwork is trying to do.

DEMA
There are lots more projects that I would like to start at some point but these will keep me busy for a while.

I am planning to go to DEMA in November so if you see me wandering around in an Elasmodiver T-shirt please come up and say hello. It’ll be a busy weekend but there is always time to talk shark.

For the Sharks,

Andy Murch

The Shark Tour Goes Full Circle   Leave a comment

The Shark Tour Goes Full Circle

August 23rd 2009

We made it back to So Cal. After a four day drive across the USA from the far north east to the extreme south west we arrived in San Diego exhausted but ready for some serious shark hunting. I’m happy to say that our camper held up fine even at 12,000ft when we crossed the Rockies. After an epic 24,000km round trip from Southern Baja, up the west coast of California, across to the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, back to the Gulf, up the east coast to the very eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada, down to Ontario and diagonally back to the Baja border, our VW (which now has almost 350,000km on the clock) is purring like a kitten.

The night we arrived in San Diego we jumped straight in at La Jolla shores to wash the desert out of our eyes and reacquaint ourselves with the leopard sharks. True to form, there were dozens of leopards swimming around in the surf zone, as well as a bunch of shovelnose guitarfish and some very cute pint sized bat rays.

We spent the next few days trying to figure out where the soupfin sharks were hiding but alas they eluded us. Cryptic reports of sightings came in from a number of local divers but other than a quick glimpse of a shadowy caudal fin, we free dove, scuba dove and snorkeled in vain.

After four days diving the cove our buddy Walter Heim (who I have dubbed ‘the shark whisperer’ because of the subtle way he attracts sharks to his boat) took us out to look for blues and makos. We already had some nice blue shark pics from the beginning of the tour so we were keen to top off our earlier succes with some shortfin mako shots. We spent two calm and sunny days with Walter drifting off the coast of La Jolla. In all, we attracted 3 blues and 2 makos. Not that many sharks compared to the glory days when scores of blue sharks would drive divers from the water but its not always about quantity.

Judging by his scars, one of the blues was a major scrapper. The others were sleek but timid and left even before I had entered the water.

One of the makos was also rather shy but the other was a serious player. It was the type of shark that makes up for every frustrating, half glimpsed, painfully short encounter that you’ve ever had while shark diving.

Initially he was quite shy but once he got used to us he came in close – VERY close. This little mako couldn’t get enough of my camera. I patiently bobbed around on the surface each time he disappeared wondering if he would return. After a minute or two he would show back up and I’d toss him one of the scraps that Walter had supplied me with. Then we’d both race at the bait and the mako would snatch it up and then turn and try to bite my dome port. The images below tell the tale. There are some even closer ones that I’ll share with you after they get published.

After shortfin makos with Walter it was time to go after the big guys with Lawrence Groth. Lawrence pioneered the white shark cage dives at Guadalupe Island and his Shark Diving International trips are probably the best in the world if you want to encounter white sharks. We met up with 13 other like minded shark fans and traveled together down to Ensenada where we boarded the Solmar V.

Guadalupe never disappoints. On this trip the sharks started lunging for the hang baits even before the crew had lowered the cages into the water. There were a few slow periods when the sharks disappeared to investigate other boats but over all the action was intense. On the third and final day, Lawrence’s favorite white shark named Zapata showed up. Zapata is a serious showman. Some white sharks (regardless of their size) are surprisingly timid but Zapata is as bold as his namesake. He repeatedly plowed through the water right next to us demonstrating that he could care less about the bubble blowing monkeys in the little cages. Not surprisingly all of my best images are of him.

In the evenings we had plenty of time to talk sharks among ourselves and enough time to schmooze with some old friends that we found working at the island. White shark researcher Mauricio Hoyos was there for a three month stint conducting his acoustic tagging study. Each year Mauricio lives in an old shack on Prison Beach near where the shark diving boats anchor. He leads a very primitive existence while in the field but he loves what he does and is totally committed to continuing his research into the movements of the sharks around the island.

Nat Geo shooter ABC (Andy Brandy Casagrande) and the crew of the piratical looking Captain Jack were also moored nearby shooting some out of the cage white shark action.

Last December I spent a memorable two weeks working with them in the very same spot so it was great to have a chance to catch up. Andy has an endless supply of shark and other big animal stories and he brought over a copy of his ‘Great White Shark Song’ which features him playing the guitar underwater while swimming next to a white shark. It sounds hokey when put like that but it has a strong conservation message and is well worth watching:

http://www.abc4explore.com/greatwhitesharksong.html

As the cages were loaded back onto the boat I sat and thought about our North American Shark Diving Tour. In the last four months we have driven full circle around most of the continent. We have encountered 33 species of sharks and rays (not including our dip in the Georgia Aquarium). We have collected an impressive variety of elasmobranch images including flying mobula rays, mating round stingrays, enormous whale sharks, tiny deep sea catsharks and two species of sharks that have never been photographed in the wild before.

We have met and worked with hundreds of people including divers, researchers and fishermen and seen sharks in all their splendour and witnessed their plight first hand. We have learned a lot and have been able to tell everyone that would listen about the problems of over fishing and the fragile state of North America’s shark populations. It has been an amazing adventure.

Officially, the North American Shark Tour is now over.  But, in the greater context, the shark tour started long before we set out from southern Baja and it will never really end. The quest for images of rare and endangered sharks and rays has defined my role on this planet for the better part of a decade and if I can sell enough images to keep us solvent I expect that we will continue to chase illusive sharks for many years to come.

Right now we are on Catalina Island hunting for Pacific torpedo rays and working out a game plan for the next few months. Pretty soon we will head north to the beaches near Santa Barbara to take another look for swell sharks and angels. Then we’re driving up to Monterey, Elkhorn Slough and San Fransisco Bay to see if we can photograph grey and brown smoothhounds.

By September we will be up in Canada working on cataloging our images from the tour (a daunting task) and rebuilding Elasmodiver with a completely new feel (an even more daunting task). Here is a sneak peek at our new logo:

While we’re ‘stuck’ on beautiful Vancouver Island we will make a concerted effort to document the few species of elasmobranchs that we’ve missed in the past. That means a lot of swimming around in muddy bays hunting for deep water skates which doesn’t sound that glamorous but to me it can be just as rewarding as finning along with 40ft whale shark so life will not be so bad.

We also have a lot of other things bubbling including a number of book projects, a few photography courses, some local shark campaigning and of course the planning of our next expedition – the continuation of the shark tour.

After so much time in the water I have a bunch of new species to add to the elasmodiver field guide and hundreds of new images to upload to the shark picture database so please keep an eye on the elasmodiver home page to see whats new.

Thank you to everyone who contributed their time, services, gear, boats, expertise and local knowledge to help us find the species we were after. Thank you also to everyone that emailed us with words of support and encouraged us to keep going through break downs and foul weather. We couldn’t have done it without you. As my dad (who passed away during the tour) liked to say “No man is an island”.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Walking the Dog…. (shark)   1 comment

Walking the dog

August 1st 2009

Sorry for the long overdue update. My PC died and I have spent the last couple of weeks learning to speak mac.

After two very frustrating weeks in the Gulf of Mexico waiting for spare parts for our camper, we needed a shark fix. It had to be a good one too, not just a momentary glimpse of a fleeing nurse shark or a mad scramble after a bolting stingray. Unfortunately, uncooperative weather continued to thwart any attempts to head out to sea so rather than battle the elements we drove north to land locked Atlanta.

Now, at first glance Atlanta may not seem like a shark diving hot spot but a dip in the Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium is a quick way to tick off a dozen or more shark and ray species from your life list without even driving to the beach. And, if that in itself isn’t enough of a draw; topping the bill in the football field sized tank are four enormous whale sharks which were transported here from Taiwan in the bad old days before the Taiwanese banned the harvesting of whale sharks for consumption.

As whale sharks go, these ones are still relatively small but they are impressive never the less and with a regular diet of krill (or fish pellets that do the same job) they are growing fast. Sadly, two of the original sharks died from a reaction to an antibiotic but these have been replaced and all four of the present sharks appear to be in good shape.

Claire and I listened intently to the dive briefings and watched the video that all potential divers get before entering the tank and then eagerly jumped into the crystal clear water and descended to the sand. As soon as our entourage of divemasters were happy with our buoyancy we drifted into the centre of the upper bowl of the tank. This half of the exhibit consists of a large shallow area devoid of obstructions where different species of sharks and rays can swim around unimpeded or sprawl on the bottom as they see fit.

While the other divers marvelled at the giants gliding overhead, I made a beeline for a large sawfish that was lurking on its own in the far corner. Sawfish absolutely fascinate me. How exactly they evolved to have an enormously long rostrum studded with wicked looking spikes is beyond me.

Unfortunately, their saws which they use to slash into schools of fish when feeding, have also become their downfall. Sawfish often get inextricably tangled in fishing nets and even if the nets are recovered before the sawfish die, many fishermen would rather kill them than risk injury trying to extricate them unharmed. There are also a few unscrupulous fishermen that actually target sawfish and hack off their saws to sell as curios on the black market. Consequently, they are now critically endangered worldwide.

There are two species of sawfish in the Atlanta Aquarium: green and largetooth. The largetooth sawfish are impressive in their own right but the green sawfish are impossible to ignore. Under the soft lights of the tank they appear to radiate a subtle golden light.

Sawfish are not the only large rays in the tank. There are a number of alien looking bowmouth guitarfish and some enormous shark rays. All of these are accustomed to close encounters with divers and snorkelers so it is possible to plonk down on the sand right next them and really study them in detail; not something that is easily accomplished in the wild.

Other rarities include fantastically patterned leopard whiptail rays which I have tried to shoot in the wild in Australia but could not get anywhere near before they exploded away in a cloud of sand, and southern stingrays, pink whiptail rays, small groups of cownose rays and amazingly, a manta ray!

As for sharks, during the dive we were regularly buzzed by great hammerheads, zebra sharks and sandbar sharks. Sandtigers floated around as only sandtigers can and a number of wobbegongs (both tasselled and spotted) sprawled lazily on rocks and on the acrylic tunnels that were full of wide eyed spectators.

After snapping away in the upper bowl for a while we drifted down into the deeper half of the tank and checked out some of the sharks and rays that prefer to stay in that area. As instructed, we did our best to remain in the lower third of the water column so that the whale sharks could swim around in peace. Occasionally, one would swim by quite closely, perhaps to check us out, but for the most part the whale sharks stayed at the surface where they could cruise in long straight lines without interruption. The tank was designed so that the whale sharks have enough room to turn, swim towards the far end of the tank for a while and then glide for a bit. Studies of other aquarium sharks have shown that this is important because the sharks do better if they can rest for a short time before they have to turn again.

The whole time that I was swimming around I was trying to gauge whether the tank’s inhabitants were suffering from overcrowding. I’m still not totally sure but I didn’t see any sharks or rays trying to avoid each other by sudden directional changes. In fact the only time that any of the animals moved quickly was when I invaded their space. Also, very few of the animals had grazes on their noses or pectoral fins which would be a sure sign that they are having trouble swimming or are generally not comfortable in the tank.

With so much to look at it is not surprising that the dive was over long before we were ready to surface. We reluctantly exited the tank and cleaned up. The staff then presented us with goody bags full of sharky stuff and we sat down with Dr Bruce Carlson who filled us in on some of the research that the aquarium funds.

The Georgia Aquarium is involved with a number of projects including a long term study of the yearly whale shark aggregation near Holbox, Mexico, which is the largest known annual gathering of whale sharks in the world. In conjunction with Bob Hueter from Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, the aquarium has been tagging and measuring as many whale sharks as possible each summer to try to determine where they migrate to, how fast they grow and many other unanswered questions. Dr Hueter is expected to publish his findings shortly.

We spent the rest of our day roaming the halls of the aquarium and people watching. Whether you’re pro-aquarium or not there is no denying how engrossed everyone was with the shark tank and that is a lot better than seeing people drawn to a large shark carcass hanging from the gallows on a fishing pier.

Armed with a fist full of new species we hopped in the shark bus and drove north.

Because of the van delays we had to skip NC with it’s famous sandtiger shark dives but thank you to Outer Banks Diving for the invitation. Next time we’ll get there even if we have to hitch hike!

From Georgia we drove straight to New England to look for skates. We spent a fun week exploring the New England coastline in search of skates but our time in Rhode Island is a hilarious story in itself. This is what I jotted down at the time:

WALKING THE DOG

In the quest to photograph rare and endangered sharks and rays I have found myself in some unusual situations. I’ve jumped off research vessels into racing currents, snorkeled down rivers and hitched rides on commercial fishing boats. Today however, I took part in one of the funniest shark shoots I will probably ever have.

Claire and I are in Rhode Island staying with Joe Romeiro who’s latest short film Death of a Deity recently won him the ‘Best Emerging Film Maker Award’ in the Blue Underwater Film Festival.

Joe is a self confessed shark fanatic. His house is a shrine to everything sharky, complete with a large tank that holds a variety of small sharks that Joe has rescued from fishing nets and cramped home aquariums and is in the process of rehabilitating.

When I told Joe that one day we hoped to photograph a chain dogfish which is a beautiful little catshark that lives all along the east coast from New England to the Caribbean, Joe suggested that we take one of his recovering chain dogs for a walk at the beach. Initially, I thought he was joking but the more we talked about it, the less hair brained the idea seemed.

Chain dogfish (Scyliorhinus retifer) normally live at depths between 200ft and 2000ft making them virtually inaccessible to all but the most experienced tech divers. I have heard of tech heads diving really deep wrecks in the Carolinas that are literally teaming with chain dogs but without a rather lengthy and expensive trimix course there isn’t much chance that I will see one any time soon.

While we thought about the idea we did a little shore diving, partly to try to photograph some of the skate species that live off Rhode Island and partly to find a nice site that would be a suitable spot to walk the dog. King’s beach near Newport turned out to be ideal. It was close enough to Joe’s house to so that the hardy little shark wouldn’t have any trouble with the journey and it has some nice varied terrain offering us a choice of back drops for the shoot.

We waited till late afternoon when the sun would be the least stressful to the deep water shark and with everything prepared, Joe scooped up the tiny chain dogfish (that we affectionately named Steve) and lowered him into a bucket just big enough to keep him comfortable without letting him slosh around on the windy roads. Joe then transferred Steve (in his bucket) into his girlfriend Emma’s SUV and we began the zip across town to Kings Beach.

I confess that we probably bent a few traffic laws to make sure that Steve didn’t spend too long in his cramped environment but being a buccal ventilator (able to suck in oxygen rich seawater without having to swim forward) the tiny catshark would probably have been fine for hours.

At the beach the three of us raced to get our gear on while Emma carried Steve down to the shallows and lowered the bucket into the sea to let the water temps equalize. Some curious tourists asked what we were doing with all the cameras so we said that we were going shark diving. They asked rather nervously if there were many sharks in these waters but we said “No, we brought our own” which left them with baffled looks on their faces.

It was a comical site as the three of us stood in waist deep water waiting for the shark to be released. After some discussion on how best to liberate Steve I reached into the bucket and scooped him up in one gloved hand and swam slowly into clearer water where we could follow him if he decided to bolt.

As soon as he was released he sensed freedom and shot skyward then drifted back towards the sea bed with us in hot pursuit. For a few seconds it looked as though Steve was going to disappear into the depths but before long he got used to his enormous escorts and swam slowly around while Claire and I took pictures from every angle.

Once we were happy, Joe took over with his video camera and filmed some beautiful sequences of the exquisitely patterned catshark swimming over the reef.

Claire and I headed back to shore to give Joe a little more space. Emma was waiting in the shallows with the bucket and before long Joe materialized with Steve swimming ahead of him. Every now and then he would put a hand near Steve’s left or right side to keep him pointed in the right direction. As they reached the shore Emma dropped the bucket back into the water and deftly scooped up Steve who seemed none the worse for wear.

We drove water logged back to Joe’s house and quickly slipped Steve back into his tank with the other sharks which are in various states of rehabilitation. Periodically, Joe and Emma checked to make sure that the chain catshark was doing ok and the last report we got was that Steve was behaving as though nothing had happened. I imagined the conversation in the shark tank that night “Guys, you’re never gonna believe what happened to me… ”

Considering the condition that Steve was in when Joe first got him, he is now in great shape so the next time that Joe decides to walk the dog it will be a one way trip. He plans to choose a site where there is a drop off close to shore so that the shark can find its way into a deep water without too much effort.

After New England we had just enough time to drive up to the Bay of Fundy to board the Storm Cloud. We were racing to join a Porbeagle tagging trip with Sharks Unlimited and our friends from UNB. It was a one shot deal and because it was a bit early in the season we struck out. This was my third year with the Porbeagles and I have some pretty good shots already so I was ok with that but Claire was on her first trip so she was pretty disappointed. A couple of days later the same thing happened in Baie Comeau. We could only allot one day to go after Greenland Sharks – strike two.

The moral of the story is that getting the shot is all about time in the water. If you can’t put in the time, you’ll probably go home empty handed. I’ve been telling other divers this for years but in reality I usually just get lucky. Lesson learned.

After a couple of days chasing gray seals around the Gaspe Peninsula we drove down to Toronto and took the van in for new tires and brakes. It was good timing because our next leg is a marathon drive to San Diego to look for smoothhound sharks, leopards again, soupfins, more blues, shortfin makos and California butterfly rays and then we will finish the tour in style by joining Lawrence Groth at Guadalupe Island to film Great Whites.

We stowed everything as best we could and took off for the border but unfortunately we got about 10km down the road and hit an enormous pothole on the freeway and nearly wrote off our camper.

We’re fine but our poor VW ended up back in the shop with two flattened rims, wrecked brakes, and a nasty oil leak that was rather worrying. This one hurt. Of course, it was Friday night before a long weekend – again!

It’s all fixed now and we’re finally on our way. The camper has a few more creeks and scrapes and a little more duct tape holding it together but we’re rolling. Hopefully our next blog will be from Southern California. First stop La Jolla. Come and join us if you’re down that way.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Groundhog Day on the Redneck Riviera   Leave a comment

Groundhog Day on the Redneck Riviera

5th July 2009

The last couple of weeks have been a disaster. On the morning that I loaded my last blog onto the internet we drove from Panama City to Destin (about 50 miles) and blew a check valve on the exhaust vacuum line. It should not have been a show stopper in the scheme of things but once the hot air started backing up, a junction exploded and the escaping gas welded my throttle cable in ‘accelerate’. Once the initial excitement of not being able to slow down had gone through all the subsequent stages of concern, fear, desperation, drastic clutch squealing activity and eventual calm retrospective contemplation, we got a tow to a garage and considered our very short list of options. As Murphy’s Law would have it; it was 5.30 on a Friday night.

The mechanic said that because it was a VW he needed to talk to the dealer which was closed until Monday so we rented a car and hung out in a broken down hotel for the weekend.

I should point out that I am a very driven person. I will go to insane lengths to make sharky things happen and when forced to sit around and let events play themselves out I quickly go stir crazy.

Monday dawned and at 8am we were back at the garage listening to the bad news. The parts needed to be flown in from LA and would take a week. Not good. Not good at all. Didn’t these people realize that we were on a mission?

We bought a $30 Walmart tent and booked into a local campground. The plan was to ignore this setback, swallow the cost of the rental car and repairs to the van and spend the week snorkeling with rays off the local beaches. It didn’t sound too bad. We could campground hop along the gulf and zip back the following Monday to pick up the camper and head north. What we didn’t anticipate was the green goo which hits the northern beaches around this time each year rendering visibility non existent.

Every beach that we approached looked like it was covered in lime flavored Gatorade. It has been a grim week.

We spent the 4th of July frying on a muggy beach east of Port St Joe, getting nailed by sand flies and hoping that the rough surf would abate long enough for us to snorkel out beyond the algae covered shoreline but it was not to be.

At least we would get our van back on Monday and then be able to go out with Eric Hoffmayer over in Mississippi who promised to try to find us some finetooth sharks. But in true groundhog day form, this morning we awoke to another day of green goo, high surf, an email from the garage stating that the parts wouldn’t be there until at least Wednesday and a phone call from Eric saying that a storm front was moving in and the sampling trip was being rescheduled. Time to sit in the campground and suck back another Landshark Lager and shake my head at the shark gods….

Just now, as I was writing this tale of woe, Claire strolled into camp with a smile on her face. She has been talking to the couple three sites down in the big RV. It turns out that they are catch and release shark fishermen and they’re going out tonight looking for threshers. Sounds like adventure has finally struck again.

land shark lager

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Back in the Deep South   1 comment

Back in the Deep South

25th June 2009

Since our last post Claire and I have been shooting rays down in South Florida again and have once more returned (for the final time!) to the northern gulf. All the back tracking is a bit painful but it gave the garage time to fix up our vw van. Now we have a tour bus that purrs like a kitten and we’re in good shape to start heading north.

While in the sunny south we hooked up with our good friends who run Scuba Works in Jupiter, FL. Jupiter is the sharkiest spot in So Flo for big carcharinid sharks like lemons and bulls but sadly we were not able to entice any of them up from the depths.

The shore diving was fun and I photographed some yellow stingrays for posterity. These are not a new species for me but the last time I shot them I was wielding a Sony Cybershot point and shoot. That was back in the days when shark and ray photography was a hobby with no pressure other than the personal satisfaction of nailing the shot; ah the good old days.

We also went diving with Brendal and Ryan from Prodive USA in Fort Lauderdale. Brendal is a serious shark conservationist and is a campaigner for Shark Savers. So, between dives we sat and discussed tactics in the struggle to save sharks.

Brendal is hoping that Shark Savers will ultimately fall under the umbrella of Shark Safe (the names get confusing) which is a budding alliance of grass roots conservation organizations. The idea is that if all the shark conservation movements can work together they will have significantly more clout. I’m all for it.

The Fort Lauderdale dives were fun and we did see some nurse sharks but after a few days the call of the unusual lured us back to the gulf. Before we left we sat down with Ryan and Brendal for an interview about our tour which can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/user/ProDiveUSA

First stop back in the Panhandle was Panama City. Each time I come here I see something different. The first year it was all Atlantic stingrays, then it was mobulas and southern stingrays. This time the ocean surprised me again by offering up a pier full of Atlantic guitarfish. I love the diversity of the Gulf of Mexico!

For the Sharks,

Andy Murch


Tagging Whale Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico   1 comment

Tagging Whale Sharks in the Gulf

14th June 2009

We are aboard the 67ft commercial fishing vessel Norman B which operates out of Leeville, Louisiana. The Captain/owner of the ship – Russell Underwood – has a deep fascination with the ocean that he has been sailing over for the last three decades. Last year he and his crew witnessed some large aggregations of whale sharks in which upwards of 100 animals came together to feed at fish spawning events around the northern gulf. Awe struck by this amazing sight he was inspired to hang up his fishing gear for a week and invite our gang of researchers and film makers on an expedition to record and tag the behemoth sharks.

Over the past seven days we have witnessed around a dozen whale sharks feeding on dense floats of fish eggs which Dr Eric Hoffmayer will eventually identify once he returns to his lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Claire and I were invited aboard to take i.d. shots of the sharks for the Ecocean inititive. This is an international database of individual whale sharks that have been positively identified by recording the unique spot patterns that occur behind the whale sharks left gill openings.

The composition of the markings in this area does not change significantly as the animal grows so it acts like a thumb print that can be entered into a program that utilizes stellar mapping software to match up images taken at different times and places. Potentially, this can be used to track the movements of whale sharks without using expensive (and invasive) acoustic or satellite tags.

We also had three sat tags on board that Eric was able to place on the sharks. In 8 or 9 months time these devices should detach, float to the surface and transmit their data to any satellites that are passing by.

On the third day I managed to crack a rib while pulling myself back into the chase boat. If memory serves that is my 15th broken bone which is a pretty sad testament to my clumsiness or maybe I simply end up in harm’s way more than most people. Either way, it made for some painful days and nights and didn’t help my struggle to keep up with the sharks.

After we deployed all the sat tags we decided to spaghetti tag the other sharks so that we could tell which ones we had already swum with because one enormous spotted shark looks surprisingly like another. I stayed on thumb print photography duty but Claire actually got to tag a 25ft whale shark which she managed to deftly accomplish on the first attempt.

When you’re motoring across it, the gulf is a seemingly endless body of water and although whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea, searching for them is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. To find them we cruised along one tide line after another but you can only stare at blue water in search of fins for so long before you start to go bug eyed.

To break up the monotony, every day we tied up to one or two of the 5000 oil rigs that are sprinkled along the continental shelf. We wanted to chum up some predatory sharks that Eric was also interested in tagging. I think we were all surprised that at most of the rigs the sharks were a no show but at one particular spot we finally encountered a nice assortment of silky sharks.

Claire and I immediately jumped in with our cameras which amazed the crew who see these sharks every day but live under the impression that anyone dumb enough to fall overboard would be consumed in an instant. Within a short time they developed a much better understanding of the nature of sharks and by the end of our time in the water they actually wanted to join us but we discouraged this as they didn’t have wetsuits and the brush of a friendly silky shark on bare skin can result in some nasty abrasions.

Claire  got some good silky shots and I in turn got some nice pics of her shooting away surrounded by sharks:

Below the silkies I spotted a new shark for me! Two spinner sharks were cruising below the melee, curious but too timid to approach the chum. Spinners are notoriously shy around divers and swimmers. It is ironic that the shocking aerial shots of enormous schools of sharks swimming past Florida’s busy beaches each summer are mostly pics of migrating spinners which wouldn’t dream of harassing a beach goer.

They were impossible for me to approach but I fired off a few frames from a distance and the resulting i.d. shots are grainy but better than I thought they’d be.

spinner shark

While on the rigs the crew threw in their bottom fishing gear and brought up an interesting assortment of fishes. Some of these ended up in the pot but being ‘veggies’ Claire and I didn’t sample any of them. The highlight for us was a Gulf of Mexico smoothhound shark which we photographed from every angle before releasing it under the rig.

Tomorrow morning it will all be over. Captain Underwood and his crew David, Jack and Ron will go back to fishing for red fish and grouper, Eric and his assistant Jenifer will return to their lab, Film Maker Ulf Marquardt will fly back to Cologne to edit his documentary and Claire and I will drive down to Port Charlotte in southern Florida to pick up our (hopefully fixed up) camper van and head to the keys to chase stingrays and nurse sharks. But, this adventure will live on as one of the highlights of the North American Shark Diving Tour.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch


Gulf of Mexico Sharks   Leave a comment

Gulf Sharks

15th May 2009

The west coast and even Texas is already starting to blur. We are now driving around the Florida Panhandle looking for bluntnose and Atlantic stingrays to photograph. The last time I looked for stingrays here was way back in the point and shoot days long before I decided to become a ‘serious’ photographer.

Last weekend we made the pilgrimage to Venice to dive with silkies and duskies. The duskies obviously didn’t get the memo but the oil rig that we dove at had so many silky sharks swimming around it that it was hard to remember that most shark species are endangered. For more than an hour we snorkeled around the boat in the presence of 100 or more sharks. The water was warm, the viz was great and the sharks were very, very friendly!

Venice is such a sharky place that it was the perfect location to reconnect with Eli, Paul and Nathan from Shark Diver Magazine. After two years apart we had a lot to catch up on and this was my first chance to introduce Claire to the team. Good times, good diving and some pretty good silky pics!

After Venice we drove east to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Mississippi to meet with Dr Eric Hoffmeyer. Each month Eric and his team venture into the Mississippi Sound to monitor the shark population. The sound is home to thousands of small sharks, predominantly Atlantic sharpnose sharks but also finetooth sharks, bulls, blacktips, bonnetheads and a variety of other species.

Eric has collected a wealth of data on the sharks that migrate into his domain each summer and over two days out at sea I was able to sit and soak up more shark science than I ever thought my tired brain could handle.

Eric was kind enough to halt his work long enough for us to jump into the muddy water to photograph the sharpnose sharks that he released. The visibility was horrendous (about 3 to 4ft) but some of the images that we managed to get are surprisingly clear. One more shark to add to the Elasmodiver Field Guide at the end of the tour.

The majority of sharks that are landed are tagged, measured, fin clipped, blood sampled and swiftly returned to the sound but a few of the sharks that come up the line are DOA. These are brought back to the lab for further analysis and Eric invited us to join him in the lab to document the dissection process. It was a side of shark research that I haven’t been exposed to very much and it was a bit gory but fascinating to watch this aspect of his work.

After our Florida leg we are planning to head back to MS to work with Eric again.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch