Saved by an Angel (Shark)   Leave a comment

Saved by an angel (shark).

5th May 2009

In retrospect, driving north from San Diego when the bad weather hit may not have been the brightest thing to do. Refugio and Tajegis beaches were so churned up that we didn’t give them more than a cursory glance.

By the time we hit Monterey the surf had wrapped right around the headland and was hammering the usually tranquil inner harbour. We talked to shark researcher Sean Van Sommeran who conducts an annual elasmobranch distribution study at Elkhorn Slough north of Monterey. Sean has a lot of experience working with smoothhound sharks but his organization (PSRF) has not geared up for the season yet. Although he was very friendly and gave us all the pointers he could, it was obvious that mother nature was not going to favor us this time.

We retreated to the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and I spent a frustrating but enjoyable day watching the leopard and sevengill sharks swimming around their tanks. Claire spent her entire time among the sea dragons and pipe-horses. Apparently, they are as interesting to some people as sharks but I don’t get it.

Rolling with the punches is an important part of shark photography. Surface weather, underwater visibility and sporadic shark appearances are all factors that can wreck a trip when luck doesn’t run your way. Patience and the stubbornness to keep returning to a location for that illusive encounter are critical traits for anyone who thinks they might like to pick up a camera and become a serious shooter.

Sean graciously invited us to accompany him later in the summer when the weather will probably be better and with that idea in the back our minds we headed back south through Big Sur (a breath taking stretch of rugged so-cal coastline) and caught a ferry to Catalina Island.

Left: Big Sur. Right: Claire jumping in at Casino Point, Avalon, Catalina Island.

Sadly, the promised torpedo rays had come and gone from the marine park three weeks before our arrival. For three days we scoured the sea floor hoping to find a straggler limping over the sand but it was not to be.

At night we hooked up with Jon Council who taught me to fly submersibles many years ago. Jon having done thousands of dives around Catalina gave us his take on the torpedoes. Apparently off the western side of the island there is a deep reef known as Farnsworth Bank. According to Jon and confirmed by other local divers, torpedo rays regularly gather in great numbers along this reef and those intrepid divers that are prepared to risk the extreme narcosis that accompanies diving to 190ft may be rewarded with the site of dozens of torpedo rays literally laying on top of one another. Intriguing but very scary. Compared to most divers I get ‘narked’ very quickly so I am not the ideal candidate for very deep air diving. Jon suggested that we go there when Claire and I return to Cali at the end of the summer to look for smoothhounds. He offered to arrange a boat and bring scooters so that we don’t have to kick too hard at depth which brings on narcosis that much quicker. Claire, is not convinced.

Although the torpedoes eluded us on this occasion, the trip was not a complete washout. On our second day on Catalina we found a sleeping Pacific angel shark near the wreck of the valiant at about 90ft. Angels are very patient sharks and although it was completely buried under the sand when we arrived, it let me settle beside it and dust practically all of the sand off of its back without it moving a muscle.

This was only my third Pacific angel and the clear water around Catalina resulted in much sharper images than I could have gotten on the mainland.

We also came across a number of California bat rays but they are notoriously difficult to approach. Each time I saw the telltale plume of sand that indicated a bat ray was feeding nearby I would try to hold my breath and swim slowly up to it. It never worked. On our last dive in the park I stumbled upon one more bat ray and decided to try a different tactic. Kicking furiously I swam straight at it with my camera strobes blazing. Surprisingly, it worked quite well. The bat ray froze as I appeared in front of it and I managed to get some colorful head on shots before it came to it’s senses and darted away.

That was our last west coast elasmobranch and brought our tour total up to 13 species in five incredible weeks.

The next morning we dragged all our gear back to the mainland and headed east. 2 days and 1500 miles later we arrived in Houston to catch up with Shark Diver Magazine shooter Paul Spielvogel and to visit with Jerry and Melanie from Kickady Scuba who recently became the US distributors for Poseidon.

Jerry had me drooling over Poseidon’s latest Closed Circuit Rebreather.

We now have one day to rest, catch up this tour blog and prepare for the east coast leg of our adventure. Tomorrow we leave for Mississippi to accompany Dr Eric Hoffmeyer’s research team out to the barrier islands to look for a number of shark species that are rarely encountered by divers. We’re very excited about the opportunity to shoot some unusual sharks and to document Eric’s work.

After Mississippi we are heading to Venice, Louisiana to join Captain Al Walker and Eli, Nathan and Paul from Shark Diver magazine on a one day hunt for Dusky sharks and scalloped hammerheads. It just keeps getting better!

for the sharks,

Andy Murch

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