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

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