Archive for the ‘little skate’ Tag

An Incoming Tide of Adventure   Leave a comment

Like a stingray stranded on a mud flat, I have been stuck on land for way too long. I spent the winter working in other fields to raise a shooting budget for 2010 and with that taken care of, its time to embark on a six week expedition through New England, Florida, The Bahamas and Honduras. The plan as always, is to shoot as many new species of sharks and rays as possible.

Right now I am in Rhode Island. Home to makos, blues, threshers, the occasional white shark and lots of deep sea skates. For those that don’t know, skates are a type of ray and are therefore closely related to sharks. One big difference between skates and other rays is that skates lay eggs. They are also very specious. If fact, they are the largest of all shark or ray families and because most live in very deep inaccessible areas, scientists are still finding new species on a fairly regular basis.

I am particularly interested in shooting barndoor skates which Greenpeace International recently added to its Seafood Red List. Greenpeace’s red list is a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries. On the other hand, NOAA recently downgraded the barndoor on its ‘species of concern’ scale but the continuing directed fishery and high by-catch levels make it an ever-vulnerable species.

You can’t dive with deep sea skates in their natural environment unless you happen to own a research submersible. Sadly, a sub is out of my budget this year but I have a buddy named Brian Raymond who works on a fishing trawler that often plies the waters of The Georges Bank where barndoor and other skate species are fairly common.

You may think that its odd for a conservation minded shark photographer to be hanging out with a fisherman but Brian is no ordinary fisher. After 5 years in the industry he is very tired of being part of the problem. This summer he is quitting his job and going into business with Shark Film Maker Joe Romeiro. They will be running eco-friendly blue and mako viewing trips out of Rhode Island so if you’re up this way and want to get in the water with some beefy New England sharks, give them a call: 333 Blue and Mako Shark Expeditions

The boat that Brian works on mostly trawls for squid but trawling is an indiscriminant form of fishing so the by-catch levels are often horrendous. Recently, they have been dragging in 1000ft where there are a number of vulnerable skate species so we worked out a plan to try a catch and release photo shoot with some of the skates that he rescued from the nets. It should have been a simple way to nail some shots of never before photographed species but the best laid plans can go awry.

While Brian was returning from his last fishing trip, I flew in, stashed my stuff at Joe’s place and got ready to start shooting. Brian and his girlfriend Jen met me at a local beach and Brian pulled a tote of slowly flapping skates out of the back of his truck. When I found that he had managed to bring not one but three deep sea skate species I was as happy as a kid at Christmas.

The plan was for me to swim out to clear water and release the animals on the sand and rocks where I could get some usable ID shots before they swam away. I was petrified that they would bolt before I could get any images but that turned out to be the least of my problems.

R.I. is recovering from the worst flood in 200 years which has thrown millions of gallons of dirty water into inshore coves like the one we were shooting in. To make matters worse, the day we chose to release the animals, the weather was far from ideal. Strong winds, lashing rain and turbulent seas made the whole swim out from shore rather daunting. I went out for a test run just with my camera and found the going pretty tough. It didn’t help that I was nursing a fever and a throat infection and apparently my drysuit had somehow gained a lot of extra buoyancy over the winter 🙂 leaving me considerably underweighted.

Unperturbed, I kicked back to shore, found some scrap iron on the beach and strapped it to my tank. Then, I filled my pockets with rocks and ventured out again, this time with my camera in one hand and a lobster trap full of deep sea skates in the other.

Clutching such a voluminous object in rough seas put me in an unexpected position. I found myself at the mercy of the rip which dragged me out of the bay into an area that was churning like a washing machine. Looking down, the visibility was so bad that I couldn’t see my camera dangling at my side, let alone photograph marine life. I tried retreating but I could barely make any headway back to the beach and I was slowly drifting sideways onto a patch of submerged rocks that was throwing extra large waves in my direction.

I tried sinking under the buffeting chop but my drysuit inflator jammed open, lifting me back to the surface and filling my suit to Michelin Man proportions. I had no choice other than to disconnect the air hose but as the air trickled out, the sea trickled in and within a minute or two my suit was completed flooded.

Now I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. I’m not one to panic but I was riding so low in the water that I couldn’t tell which way the shore was. While I was deciding whether I should drop the lobster trap (making the entire trip to New England a disaster) I spotted Brian waving from the rocks with a pair of binoculars around his neck. With new resolve I inched towards shore. Cage in the left hand. Camera in the right. KICK! Look up. reorient to shore. Head down. KICK!

It was slow going but I made it back into the shallows and dropped the cage in a sheltered spot to rest. There was no way I was heading out to sea again so I gently lifted a skate out of its confinement and let it go. The skate swam around a little and then settled onto the sand, cupping its body to provide the suction necessary to resist the surge that was still pulling me around.

By working with a fisheye lens within about six inches of each skate, I was able to get some images that looked like they were shot in much clearer water than they really were. After maybe an hour I dragged my wet and weary bones out of the bay and left the skates to find their way out to sea.
null kings beach storm

Barndoor, Smooth and Thorny Skates
barndoor skate smooth skate thorny skate
For bigger images please visit the shark blog on elasmodiver

That was two days ago and I’m still feeling whipped but the images came out great. Three more species for the Elasmodiver Shark and Ray Field Guide. Three more elasmos available for any conservation initiatives that might need images.

Next stop Washington State for a couple of days diving on the Olympic Peninsula with Claire and then I fly down to Florida to lead a week long Photography shoot at Tiger Beach in The Bahamas. After that, the trip starts to get interesting!

Sharkfest 2010
sharkfest
In other news, Sharkfest is getting exciting. As a new facet of the Predators in Peril Project we are starting a simple new campaign inspired by a constant flow of emails from people that want to do something to help sharks in their local communities. Its called the Shark Friendly Restaurant Initiative. The idea is for individuals to use fact sheets and decals that we will supply to approach restaurant owners in their communities that sell shark products (not just shark fin soup). If a restaurant agrees to become part of the solution, they get a Shark Friendly Restaurant Decal for their door and a listing in the Shark Friendly Restaurant Guide on Elasmodiver. Where possible, we will arrange for the campaign to be listed in local food and entertainment magazines so that conscientious consumers can learn what the decal looks like and patronize the right restaurants. Seafood Restaurants that already refuse to sell shark products get a decal right off the bat which will help to brand the idea.

What does this have to do with shark diving in North Carolina? Well, the campaign is being sponsored by the profits from Sharkfest. If I manage to fill the boat, we’ll have a budget to print enough decals to get started. You can join the campaign at this link: Shark Friendly Restaurants Volunteers.

On a more fun note, we also have our first shark film submissions. The first to arrive was Big Fish Utila an excellent film about whale sharks in the Bay Islands. We’d like to have at least a dozen short films to view over the weekend so if you know anyone that has made a shark film recently or if you have a film of your own to submit, please tell us about it. Film submission is free.

There has been a lot of interest in the trip but there is still room so if you would like to come diving with Sandtiger Sharks with us and a bunch of other shark fanatics for 3 days in early August please let me know. Sharkfest is $640 which includes 3 days shark diving, accommodation, a Sharkfest 2010 T-shirt and our ‘shark friendly’ Barbeque.

One shark diver suggested that we include a sandtiger night dive in the agenda. That sounds like fun to me but I’d like to hear what you think!

TB2
Tiger Beach Shark Photography Workshop 2
The Tiger Beach Photography Workshop appears to be a very popular concept. I’ve never seen a trip fill up quite so fast. So… I’m considering running a second workshop/expedition in the fall. Email me if you’re interested.

Lastly, Elasmodiver is getting out of control
Some people have commented that Elasmodiver is getting too big to navigate. No argument from me! So how do you get your head around a website with almost 500 pages? Its a puzzle but at least its easy to keep track of recent changes by bookmarking this link: Elasmodiver Updates. Its the simplest way to scan what is new, what has changed and when. And, if you have suggestions on how Elasmodiver could be made better, pleeeease let me know. Elasmodiver remains one of the largest sources of shark info on the internet. Help us keep it user friendly.

For the sharks,
Andy Murch

SHARKFEST, PREDATORS IN PERIL REBORN AND A RHODE ISLAND DEEP ELASMO SHOOT   1 comment


Predators in Peril Expedition Reborn
First the bad news… Our 2010 Central American Predators in Peril Expedition got turned down for funding. I’m not sure why but rather than dwell on the time wasted in drawing up funding proposals, I’m happy to move on and look for creative ways for us to fund the expedition on our own.
Through a combination of revenue sources including Photography Workshops, Sharkfest, a pending photography exhibition and some good old fashioned hard work (at the Winter Olympics) we think we can pull off a modified PIP Central American Expedition that incorporates almost as much as the original plan.
The new plan is to turn the proposed epic road journey into a series of fly in – fly out satellite trips. This ultimately works better because we can work on other projects in between shoots, we will have better opportunities to keep the world updated on our successes and we can avoid the rainy seasons much more easily by heading to the right places at exactly the right times.


Sharkfest!
About a month ago I was looking at places around North America where I could run a cheap fun filled shark diving weekend. Moorhead City in North Carolina was the obvious place because it is easily accessible, warm enough to be popular and full of extremely photogenic sandtiger sharks.
Olympus Dive Center (which is the premiere dive center in the region) was keen to host the trip so we started hashing out the details. Shark diving trips with Olympus are always fun because they can cater to big groups and their store and staging area are set up well for apres dive entertainment.
Rather than just a dive party I wanted to create an event that shark fanatics would really enjoy. The result is Sharkfest – a shark diving weekend and mini film festival just for shark people.
As soon as I mentioned the idea to people they started getting excited. Information about Sharkfest only went online just over a week ago and the first boat is half full already so I think it is going to be very popular. The good thing is that Olympus has two big boats so we could get a record number of sharky people in one place at the same time which is bound to be memorable.
Attracting film makers to submit their short films will probably be the hardest part to organize but we have two films on the way already and screening times will be limited to the evenings. I hope I don’t have to reject submissions – that would be tough. If you’re interested in submitting a short but you’re not sure if your shark footage is up to scratch don’t worry about it. Sharkfest isn’t Sundance or Cannes and you won’t find a more appreciative audience anywhere!
H2O Photo Pros in California has kindly offered to sponsor the festival with prize money and I am having a really special trophy made called an ELASMO for the crowd favorite. More on that when its done and I have a picture to show you.
I hope some of you can make it out for the whole event and come diving. Anyone that can’t get there during the day but wants to show up in the evenings to talk sharks with us is more than welcome. More info here: SHARKFEST


Rhode Island Expedition
Right now we are at Olympic Village in Whistler BC. I am helping with some of the organizational nightmares of this monstrous event. As soon as the Paralympics finish in late March I am flying to Providence to dive with Film Maker Joe Romeiro. Joe has a friend in the commercial fishing world who is keeping an eye out for deep water species of sharks and skates for us. If he finds some while I am there we are going to do a captive release photo shoot. If any of you remember the ‘walking the dog’ blog that I posted during the shark tour this will be the same kind of shoot. We’ll release the deep water species in one of the bays and try to get some i.d. shots before they head for the hills. Its a pretty hokey way to shoot elasmobranchs but its the only way some species will ever be photographed unless I strike it rich and buy my own deep water submersible. I’m still working on that.


Sharks in a Fading Light
I have a local gallery interested in a shark photography exhibition. Dates have yet to be arranged but we’re past the hand shake stage. The exhibition will be in two parts. The first series of images focus on the traditional view of sharks, portraying them as majestic apex predators. The second series of images looks at the change that is starting to take place in the public’s perception and the plight that sharks now collectively face. It contains enough ‘pretty pictures’ to make it appealing but also depicts sharks on long-lines and other unpleasant realities.
I initially wanted to avoid any toothy shots that would paint sharks as aggressive animals but I’ve had a change of heart on this subject lately. Instilling fear into people is obviously detrimental to sharks but painting them as teddy bears is also foolish. Sharks are not monsters but they are formidable creatures. Hopefully my images will convey that sentiment.

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