Archive for the ‘shark feed’ Tag

Oceanic Overload and some Awesome New Diving Adventures   Leave a comment

Oceanic Overload and some Awesome New Diving Adventures

May 27th 2011

RHODE ISLAND BLUES AND MAKOS

Before I get stuck into the Oceanic Whitetip Trip Report, I’d like to let everyone know that I’m heading to Rhode Island to dive with blue sharks and makos on July 30-31. There are only a couple of spots open on the trip which is being run by mako magnet Joe Romeiro. Its $325 a day. If you want to come out and play with some beautiful east coast sharks, please let me know asap: elasmodiver@gmail.com

THIS YEAR’S OCEANIC WHITETIP EXPEDITION

We had an awesome week on Cat Island in the Bahamas. The oceanic whitetip shark images that you see here represent a tiny slice of what we encountered. If you want to see a larger selection of images from the trip please follow this link: Oceanic Whitetip Shark Pictures

It was a very productive trip with hours and hours of photo opportunities. The great thing about oceanics is that when they arrive, they generally stay for the whole day. Some days we had sharks virtually from the minute we arrived. To be fair, we had a couple of slow days too but you have to expect to sit and wait sometimes when you’re looking for sharks in the open ocean.

When oceanic whitetip sharks catch the scent trail, they are definitely not shy. This was my first experience with oceanics and I was extremely impressed with their boldness and their beautiful lines. In comparison with other species, their personalities are somewhere between makos and blue sharks; inquisitive and bold like a mako but laid back and nonchalant like a blue shark at the same time.

All in all it was a great week. Next year I’ll be running another Cat Island Oceanic Expedition with a few small tweaks to make it even better. One of the things we noticed this year was that if the current takes you away from shore the oceanic action is good but if you drift into shore other species come in too. So we’ll spend at least one day chumming exclusively on the reef so that we can swim with all the other species that Cat Island has to offer. If you want to join me, here’s the info: 2012 Oceanic Whitetip Expedition

AN EXCITING SUMMER AHEAD

The blue and mako weekend in Rhode Island marks the start of a manic summer schedule both for me and for Big Fish Expeditions. After playing with the blues and makos, I’ll have just enough time to hunt for some new elasmobranchs on the shores of New England (hoping to add some Atlantic Torpedo Ray images to Elasmodiver) and then Sharkfest kicks off in Morehead City, North Carolina.

The Sharkfest boat is full but if you happen to be diving in the area, please swing by Olympus Dive Centre or the lodge. We’ll be airing some awesome short shark films on Saturday night August 6th and we’ll have our Sharkfest BBQ on the docks on the 7th. Come one, come all.

After Sharkfest I’ll be racing home to Vancouver Island to join an exploratory diving expedition in Nootka Sound which is on the wild west side of the island. The trip is being run by Pinnacle Scuba Adventures. We’ll be visiting some brand new dive sites with the possibility of Giant Pacific Octopuses, sixgill sharks (unlikely but you never know) and a whole whack of other Pacific Northwest critters. Space is limited but the trip hasn’t been advertised yet so there is still room if you’re a not so tropical diver…

After barely a week on the island its Baja time. We’ll be reef diving on two week long trips specifically looking for fin whales, pilot whales, sperm whales and humboldt squid as well as plenty of regular reef dives and hopefully some good sea lion encounters. The first trip is sold out except for one spot for a female diver. The second trip still has a bit of room but its getting a lot of interest so please sign up asap if you would like to join me.

As usual, I’ll be coaching anyone that brings a camera if you want help. These will be great trips with a huge amount of diversity.

SALMON SHARK EXPEDITION

Here’s a unique idea, any true shark fanatics reading this blog will be aware that there’s a healthy population of Salmon Sharks in Alaska in the late summer. You may not know that they also congregate much further south in our accessible Vancouver Island waters. With that in mind, I’m trying to put together a salmon shark chumming trip for early September aboard one of our local liveaboards. It will be very experimental but not crazy expensive for a week on a BC liveaboard. More on this if I manage to pull everything together in time.

PREDATORS IN PERIL PROJECT

By the time October rolls around I’ll be ready to head out looking for new rare shark species for the Predators in Peril Project. This time I’ll be working with researchers in the Bahamas that are bringing up deep sea sharks to measure and tag them. Their motives are to assess abundance and to find out which species inhabit great depth in the Bahamas tropical seas. I’ll be documenting their work in pictures and slipping into the water to shoot each species as it is released. Its a very exciting project that should yield some great images.

BULL SHARKS IN MEXICO

On my Big Fish Expeditions Website I have a Bull Shark trip listed for December in Playa Del Carmen but there are no exact dates because I’m still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens this year. Last season, after the sharks had congregated to attend the shark feed, they were captured and killed by shark fishermen from the surrounding villages. As a conservationist, I can’t participate in a feed this year if the sharks are likely to meet the same fate. So, the trip is on hold until I hear that the locals have found a way to protect the sharks.

MALPELO SHARK SAFARI

MALPELO SHARK SAFARI

Looking even further forward, I have chartered the Inula which is a liveaboard catamaran that sails out of Panama to Malpelo which is a small volcanic island deep in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. If you haven’t heard of Malpelo, imagine world famous Cocos Island but with even more shark diversity. Malpelo has schooling hammers in relatively shallow water, silky sharks, Galapagos sharks, whitetips (not the oceanic kind), occasional whale sharks, mantas and in February (which is when we’ll be going) Smalltooth Sandtiger Sharks which are the regular sandtiger’s oversized cousin. The smalltooths live in very deep water and swim up to the 50-60 meter range at Malpelo for a short time each year. The pics from this year’s trip (taken by accomplished photographer Tomas Kotouc) show how impressive and accessible these animals are at the island.

With six full days at Malpelo and two extra dive days on Panama’s excellent off shore reefs on the way there and back, the Malpelo Shark Safari will be an amazing adventure. More info on Big Fish: Malpelo Shark Safari

TIGER BEACH PHOTO WORKSHOP 2012

Dates are up! The Tiger Beach Experience stands alone. I hope you can make it next year: 2012 Tiger Beach Photo Workshop and Shark Safari

ELASMO TEES

And finally, by popular demand I have a new batch of Elasmo Tees hot off the printing press. This time they have logos front and back and come in three colours. Support Elasmodiver and Predators in Peril with a stylin’ new elasmo-tee (or two, or three…)

Men’s fitted and women’s fitted cap sleeved are available. Get ’em while you can, I’m running out already. Ordering info here: Elasmo Tees

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Scoophead Sharks, American Alligators and Tiger Tales   Leave a comment

LAST MINUTE SPECIAL!!! Cat Island Oceanic Whitetip Expedition May 8-14 $1995

 Scoopheads, Alligators and Tiger Tales

 

TIGER TALES

I have just returned from a Big Fish Expeditions trip to Tiger Beach and I have to say that Tiger Beach is no longer the best tiger shark dive in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, Tiger Beach is as sharky as it always has been with scores of lemon sharks ready to play as soon as the boat drops anchor and plenty of tiger shark action including regular visits from Smiley the resident tiger shark that has a damaged jaw leaving her with a permanent one sided grin.

But there is a new site close to Tiger Beach that is even better for shark action especially if you’re looking for dramatic backdrops for your shark portraits.

The reef is named Fish Tales but that’s a bit generic for such a great shark diving spot so I’m calling it Tiger Tales for the tiger sharks that regularly wander by.

The site consists of a healthy coral reef in 40ft of clear blue water. It is overrun with packs of bold Caribbean reef sharks and  a few resident nurse sharks. There are always some lemons swimming around also and it doesn’t take much effort to swell their ranks and bring in the tigers that inhabit the area.

It was normal for us to see all four species of sharks on each dive and we even had a few flybys from one or two large great hammerheads but the hammers were too timid to approach the divers.

All in all, it was a phenomenal week and I can’t wait to go back next year. With such great photo ops it was hard to decide what to include in this overview but here are few scenes from that week to give you an idea of how intense the action was:

    

    

    

AMERICAN ALLIGATORS

Even before setting sail for the Bahamas, I was already in shooting mode. I spent a few days chasing American alligators in the swamps of South Florida with Film Maker Joe Romeiro.

As I have no experience shooting big reptiles, I was pretty nervous being around the lizard king and wondered if I should have bought a pole cam with me to put a little distance between me and the gators but even the big animals were reasonably well behaved.

The images (shot with a fisheye lens) are an interesting addition to any shooter’s portfolio and after posting them on my Facebook page I was asked if I planned to lead gator trips. Its an intriguing idea but I’ll stick with big ocean animals for now.

    

 

SCOOPHEAD SHARKS

In March I spent some time in the Darien jungle talking to fishermen about the endemic shark species that live in the area. After a lot of hunting, I was finally able to get the first in-water images of a scoophead shark. This is one of the smaller hammerhead species that has eluded photographers for so long.

Scoophead sharks are far too timid to approach a diver (no matter how much chum is in the water) so to get the shots I spent a lot of time in a small panga shadowing the fishing boats as they pulled in their nets. The scoophead in my images came up on the last day of the trip and after a short negotiation involving the promise of a bottle of rum, the fishermen allowed me to release the ailing shark.

Global shark populations are dwindling and inshore endemic species like the scoophead that have limited ranges are particularly vulnerable to gill netters. Obtaining representative images for conservation initiatives is extremely important.

Its sad to say, but in some ways my expeditions to shoot the world’s most illusive and endangered sharks, are my way of recording archival footage of species that may soon be gone.

    

THE OCEANIC WHITETIP SHARKS OF CAT ISLAND, BAHAMAS.

Another shark that has seen better days is the oceanic whitetip. Virtually eliminated from the Gulf of Mexico, there are few places left where oceanics can be reliably found. One of those places is Cat Island on the eastern edge of the Bahamian chain. In May of this year, I will be joining 7 guests on a week long, land based expedition to dive with these ocean ocean predators and a handful of other shark species that call Cat Island home.

With just a few weeks to go and one spot still open, I am running a last minute special for one lucky diver – $1995. Includes 5 days of boat diving and beach house accommodation on Cat Island. Email me if you want to come: info@bigfishphotographyexpeditions.com

Summer trips and beyond….

SHARKFEST 2011 – Morehead City August 5-7

On the first weekend of August…. Sharkfest is back!

If you missed the action last year there is a trip report on the epic shark diving that we enjoyed, plus film screenings and fun. This year we’re stepping it up by adding a night dive with the sandtiger sharks on our first day. Space on the boat is limited and right now there are only five spots left so sign up now if you want to come. 3 days of shark diving, dorm accommodation, BBQ, film screenings, and a Sharkfest Tee Shirt $640.

    

SEA OF CORTEZ WHALES AND HUMBOLDT SQUID EXPEDITION

Later in August we’ll be chasing humboldts and whales in the Sea of Cortez (only 4 spots left). This will no doubt be the most eclectic trip of the year. In a nut shell, we’ll be diving Baja’s best reefs each day while we cruise north to Loretto. Between dives we’ll be scouting for fin whales, sperm whales and pilot whales to jump in the water with. Once we get to Loretto we’ll be diving by day and jigging up humboldts in the evenings and hopefully getting in the water to shoot free swimming humboldt squid if everything goes to plan.

As if reefs, whales, squid and sea lions wasn’t enough, the operator has agreed to let me try chumming for sharks at some locations. This is a bit of a wild card and we are not sure what species (if any) will show up but I can’t go all the way to Baja without looking for sharks.

MALPELO ISLAND FEBRUARY 2012

There are no links or images on the Big Fish Expeditions Website for this one yet so I’ll blog about it more in the next update. But to give you a brief idea, at Malpelo (a day’s boat ride off the coast of Panama) you can expect to see schooling scalloped hammerheads, silky shaks, Galapagos sharks, random sightings of mantas and whale sharks, and many other pelagic visitors as well as reefs crawling in morays and large stingrays.

But in February and March on the deeper reefs around the rocky island, there is the chance to see enormous Smalltooth Sandtiger Sharks (Odontaspis ferox) which are the sandtiger’s big cousin from the depths.

If you think you’ve seen it all you have to dive Malpelo.

We’ll be on the liveaboard Inula. Although I have barely talked to anyone about this trip there are already only 6 spots left so please send me an email if you want more info.

PINNACLE SCUBA ADVENTURES

Between expeditions, I’ll be enjoying the diving around Vancouver Island with Pinnacle Scuba Adventures. Pinnacle is southern Vancouver Island’s newest and most versatile dive charter operator. We’ll be diving some of the best sites on the south end of the island and exploring new locations each week throughout the summer.  Join us if you’re up this way.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Dive in strange places long enough and you'll eventually see strange sharks and rays…   2 comments

I spend a lot of time blogging about my future shark photography plans, but its so much better to be able to write about successful adventures!

After shooting three new species of deep water skates in Rhode Island (see previous post), I flew down to West Palm Beach to meet up with a group of keen shark photographers that were accompanying me on the Tiger Beach Shark Photography Workshop.

The expedition was a huge success. Tiger Beach always has a healthy supply of lemon sharks (usually around 40 or 50 once the chum gets going) but the tigers themselves can be hit and miss. Its important to have a solid player – a shark that isn’t afraid of cameras, swims close to the group and stays around long enough for everyone to get the shots they want. Fortunately, that is exactly what we had. Other sharks came and went but one respectably sized tiger shark stayed with us for the entire week. I think that everyone got more tiger shark shots than they knew what to do with.
Tiger Shark Tiger Shark Tiger Shark

I wanted everyone to come home with great shots, a better knowledge of workflow (Bridge, Photoshop, etc) and some amazing stories about close up encounters with big sharks. I think everyone learned a lot and had a great time and I’m really looking forward to doing this again next year!
Lemon shark Tiger shark tiger shark, lemon shark and diver

As well as lemons and tigers we had one little nurse shark that kept skirting the action. He was pretty brave to get as close as he did with all the huge carcharanids milling about but the poor guy never made it to the food.
nurse shark nurse shark

We spent the entire week exploring all the different photography opportunities that Tiger Beach has to offer except for one afternoon that we snuck off to a deeper site to chase Caribbean reef sharks. After the big lumbering lemons it was great to play with some zippy little sharks for a few hours. Everyone hunkered down next to the reef and snapped away while the sharks buzzed back and forth above us perfectly framed against the clear blue Bahamian water.
caribbean reef shark reef shark caribbean reef shark

We returned to Tiger Beach to find our super model tiger shark still in residence and continued looking for the perfect shot until it was time to pull anchor and head back to Florida.

After bidding farewell to a boat load of new friends, I packed up my cameras and took a flight to Honduras.

Steve Fox (Owner of the luxurious Deep Blue Resort in Utila) had graciously invited me to come and photograph a couple of deep water shark species that local fishermen sometimes encounter on the deep coastal plains around the island.

Both species we were after are rarely if ever photographed and both are data defficient according to the IUCN Red List. They are caught incidentally in other fisheries and like many deep sea species they are probably in decline. Sadly, if you chase rare sharks you have to expect to strike out now and then and on this trip the sharks eluded us.

Cutting my losses, I spent the next week snorkeling in a muddy lagoon looking for a rare stingray called the chupare stingray (aka Caribbean whiptail stingray).

Steve (who has a cutting British wit) ribbed me relentlessly during the week when I wasn’t able to find one. He was adamant that they were all over the place if only I’d open my eyes, but trying to shoot one in the low visibility environment was an extremely challenging mission.

Through a combination of luck and stubbornness, I finally cornered a ray in a pocket of mangrove and fired off a fusillade of shots while the ray kicked up more and more silt until there was nothing left to see.

Although I didn’t get the quality of images I would have liked, I did take some usable ID shots so the trip was officially a success. One more species for the Elasmodiver Shark and Ray Field Guide.
chupare stingray Caribbean whiptail stingray chupare stingray

Tired of swimming around in lukewarm tea all day, I decided to take a break and head out to see some of Utila’s beautiful reefs with the sensible divers. Deep Blue Resort has a seamless system for delivering divers to wonderful environments and encounters: After a leisurely breakfast, you simply stroll onto Deep Blue’s private dock and get whisked off to a stunning and dramatic wall dive somewhere then climb back on board and slip out of your dive gear while the crew find you some whale sharks to play with.

Then you jump in, snorkel with the sharks (which are conveniently feeding at the surface on baitballs) and pop back onto the boat once the sharks move too deep. This is repeated time and again until the guests get tired of ‘whale shark jumps’ and ask to be taken to another pretty dive site.
Deep Blue Resort Deep Blue Resort Utila Deep Blue Resort Utila Deep Blue Resort Dive Boat Deep Blue Resort House Reef
After a pleasant lunch back at the lodge, guests are then invited to head back out on the boat for more absurdly easy diving or enjoy a shore dive on the house reef. After a week of paradise they all fly home feeling ten years younger. It’s painfully easy.

I’m not jealous – really I’m not. But how come my dive trips more often involve squeezing onto a Central American school bus jammed full of locals that are carrying hundreds of chickens to some far away market. And then, sleeping on a grubby panga in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of fishermen that I can barely understand while waiting for a hapless shark to swim by. I think it’s time I reconsidered my shooting strategy 🙂
Utila Reef Utila Diving Utila Turtle Utila Corals Utila vase sponges Utila spotted eagle ray

Its been so long since I did any ‘recreational diving’ that at first I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to look at. After a while, I settled in and started shooting pretty sponges and coral formations but it still felt kind of weird not being on a shark photography mission. The whale shark jumps were much more familiar and I was happy to have the chance to snorkel (if only briefly) with a couple of big animals.
Whale shark utila utila whale shark

What was more unexpected was the pod of rough-toothed dolphins that we encountered. I am far from a marine mammal expert and I confess that I’d never even heard of rough-toothed dolphns. Apparently they encounter them on Utila fairly regularly and these ones were surprisingly playful. I was the only one free diving so the dolphins gave me a lot of attention and I came away with some very respectable images. I’d like to share them here but they are earmarked for a future publication. Here’s one that didn’t make the cut:
rough-toothed dolphin

Having got my fix of big aquatic animals, I decided to head back into the lagoon for one more crack at the Caribbean whiptail rays. The vis had improved enough to see the mangrove forest in all its glory but the rays were nowhere to be found.
andy murch snorkeling in Oyster Bed Lagoon Utila utila mangrove lagoon Oyster Bed Lagoon Utila utila mangrove utila mangrove roots underweater

What I did stumble upon was a urolophid ray (round stingray family) that I can’t positively identify. It was probably just a yellow spotted stingray but rather than the usual tiny yellow spots on a pale background this little ray was jet black with vividly contrasting orange/yellow spots. I’ve never seen this color variation before but then again I’ve never spent a week snorkeling around a Honduran lagoon.
Yellow spotted stingray mangrove stingray yellow stingray in mangrove urobits jamaicensis possibly

Tallying up the elasmobranchs from the entire trip, over a 5 week period I managed to shoot nine species of sharks and rays and saw two more species distantly swimming along. Not a bad first adventure for the new decade.

Future plans…

I’m hoping to attend the American Elasmobranch Meeting in July in Providence, RI. If any of you sharkafiles will be there please let me know. After that, my next big trip will be Sharkfest. Sharkfest is three days of sandtiger shark diving with a mini shark film festival attached. It’s my humble attempt to bring together a whole bunch of shark divers to dive, watch movies, tell stories and have some fun. If you would like to attend there are 3 spots left on the boat. Email me for details.

For now I’m back on Vancouver Island cleaning up pics, writing stories, diving with local species and plotting. I may be running an underwater photography workshop here in Victoria over the summer so if you’re up in the Pacific North West and want to learn the basics of DSLR photography let me know!

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

A NEW DECADE OF SHARK PICTURES AND SHARK ADVENTURES TO SINK YOUR TEETH INTO…   Leave a comment

A NEW DECADE TO SINK YOUR TEETH INTO…

02/01/2010


First, The Tiger Shark Photography Workshop

I’m running a workshop at Tiger Beach in The Bahamas in April. Space is limited to ten shooters. The boat is half full already so please let me know if you’re interested. Its going be a fun trip. Amazing shooting opportunities and lots of tips and presentations. We’ll also have 7 evenings to kick back and talk sharks – my favorite subject. More info on the shark photography workshop page


Second, a little religion

I have spent the last decade sliding over or diving into the ocean. Quite often, I was diving with sharks but sometimes I was just snorkeling and looking down longingly at the world below. Occasionally, I had the privilege of piloting submarines.; driving over the seafloor, exploring the mysteries of the deep from the safety of my acrylic goldfish bowl. Every time I entered the water I came back nourished from the experience even when I was charged with difficult tasks. And, when I finally dragged my water logged body back to land, my mind remained deep in the ocean and there I expect it will stay forever.

Of all the creatures that I encounters none affected me as strongly as sharks. Sharks have been such a captivating and pivotal force in my recent life that I now only accept jobs in places where I can find sharks and I scrimp and save to go to remote shark diving spots between shooting for magazine articles or sub piloting gigs.

After I loaded Elasmodiver.com onto the web in 2002, I found even more reason to travel to unusual coastal destinations; the pursuit of rarely encountered species to add to the growing elasmodiver field guide.

Initially, shark images were simply trophies in my collection. I was a big game hunter with an underwater housing and a bucket list of shark species that I wanted to photograph. I really didn’t know that much about the plight of endangered species. I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty and grace of the animals themselves.

I am still just as infatuated with elasmobranchs (large and small) but now I am also starkly aware of the sad decline of our ocean’s top predators. Regardless of the controversy over specific decline rates, few would disagree that many sharks and rays are in trouble. According to the IUCN, At least a third of the world’s shark species are considered threatened. Many more are data deficient implying that further research could reveal more bad news.

The enormity of the problem makes me feel pretty helpless. I want to do something tangible to help but I am just a photojournalist. I can tell people what I have learned but the people that read diving and nature magazines already love the ocean and the natural world. While its important to reinforce the message lest we forget, there has to be a way to spread the word to a wider audience.

I’m not sure what the answer is or if anything can really be done to reverse the trend but I’ll do my bit. In 2010 I am planning to play the part of a missionary and my mission is to bring the word about over fishing, shark finning and habitat destruction to people that still don’t understand what is happening below the surface of the sea. I hope that you will all do your part too.

Spreading the Word through the Elasmodiver Network

Elasmodiver gets around 150,000 hits a month. That still blows me away!

Not everyone that lands on the site wants to read about the plight of sharks but there are more and more shark conservation pages being added for those that care to look.

I’m also trying to sneak as much conservation information as possible onto every page without turning people off. To that end, I am in the process of updating every species in the Elasmodiver Shark and Ray Field Guide with IUCN info. That means that when little Johnny cuts and pastes a page about great white sharks into his grade 7 school project, he inadvertently learns more than just how big they grow. It all helps.

There are now Elasmodiver pages, channels and blogs on Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, Twitter and YouTube. So, whatever way you like to get your news there is no escape from Elasmodiver. Don’t sign up for our Twitter feed unless you want to live and breathe sharks. I am turning that account over to our new social networking guru Bo Moran. He’ll be tweeting and re-tweeting Elasmodiver news and general shark stuff multiple times a day.

The pen may be mightier than the sword but what is wrong with keeping a sword handy just in case?

Outside of the web, I am now trying to write every shark diving article with shark conservation in mind. That’s not always easy to do when you’re writing about how much fun it is diving with tiger sharks but I’m committed to squeezing the message into the text wherever I can. I’m also pitching my stories to way more magazines this year. I’m a slow writer and I’m starting to think that I may be mildly dyslexic so its really cutting into my shooting time but its a worthwhile platform even if it is preaching to the choir.

In the next couple of months, I have articles slated for Diver, Invertum, Oceans (a new mag – keep a look out for this one), Xray, Shark Diver (of course) and a few others that must remain nameless for now. I’ll keep plugging away on that front so expect to see more of my writing on the news stands.

I also contributed an interview for a photographic magazine which annoyed the hell out of me. No matter how many times I pointed out that I don’t spend every waking minute ‘in the jaws of death’ they were not interested in any other angle. It frustrates me to think that many editors outside of dive/nature mags are still stuck on the sensationalist man-eater model – its time to claw your way out of the 70’s guys!.

At the end of the day I’m really not sure if what I write has any effect. I plan to keep it up but I look at Sea Shepherd and the front line approach that they have taken by harassing whaling ships and ruining catches and I wonder if that would be a more effective method in the battle to save sharks. I know that I’ll be labeled as a radical if I go down that path but on a whim I registered SharkShepherd.com the other day. Every successful army has a political and a military wing. I’m not sold on the idea of direct intervention yet but I’m open to suggestion.

Predators In Peril Project update – The PIP Exhibition

On a less controversial note, PIP is progressing. I have built a portfolio of images for the Predators in Peril Exhibition and I’m out pounding the pavement, looking for suitable venues. The exhibition consists of a number of my most dramatic shark images. Each image is accompanied by a smaller image that conveys the plight of that species and a message about the decline of sharks in general. Sometimes I use images of dead sharks and sometimes I use images with a more symbolic reference. I plan to use fishing hooks to hang the images in each gallery if the curators don’t object. For a sneak peek at some of the images that are included please follow this link: Predators in Peril Exhibition

I have invested a fair chunk of my net worth in this project. The images are printed on archival silver rag and they look gorgeous. The intention is to educate everyone that comes through the galleries and to raise funds for the 2010 Central American Predators in Peril EXPEDITION which will take place later in the year.

Elasmo Ads

This year we’re also throwing our doors open to advertisers in the scuba diving and photography industries to help raise funds for Predators in Peril. There are banner, button and full page advertising opportunities. Our rates are unbeatable considering our web presence so if you are a manufacturer, dive shop or operator and you want a button on all 480+ pages on Elasmodiver please let me know. First come, first served. Advertise on Elasmodiver

Happy new year! Thanks for tuning in and for supporting Elsmodiver.

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

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


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

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