Archive for the ‘shark tag’ Tag

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

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