Archive for the ‘Sharks’ Tag

Back in the Deep South   1 comment

Back in the Deep South

25th June 2009

Since our last post Claire and I have been shooting rays down in South Florida again and have once more returned (for the final time!) to the northern gulf. All the back tracking is a bit painful but it gave the garage time to fix up our vw van. Now we have a tour bus that purrs like a kitten and we’re in good shape to start heading north.

While in the sunny south we hooked up with our good friends who run Scuba Works in Jupiter, FL. Jupiter is the sharkiest spot in So Flo for big carcharinid sharks like lemons and bulls but sadly we were not able to entice any of them up from the depths.

The shore diving was fun and I photographed some yellow stingrays for posterity. These are not a new species for me but the last time I shot them I was wielding a Sony Cybershot point and shoot. That was back in the days when shark and ray photography was a hobby with no pressure other than the personal satisfaction of nailing the shot; ah the good old days.

We also went diving with Brendal and Ryan from Prodive USA in Fort Lauderdale. Brendal is a serious shark conservationist and is a campaigner for Shark Savers. So, between dives we sat and discussed tactics in the struggle to save sharks.

Brendal is hoping that Shark Savers will ultimately fall under the umbrella of Shark Safe (the names get confusing) which is a budding alliance of grass roots conservation organizations. The idea is that if all the shark conservation movements can work together they will have significantly more clout. I’m all for it.

The Fort Lauderdale dives were fun and we did see some nurse sharks but after a few days the call of the unusual lured us back to the gulf. Before we left we sat down with Ryan and Brendal for an interview about our tour which can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/user/ProDiveUSA

First stop back in the Panhandle was Panama City. Each time I come here I see something different. The first year it was all Atlantic stingrays, then it was mobulas and southern stingrays. This time the ocean surprised me again by offering up a pier full of Atlantic guitarfish. I love the diversity of the Gulf of Mexico!

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


Gulf of Mexico Sharks   Leave a comment

Gulf Sharks

15th May 2009

The west coast and even Texas is already starting to blur. We are now driving around the Florida Panhandle looking for bluntnose and Atlantic stingrays to photograph. The last time I looked for stingrays here was way back in the point and shoot days long before I decided to become a ‘serious’ photographer.

Last weekend we made the pilgrimage to Venice to dive with silkies and duskies. The duskies obviously didn’t get the memo but the oil rig that we dove at had so many silky sharks swimming around it that it was hard to remember that most shark species are endangered. For more than an hour we snorkeled around the boat in the presence of 100 or more sharks. The water was warm, the viz was great and the sharks were very, very friendly!

Venice is such a sharky place that it was the perfect location to reconnect with Eli, Paul and Nathan from Shark Diver Magazine. After two years apart we had a lot to catch up on and this was my first chance to introduce Claire to the team. Good times, good diving and some pretty good silky pics!

After Venice we drove east to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Mississippi to meet with Dr Eric Hoffmeyer. Each month Eric and his team venture into the Mississippi Sound to monitor the shark population. The sound is home to thousands of small sharks, predominantly Atlantic sharpnose sharks but also finetooth sharks, bulls, blacktips, bonnetheads and a variety of other species.

Eric has collected a wealth of data on the sharks that migrate into his domain each summer and over two days out at sea I was able to sit and soak up more shark science than I ever thought my tired brain could handle.

Eric was kind enough to halt his work long enough for us to jump into the muddy water to photograph the sharpnose sharks that he released. The visibility was horrendous (about 3 to 4ft) but some of the images that we managed to get are surprisingly clear. One more shark to add to the Elasmodiver Field Guide at the end of the tour.

The majority of sharks that are landed are tagged, measured, fin clipped, blood sampled and swiftly returned to the sound but a few of the sharks that come up the line are DOA. These are brought back to the lab for further analysis and Eric invited us to join him in the lab to document the dissection process. It was a side of shark research that I haven’t been exposed to very much and it was a bit gory but fascinating to watch this aspect of his work.

After our Florida leg we are planning to head back to MS to work with Eric again.

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

Saved by an Angel (Shark)   Leave a comment

Saved by an angel (shark).

5th May 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for the sharks,

Andy Murch

Sevengill Sharks in San Diego   Leave a comment

Sevengills in San Diego

24th April 2009

We have just left San Diego but we will definitely be back! San Diego is one of the sharkiest cities in North America period.

To recap, we arrived just over a week ago to storm like conditions and had to sit around frustrated while the waves pounded the shore line. After a couple of days the weather abated and we were able to get out with our good friend Walter Heim who found us some beautiful blue sharks to shoot. See our previous blog Blue Dogs off San Diego.

Walter’s friend Dave Hinkel (Owner of Blue Abyss Photo) was also on the boat and he was kind enough to give us some pics of us in the water with the blues.

After boat diving with Walter we heard that there had been a broadnose sevengill shark sighted in La Jolla Cove. We have always wanted to dive the cove so we arrived early and kicked out to the kelp forest cameras at the ready. We didn’t really expect find a sevengill shark but we had also heard that the cove is a good spot to find horn sharks so we were excited either way.

The forest is a fair distance from shore and as we wound our way back to the beach, looking under ledges for horn sharks, a curious sevengill suddenly materialized out of the kelp and did a quick circle around us. If you don’t know your sharks you could be forgiven for not understanding how unlikely this encounter was. Looking for horn sharks and finding a 7ft sevengill is like looking for nickels on the beach and digging up a diamond ring. Local divers that dive the bay every week may see a sevengill once a year or so if they’re very lucky. I don’t even know how to describe our luck in seeing a sevengill on our very first shore dive!

The shark let me get a couple of snap shots. Nothing particularly great and I couldn’t get in front of him no matter how fast I swam but at least we were able to record the moment.

I think Claire was in shock through the entire minute long encounter. She told me later that she was torn between shooting the shark and modeling for me to give my shots a sense of scale. As usual she did a great job.

After that we were hooked. We returned to the beach and switched out our tanks and dove straight back in but the illusive broadnose sevengill had given us our moment of contact and we spent the next three dives at the cove shooting horn sharks, banded guitarfish and shovelnose guitarfish.

The horn sharks made great photo subjects. We were able to shoot them hiding in crevices and swimming over the brilliant green sea grass beds that waved back and forth in the surge.

The banded guitarfish were the same species as the ones that we shot in the coral reefs in the Sea of Cortez. It is quite surprising that they are able to tolerate such temperature differences. Shooting them in kelp made a nice backdrop instead of coral but I now have so many banded guitarfish shots that I really have to start deleting some off my hard drives.

The other guitarfish that we encountered, the shovelnose, is usually a very skittish subject. I have tried to shoot this species at the beach and they invariably explode out of the sand in a puff of silt and swim for the depths before I can get anywhere near them. We were a long way off shore when  I found this one in the kelp forest and I think it was a little surprised to see me. Even so, I only got one shot off before it returned to its senses and headed for the hills.

Between dives we drove over to the Marine Room which is a snorkeling spot named after the restaurant of the same name. This is the best place on the planet to find leopard sharks but it was a little early in the year for the leopards to congregate in big numbers and I could not see more than some shadows in the distance – just one more reason to come back to San Diego.

We also tried a night dive at La Jolla shores in search of angel sharks but after an epic surface swim and a long, freezing cold night dive we returned to the shore empty handed. That isn’t such a big deal as we are heading up to Tajegis Beach near Santa Barbara soon. Tajegis is a good spot for angels but a bad spot for surge so if we are lucky enough to arrive there when the weather is cooperating we will get one more kick at the can.

We had planned to slowly work our way up the coast to San Francisco but the forecast for shore diving is not good so we have decided reverse everything and get to San Fran as fast as we can and then slowly work our way back down to San Diego before cutting across to the Gulf of Mexico to start our east coast leg.

Another development that we just couldn’t pass up; we have decided to squeeze in a trip to Catalina on the advice of Ron Clough who conducts the California Shark and Ray Count. I have never seen a Pacific Torpedo Ray so Ron (who’s advice has always panned out in the past) gave us the skinny on where to reliably find pacific torpedos:

“Torpedos are at Catalina Island, Casino Point.  Go deep, 70-90 ft. out toward the corner buoy on the left hand side, as you stand on the stair case facing the ocean. I’d give you a 99% chance.  Also, look forward to great vis there and some great shots. Hope I get a chance to dive with you.” With advice that detailed how could we resist! So, we are cutting the Grand Canyon off of our itinerary (it’s just a big hole in the ground anyway) and penciling in two days at Catalina.

Our east coast shark diving itinerary for May is starting to fall into place so if you’re anywhere between Texas and Florida come out and say hello.

For the sharks,

Andy murch

Bluedogs off San Diego   Leave a comment

Bluedogs off San Diego

20th April 2009

Just a quick update to let you all know that for the next few days we are hanging out in Southern California diving around San Diego. When we arrived four days ago La Jolla Shores looked pretty daunting but the seas have now calmed down and the shore diving is looking good.

Yesterday we got a chance to head out with our old friend Walter Heim. Walt is an all around great guy and a master at chumming in blues and makos.

We were a bit early for makos so we headed way off shore to where the water turns from green to blue and laid out an irresistible chum slick that attracted a couple of plucky little blue sharks. Its tough to do justice to the beautiful iridescent colors that reflect from the back of a young blue shark but we gave it a good try! As the sun was getting low in the sky Claire and I bobbed around behind Walter’s boat snapping frame after frame.

The second shark (about 5ft long) was happy to pose from just about every angle so I was able to add some really nice portraits to my blue shark collection:

A rare shot of me! Seems like I’m always on the other side of the lens.

Photo © Claire Pianta.

While writing this blog I got a couple of emails from Walt saying that the first school of Leopard sharks was spotted off La Jolla shores today and a diver encountered a sevengill shark in La Jolla Cove so tomorrow we’ll probably be in and out of the water all day. By the time we rendezvous with another one of Walt’s buddies for a night dive with horn sharks we’re gonna be chilled to the bone but how can we resist with so many sharks and so little time!

For the sharks,

Andy Murch

via Elasmodiver North American Fairwell Shark Diving Tour.

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