Posted on Friday, 31 March 2006
We had a couple of fantastic pelagic trips at the beginning of the month and a particularly good trip where we had a large female blue shark with us for most of the day.
I always say that blue sharks are one of the best species of sharks to dive with. They are very curious animals and spend a lot of the time checking out the divers providing excellent views of the shark. They also do not come across as particularly aggressive animals so as a diver you can really enjoy the encounter without feeling threatened by the shark.
This specific blue shark was incredibly relaxed and not at all wary of the divers in the water. All our guests were able to dive with her and are were very excited at the end of the day.
In my last newsletter I mentioned that Chris & I were going to Madagascar hoping to find sharks.
In January we had an Italian guest on the boat that owns and runs a dive center on Ile Sainte Marie. This is an Island off the North East coast of Madagascar. Max has been living there for the last 14 years and during this time he has not had much success in finding sharks. He invited us to visit him in the hope that we would be able to help in this quest.
Chris & I did not go with high expectations although as always we were very excited about the possibilities. The Island is not large, 60 kilometers long (42 miles) and 5 kilometers wide (3.2 miles) but is home to a population of 20 000 people.
Taking into consideration the kind of conditions, water temperature etc we knew that there was a possibility of seeing the following sharks: Great Hammerheads; Tigers; Zambezi’s or Bull’s; variety of reef sharks; Bow mouth Guitar fish; Saw Sharks and my “Bogie Shark”, the Leopard or Zebra Shark.
The first obstacle we encountered on our arrival was that Max had contracted Malaria which meant that he was out of action for any shark activities for the first few days of our visit.
Once he had recovered we planned to try all sides of the Island. We had great weather for the day on the East Coast but after spending an entire day chumming and waiting patiently for sharks we got skunked. It was extremely hot and when I decided on a swim to cool off I was lucky enough to have a squid swim past me. Evidently it was not very happy with me and displayed its dis-pleasure. This meant that constantly changing iridescent colours were shimmering down its body…really spectacular and definitely the highlight of the day for me. The boat trip to the other side of the Island also meant that we were able to take in the beautiful coastline views. It was just magnificent and consisted of kilometers of white sandy Coconut tree clad beaches.
Although very beautiful, we were beginning to realize that there were some serious environmental problems on the Island. Just walking around there were no signs of any bird or insect life. When we started asking questions we were very sad to learn that the locals have basically caught and killed almost anything that they can get their hands on, including the very famous Lemurs that occur only in Madagascar. The also famous forests of the Island have been destroyed by 80% over the last 16 years.
We were soon to find out that this catch-and-kill-anything attitude also extends to the sea. Gill nets are used prolifically and nothing is spared. We spent a morning watching a fishing boat bring in their nets that had been set for a 24-hour period. Four different nets were set over 2 kilometers and their entire catch consisted of 3 very large spotted-eagle rays, one king fish and a turtle. As I say nothing was spared.
There is not much that can be done about this problem. Madagascar is now officially the poorest country in the World and when people are struggling to feed themselves it is very difficult to persuade them to put back something like a turtle or be more selective in the animals and fish that they catch. Another factor that we found very worrying is that over a 24 hour period this was the entire catch. Gill netting is a ruthless form of fishing and nothing; aside from perhaps a very large shark; is able to break free of the net once entangled.
The north end of the Island is the quieter, less occupied side of Sainte Marie. We spent a full day up here looking for sharks, again with no luck. Admittedly the weather was very poor so we were not able to be in the area where fishermen most often see sharks.
We then planned on a very early rise so that we could try for sharks in the darker hours. It is a well known fact that tiger sharks often move from deeper water to shallow water to feed at night. Although a 2am wake up call was not very appealing we decided that it would be more than worth it if we were to see a Tiger.
I mentioned that the North end of the Island is the quite end and a prime example of this is the hotel that we spent the night at. We anchored the boat 200 meters from the shore and Max then proceeded to kayak from the boat to shore. Apparently this hotel which consists of the most delightful rustic bungalows on the beach does not have a telephone or even a radio! We asked Max how this can possibly work and apparently if you by some miracle happen to find out about the place you just show up!! So, take my advice. If you happen to find yourself in Sainte Marie, Madagascar this is the spot to be. It does not get much better when one can lie in bed and hear the ocean lap onto the shore a few meters away.
The night was all too short when Max woke us at 2am but we gamely kayaked back to the boat in search of tiger sharks.
At dinner the night before Max showed us a scrap book of photographs taken in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. We were shocked to see photo after photo of very large sharks and rays that had been caught just off the beach in front of the hotel.
Massive tiger sharks and even bigger Great Hammerheads were caught in huge numbers. Even a whale shark was harpooned. Fishing for them was very simple and consisted of putting a large bait out on a rope and hauling the sharks in once they took the bait. Swimming was considered extremely dangerous, even in waist-high water due the threat of sharks.
We had left a large bag of sardines below the boat during the night and were very disappointed to find that absolutely nothing had touched the bag.
We now really did not expect to see a single shark and our midnight chumming heralded a total of three garfish.
We cannot conclusively say that there are no sharks at Sainte Marie but we do not think that there are many left. Tigers and Great Hammerheads are seasonal sharks so we hope that we were just there at a bad time of the year.
Some of you may know that Sainte Maries is famous for Humpback whales that migrate through here in large numbers over July, August, September and October.
Max also has a between 25 and 30 different dive sites that he dives regularly. We managed one dive during our stay. The water is warm (28 Celsius or 88F) and the coral reefs are beautiful. So, if you are looking for an inexpensive and exotic holiday whale watching and diving is excellent over this period.
You can contact Max on http://www.ilbalenottero.com/.
After last month’s newsletter we had a tremendous response with regards to the shark longlining issue that I spoke about.
This fishing practice is completely legal in South Africa and this is the problem. No shark fishery anywhere is the world has been sustainable and most have collapsed in a matter of years. We are fighting for the South African fisheries department to actually do some research into what the shark stocks are like off our coast to be able to put in place some form of restrictions and quotas. Ideally we would like to whole industry closed down but in a realistic world this is not going to happen.
Sharks are predators and no-one has any idea what will happen when the Apex predators of the ocean are taken out of the equation. Can you imagine what would happen if terrestrial predators such as lions, leopards and cheetah’s were to be harvested with no care given to the ramifications? There would be disastrous effects on the environment.
A number of large conservation bodies are interested in fighting shark longlining in South Africa on an International level and are initiating their own efforts to do so. I will let you all know if petitions need to be signed.
On Photo’s of the Month we have put up images of the blue shark we dived with at the beginning of the month as well as images from Madagascar.
Hope you enjoy.
Until next month,