March 2010 Shark Bytes
Posted on Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Hello Shark Lovers
I am going to be writing about a very busy month, although it is not all sharks. Chris & I got to do something very unique and that was to dive with Sailfish whilst feeding on sardine bait balls. We have also had a very pleasant surprise with an early return of a few Great White sharks to Seal Island. Also in the mix were a couple of Pelagic trips which are almost the last for the season.
Alligators, Great Hammerheads, Bull Sharks and Manatees
Before heading out to dive with the sailfish we decided to make a last minute brief stop in Florida for me to visit my brother Gregg and for Chris to dive with a few friends in the Keys.
Chris was lucky to have some great encounters with great hammerhead sharks, one of his favourites and a couple bull sharks as well as doing a few dives with adult alligators in the everglades an experience that he says was simply incredible as these huge reptiles would cruise within an arms length in the tannin rich swampy waters. I managed to get to go to Crystal springs with my brother and we had lots of fun diving with nearly 100 manatees in the area. These gentle sea cows are very friendly and one young one came right up to Gregg and literally kissed him on his mask. So our first stop was a great success and we were thoroughly prepared and excited for our next leg, operation sailfish.
Over the 2009 Great White season we hosted the BBC to shoot the white shark segment for Inside The Perfect Predator. I believe this just aired in the UK and was a great success.
Anyway, one of the cameramen told us about their experience filming Sailfish off Mexico for Planet Earth. He even showed us images that he shot underwater with his “tourist” camera after they had shot all their film. Even these images were amazing and completely sold us on the idea that we needed to do this as besides sharks we also are fascinated by gamefish.
Within a couple of weeks we had our 10 days on the boat secured and the long wait for March 2010 began! We also invited 3 of our Seal Island regulars to join us so it was great to be able to see shark friends outside of South Africa.
In preparation for our trip I must admit that I had no idea what to expect and as I usually approach any wildlife trip that we do I did not have any high expectation as to what we may see. We always just make the most of what see and really appreciate even the small things.
The only thing I knew was that for about a 3 month period every year sailfish gather in large numbers in the waters off this Island to feed on sardines. In order to be successful the sailfish need to ball the fish and as such it can be possible to dive with these magnificent game fish. Not only do you have to be lucky with the feeding situations to actually happen but the weather needs to be good. All diving is free diving and snorkelling so conditions need to be good in order to do this. For a month before we left Chris & I actually swam with our fins each day in order to have some level of fitness. We were still not quite prepared!
A sailfish is part of the Marlin family and is said to be the fastest fish in the ocean, supposedly capable of reaching speeds of 110 kilometres per hour. They have a beautiful sail that aides them manoeuvring at fast speeds and whilst hunting they have iridescent colours that light up, showing their excitement. It is a prized game fish for many fishermen and we actually had to hire a sport fishing boat that has come to specialise in hosting filmmakers, photographers etc for diving purposes. Fortunately in this area most Sailfish are caught on a tag and release basis and almost all the boats operate like this so good numbers of these fish still survive.
On arrival our skipper said to us that we could go out for 10 days and not see anything so that when the opportunity comes we needed to nail it and make the most of the situation. So, on the first morning we headed out ready to swim for our lives and with Chris spotting each and every bird was checked. Just as at Seal Island the boat crews here watch for birds, in this case the Greater Frigate birds which indicate a possible bait ball. They can indicate bonitos, dolphin and if we were lucky, sailfish. These three species all push the sardines to the surface and the frigates are able to feed on the sardines. These birds are absolutely amazing. They are not able to wet their bodies (as they become to heavy to fly) so the aerial moves they perform are astounding in their attempts to fish and their excited calls provide an audible signal on where to swim for when chasing the balls. In order to be assured that it was sailfish feeding on the sardines the sign is for the frigate birds to hover in extremely tight groups just above the surface. The boat then races over to the area and most times the dark shape of the nearly 3 meter long sailfish can be seen. At that moment pandemonium breaks loose on the boat as divers hastily don wetsuits and cameras are prepared. The boat cannot drop you in too close as the fish may sound so the skipper really needs to be experienced in terms of getting the divers close enough to reach the ball. Again, as with all wildlife, it is vital to your success that you have a good team helping you.
I won’t forget our first attempt too quickly. We got ready on the dive step as the skipper back up to the birds and then in a rather thick Mexican accent he started shouting “GOh GOh GOh, Goh for the Beerds”, which could have meant “Woah, woah woah”, as in wait. We assumed Beerds was birds but that slight hesitation in Goh/Woah did throw us off a bit. But, we quickly got the hang of the lingo and our days were soon filled with this self same routine.
The water temperature is 25C so you do not get that cold shock of water when first jumping in. Once hitting the water it is then a flat out chase to the bait ball. Our first look was a ball of about 300 sardines racing towards us followed by about 8 very hungry sailfish. Sorry everyone, I am not sure if I can accurately describe the mixture of excitement of seeing these absolutely gorgeous fish or the fear that I would be impaled by the long slashing bill!
In seconds the bait ball and the sailfish had raced past us and we were left literally in the dust of thousands of floating sardine scales. The boat then picked us up and we raced over to the birds which were now a few hundred meters away, and the chase began again. We were all kicking so hard in our effort to reach the bait ball that in the first 45 minutes we were all exhausted. On top of that 3 of us already had blisters which would become rather nasty and painful over the next 10 days. So much for all that training, especially after Chris cramped in both his quads towards the end of the first afternoon!
We quickly learnt that one actually had to kick in an energy conserving manner and that one of three things would happen once being dropped on the bait ball.
Number One: You were never going to reach it. In this case Erin and I (the 2 girls!) mostly became the guinea pigs and we would need to be the first ones in to test the water visibility and fastness of the ball. This was ok. We did not have large cameras to swim with and I quite like to get fit. Sometimes, it was a lot of chasing with little reward!