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Shark Bytes

October & November 2003 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Sunday, 30 November 2003

Dear Readers

 

This month you will not only be hearing about sharks, but an incredible adventure with highs and about events that could have ended worse than they did.  For many years it had been a dream of Chris’s to explore the waters around certain sea-mounts between Mozambique and Madagascar. These areas are very far from land and thus we were hoping that the human impact was minimal. For the expedition we invited 4 other like-minded friends to join us on a 46-foot catamaran yacht that we had charted. Although all of us had spent large amounts of time on the water, we had never spent time on a yacht and we were also excited about learning to sail and living at sea for 25 days. Knowing the sea I never expected the romantic version of smooth sailing while sipping margarita’s, but our first four days far surpassed my expectations! I am unfortunately prone to sea-sickness and was fully aware that this was not a condition I wanted to find myself in. We left our port of departure and set sail for our 500 mile journey in rough weather conditions which turned into four days of four meter swells and 30 to 35 knots of wind head on. I lasted 6 hours before I was sick and the next 60 hours left me wondering what the hell I was doing there! On top of that there were small leaks on the yacht and the constant pounding meant that a “river” of water now streamed through the boat. This was not serious as the yacht was able to drain this water, but nothing ever dried and basically this meant that we would wake up to put on wet clothes, helm the yacht while being drenched in rain and sea water and then climb back into a wet bed. It was not a welcoming start to sailing, but (and this may sound strange) a humbling experience that I am very happy to have gone through.

 

On the fourth day Chris & I were helming on the 3am to 5.30am shift and we woke up to calm seas and a beautiful sunrise. It was an incredible feeling to know that we were so far from civilization, doing something that few people in the world are likely ever to do. We were only a few hours away from our first stop which was a sea mount that rises up from 3000 meters to 40 meters. This “under sea mountain”  expands roughly 20 miles and would attract migratory game fish, such as tuna, and we supposed sharks. The main target species here was the Oceanic white tip. It was once thought to be the most common large predator on Earth, but now days they can be seen in very few areas, and these are usually very remote. They are said to be extremely bold sharks, as are all pelagic sharks. In the past they were known to prey on shipwreck victims, the most famous of these being the “Nova Scotia” that went down off South Africa during World War 2. You may also remember them from “Blue water, white death”.

 

Given their history we have always dreamed of diving with them and I never thought that within 20 minutes of us arriving I would be shouting excitedly as one arrived at the yacht. She came in so fast, that she was just a blur and it took me a split second to believe what I was seeing. Oceanic white tips have very large dorsal and pectoral fins with the ends being tipped with white. They are also mostly surrounded by pilot fish and this one must have had a least 20 with her. When she first arrived she was very excited from the chum in the water and was moving around the boat very, very quickly. Chris got in the water first and was treated to some very close passes. After the first few minutes she calmed down and remained very relaxed with us for the next four hours. They definitely are very bold and we both had her knocking into our camera lens’s as she approached us. By this time she was relaxed and moving slowing so it was easy to gently push her away once she gave us those close-ups. It was a surreal experience being in the water with this shark as it was something we had always dreamed of. The conditions were perfect, the water 26 deg Celsius and the visibility about 30 meters. She had a lot of character and was actually missing her dorsal fin, so we dubbed her an oceanic no tip! Towards late evening 3 other larger Oceanics arrived as well as a striped marlin for a brief few seconds. That night the largest blue shark we had ever seen also paid visit to the yacht. We estimated her at 3 meters.

 

After a very memorable time here we headed off a further 60 miles to our main stop, an Atoll that is slightly exposed at high tide. An Atoll is actually an extinct volcano and we were able to work off the outside edge as well as in the inside where the deepest area was only 15 meters. From 5 miles away the clouds above the Atoll were reflecting the turquoise colour of the water, welcoming us to Paradise. It turned out this was Paradise with a dark side! As the lip of this 11 mile wide Atoll is only exposed at high tide there have been many ship wrecks and 60 have been recorded. There are however believed to be as many as 100. The memory of countless victims of these ship wrecks leave you with no doubt of the dangers that are present, sometimes unknowingly. The Atoll would serve the same purpose as a sea mount by attracting the game fish, but it is also home to thousands of reef fish of a multitude of species. People had never actively looked for sharks here, but the few who have visited told us many stories about sharks that they had seen. We could only imagine turquoise blue clear water and the possibility of sharks! Before we had even put the anchor down for the first night a small silver tip reef shark was circling the back of the dive step. Within 20 minutes of putting bait in the water we had about 15 silvertips, 2 scalloped hammerheads and what we thought were silky sharks. After a number of days we positively identified them as Galapagos sharks. Even though they are circum-tropical we did not expect to see them here and it was a great surprise.

 

We found the smaller Silver tips and Galapagos sharks to be fairly aggressive and we constantly had to buddy dive in order to fend sharks away. The hammerheads were unfortunately very shy and we weren’t actually able to get in the water with them.

 

After working on the outside for two days we wanted to go into the Atoll as we had heard of large Tiger sharks that people had seen. As it was a spring high tide we managed to cross the reef successfully. Once inside we found both the Galapagos and Silver tips, especially in the 1 meter range. This would possibly be a nursery area for them. The Galapagos were very curious and once when we went for a snorkel on the inside reef 200m meters away, a couple followed us as we swam from the yacht. It was comical to see these little sharks follow as we swam off and was kind of like taking our dogs for a walk!

 

The inside did not produce a Tiger, but we did see a 3 meter Galapagos. This would be about the maximum they would get to and she was very impressive. Despite her size, she was not aggressive in the water.

After this we decide to move and try on the outside which meant having to cross the reef again. The fun began when trying to find the two channels that supposedly provide an easier crossing. The long and the short of it was that our Skipper miscalculated high tide by an hour and we did not find the channel. Once we became too shallow the current, which we reckoned was pouring out the Atoll at between 6 and 8 knots, took control of the yacht and proceeded to drag us over the reef. That grinding and crunching sound that one does not want to hear on a boat become all too real and to put in nicely we were in serious trouble. After a few minutes the boat settled on the reef and become more or less stable as the tide become lower. We eventually ended in ankle high water. Thankfully we were on a catamaran and the yacht could support herself. There was very little damage and all that remained was for us to float her off at high tide. It was surprisingly simple and all that required was for us to anchor all for sides down to stop her from drifting until the water level was high enough which was in about 8 hours. In the meantime we were able to watch as about 30 parrot fish around us flapped on their sides as they ate at the coral. They were about 6-8 kilograms and ranged in colours from vibrant blues and forest greens to blushing reds. We also walked around the reef and managed to find the channel which turned out to be just large enough to accommodate our yacht. As we had discovered, tremendously strong currents prevailed here as vast amounts of water flow into and out of the Atoll on the tides. We decided on the slack tide to go for a snorkel on the outside of the reef and walked a short distance across the reef to start our dive. We were in the water for about 30 minutes and had the most incredible time. There were so many different varieties of reef fish and we even saw a Potato bass and Napoleon Wrasse. When we approached the channel we decided to take this route in. As we entered we the channel we felt as if we were flying as the current took us, which was great fun until we realized that this may be a little dangerous. Chris & I managed to stand up on the first try and even though the water was only knee deep the strength was unreal. We had a distance of 300 meters to cover before reaching the yacht and had to walk this cross ways against the tide. After working hard for the first 150 meters we had to cross the second channel. The only option was to swim. As soon as we got in the current swept us further into deeper water and by the time we reached the other side we were in thigh deep water.  I am a fit and strong person (or at least I think I am!) and was really struggling to keep standing and walking. We would really have been in a threatening position should we have been swept away especially with our transport was parked on the reef. Chris was holding onto me so tightly and basically dragging me along, lucky for me as I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to make it, especially if panic had set in. Eventually one of our friends on the yacht saw us and after putting on a harness took a rope and was able to reach us 30 meters away.  

 

I was walking bare foot across the reef as all this was happening and miraculously did not have any serious cuts or gashes.  

 

Shortly after getting back to safety on the yacht the current started pushing in even stronger and the yacht started to rock from side to side grinding the reef as she did so. After hearing a loud snap one of our rudders floated away, leaving us with one other. Ironically while this was happening we saw what we thought to be a large Tiger shark gently cruising over the reef. It would be the only Tiger we saw the whole trip. Once enough water had moved back into the Atoll we were able to successfully float the yacht off, but lost half of the other rudder that we had shortly afterwards. This meant that the next 2 days were spent putting together a new one and making the half-rudder usable.

 

With this being somewhat unreliable we had to leave the Atoll 4 days early to give us enough time to get back for flights etc that had to be caught.

 

We made the most of our couple days left by doing a two day drift off-shore. This proved to be one of the highlights of our trip as we encountered a 2.8 meter female silver tip. This is probably on the threshold size-wise for this species. She stayed with us the whole 2 days and is one of those sharks we will always remember. We could see that “the old girl” was battle-scarred from her years and was now losing condition. But she was extremely gentle and constantly coming in close. We just had to gently push her away as she was completely unthreatening. It was one of those happy/sad experiences as now days we never see sharks in their old age in the wild, but sad to see this queen of the reef winding down at the end of her life. As we said good bye to her, we said goodbye to the Atoll too. We set sail for the long journey home left with no doubt that we would return to this spot again and continue to explore new remote areas for our beloved friends, the sharks!

 

Photographs of the sharks that we saw on the trip can be viewed on www.apexpredators.com under the page “Other Sharks”.

 

In March next year we are putting together an expedition to see a variety of sharks along our coast. You will find more information below:

African Shark Safari - 2004

Education, Research and Conservation

In March 2004 we will be collaborating with The ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research on an incredible new shark expedition to explore Africa’s shark species.

This expedition will offer an extraordinary opportunity to join our research team and an international group of shark enthusiasts, in the water, to observe, photograph and study the biology and behaviors of Africa’s apex predators.

Join us in March for two weeks of diving with Africa’s sharks.  Research will focus on shark biology, habitat selection, behavior, diversity and population dynamics.

Point of embarkation: Cape Town, South Africa

When: March 16-30, 2004

Species under investigation: Shortfin Mako Shark, Great White Shark, Puffadder Shy Shark, Copper Shark, Dark Shy Shark, Spotted Gully Shark, Blue Sharks, Pyjama Catshark, Tiger Catshark, Ragged Tooth Shark, and Smooth Hammerhead Shark.

 

For more information please visit the above website and contact:

Neil Hammerschlag

Field Research Coordinator

ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research

www.elasmo-research.org and www.reefquest.com

E-mail: neil@reefquest.com

Phone: (954) 964-7365

Over the next month we will be focusing our attentions on the pelagic sharks off Cape Point and hope that we will have some interesting stories to share with everyone one next month.

We hope that everyone will have a great Festive Season!

 

Best wishes

Monique Fallows

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