October & November 2003 Shark Bytes
Posted on Sunday, 30 November 2003
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.