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ethanblue1.jpg (9129 bytes)Blue Sharks,
Up Close and Personal...

By Ethan Gordon artist and
purveyor of Fine Art Prints

   Fifty miles from the coast of Rhode Island the water turned the cobalt blue of the Gulfstream. Like many fishermen, we were in search of sharks, but there were no rods or reels aboard, just an aluminum cage and four adventurous souls. We set out early this July morning to swim in a chum slick. Sound crazy? . . . Of course it is!
   Captain Charlie Donilon of the 'Snappa' is an experienced shark fisherman. His license plate boasts that conspicuously. "SHARKS" is the first thing you'll see as he drives around the corner. The 35 foot 'Snappa', appropriately named, operates out of Point Judith, Rhode Island, and alternates between fishing charters and shark dives. For the 1998 season, Charlie had 100% success at finding sharks for his divers. Considering his resemblance to Roy Scheider and his line of work, one gets a kick out of just meeting him.

   Like a shark sniffing dog, Charlie steamed his boat right for one of his shark hot spots. Once in the general area, Charlie circled around for a little while in search of the warmest water temperatures he could find. While he looked for warmer water, Charlie recited more than half of the movie 'Jaws' from memory as part of his pep talk. Finally he decided conditions were just right, the engines were shut off and the blocks of frozen chum were set in their wells. It didn't take long to see how Charlie's expertise paid off.
   If this were a fishing trip, the rods would have bent in half, line screaming off the reels, in a matter of minutes. The first blue shark was boat-side before the cage was even lowered into position. Every one scrambled to set up their dive equipment, and before I knew it, I suited up for a little swim myself.
   Now let's pause for just a moment to give you a better picture of what a shark diving experience is like. I want everyone to imagine this. . . Pretend you're on a shark fishing charter where the closest to getting wet that you'll come is the melted ice, dripping off of your beer. The chum has attracted several sharks right to the side of the boat. You look into the water to see several muscular beasts fighting for the tiny chunks of bait, and beneath them, several more dark shadows are lurking. . . Now it's time to jump in the water! Once in the water you'll swim 30 feet away from the boat and 10 feet down to where the cage is!
   I made the mistake of asking the obvious, "what about the sharks?"
"Sharks?!" said Charlie with an ear to ear grin, "Oh, don't worry about them." Every one else grinned. O.K., next stupid question. . .
Time to roll over the side. The first diver jumped in and headed for the cage. It was my turn. I rolled over, grabbed my camera and started to dive. I bumped the other diver on the way down, or so I had thought. I looked down to find that I had just been goosed by an eight foot blue shark! I sped up my kick to get to the cage faster, inadvertently kicking the shark on the head a few dozen times, but I was determined not to become a eunuch.
  ethanblue2.jpg (7494 bytes) Once in the cage, I settled in quickly and observed more than a dozen sharks, casually swimming by, eyeing the cage as one might peruse the local deli counter. Around the cage, a beautiful ballet of blue sharks had formed. Their behavior is something which can't truly appreciated until you join them on their own level, and I don't mean go to law school. They were graceful, elegant, and as sleek as fighter planes. The iridescent blue of their backs was hard to appreciate from the boat, its brilliance lost through the reflective surface of the water, but underwater their bright, blue color radiated magnificently. Little pilot fish followed just behind the dorsal fins of many of the sharks, hoping to catch a little hand out. I quickly became mesmerized by the show.
   "How bad could they be?" I thought, "They look peaceful enough". . . and peaceful they may be, but so are Rotwieler pups. Blue sharks are not vicious by nature, but they certainly are curious, and curious creatures need to investigate new things with whatever means they have. In this, case it's their teeth.
   Occasionally, a shark tested the metal of the cage. It didn't take long to see that they love metal. Special sensory organs on their noses attract sharks to electric fields, usually generated by animals, but especially those created by metal objects. They bit anything metallic; the cage, the boat ladder, even the props and the shafts. Ever been on an overnight fishing trip and heard that clang of metal beneath the boat, or on the swim platform? Surprise! One might think twice about that midnight skinny dip next time!
   Photo opportunities were tough through the bars of the cage, so another diver and I ventured outside for some better shots. I can tell you that the prickly, Velcro-like feel of a row of teeth gently investigating your wetsuit is not pleasurable, so we quickly dissuaded any curious animals before they gave us the "what's this made of" test.
   ethanblue3.jpg (5878 bytes)Just for added excitement, Charlie threw in a half of a blue fish attached to a rope. The idea was to have a shark bite onto it and be dragged right past the cage for some additional action (no hooks involved, just hunger). As a fisherman, I found the sharks' reaction to the additional bait fascinating. What I noticed was this: When there were just a few sharks around, they were fairly timid about grabbing the blue fish bait. They made several close passes, bumped it with their nose, or gently bit it and then let go. Although they were more timid with the larger bait, they had no qualms about chowing down the small chunks of chum that floated by.
   Things really changed when a number of additional sharks showed up on the scene. Competition for the bait became a problem. When the blue fish hit the water, the sharks bit at one another in an attempt to get it first. A street fight erupted! Those of us, stupid enough not to have retreated to the safety of the cage, were caught in the middle of the frenzy. Contrary to what one might think, the sharks weren't interested in us as food, but even more dangerous, we were perceived as fellow competitors! Cautiously we backed away from the action and into the protection of the cage.
   From the cage we watched as the sharks continued their ferocious show. They continued to fight one another for the small amount of food that was available, but despite that, none of them were injured. What seemed to have left more of a permanent scar on these animals was their previous encounters with man.
   I know that among both fishermen and scuba divers the want for good conservation is prevalent and the vast majority of sportsman these days practice what they preach, but what I saw while shark diving was disheartening. Stainless steel hooks and leaders trailed from many of the sharks' mouths. They will never come out. Others showed the unmistakable slash of a machete in the corner of their mouths, but worst of all, several of the sharks had bullet wounds! I wondered what kind of a sportsman would slash or shoot a shark to save a hook when they're so easy to remove using one of many safe tools available today. How many countless creatures were simply wasted?
   It would be nice if everyone, especially those who fish for sharks, could give shark diving a try. As with all game fish it is important to appreciate the true nature of these oceanic beauties. Maybe then, people will be more likely to shoot a shark with a camera, rather than a gun.
   Outside of the cage, the action slowly died down as the bait stopped flowing. The sharks became less and less interested, yet a few maintained their vigilant patrol of the chum slick. With no film left, and air running low, it was time to leave the cage. The few remaining sharks paid little attention to us as we swam back to the boat. Had we earned their respect? Probably not, but they had sure earned ours.
   Once back on board Charlie asked, "So how was it?" His confidence beamed. "Did you see any sharks?!!"

Please visit Ethan's web site for information on his world class underwater photography and Fine Art Prints.

Side Note:

   In 1997, Charlie tagged more than 1700 sharks, and of those tagged, 11 tags have been returned. All of the sharks had been caught by commercial fishing boats that are now targeting sharks. Charlie's tags have turned up in the Azores, Venezuela, Cuba, and Africa. One of the tags from Africa was recovered 2500 miles away and only 103 days from the time it was tagged. That averages 25 miles a day, assuming the shark left Rhode Island the day it was tagged and arrived in Africa the day it was caught. That also assumes the shark swam a direct path. This only helps to emphasize that what happens to the oceans locally affects the planet globally. Only quick reform here in our own waters and quick and decisive pressure on those who mercilessly deplete all fisheries overseas can help. If we do nothing, we will have nothing. Recreational fishermen and sportsmen represent a large number of voters, please be vocal about your views and maybe something will change for the better.

1998 Ethan Gordon

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