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.
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"
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
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