So boarding the ship in San Diego? Nah… not really….. We leave the hotel in San Diego at 7.30pm by bus and drive to the Mexico border as the boat is a few hours south of Tijuana. Kinda ironic. We cross back over the border walking into Mexico and after the few hours bus drive we finally arrive at the ship around midnight. By now we can sleep for 24 hours after the day we had! And that is not a bad idea as the boat sails for about 36 hours before we finally get into the water……
So arriving in Guadalupe, this looks great. Blue water, clear blue skies and ready to go. The water is chummed with bloody stuff and Tuna bits and bobs. The cages are put in the water proving its safety from this fearful creature that in the eyes of public opinion is this mad eating machine attacking anything in its sight….. So here we go. It is our turn into the cage which gets lowered to 9 meters with above us floating bits of tuna. And we do not wait long for the fist Great White to make her appearance. Impressive, kinda ugly, smiling, and somehow not scary at all. Swimming very deliberately, relaxed she checks out what this is all about. Swimming in a circle, she disappeared as sudden as she arrived. Minutes pass and she reappears, she circles through the three cages hanging at 9 meters and we all take our photos and video. Once out of the water, we are told by the dive masters that this shark is named Lucy. A gentle lady with good character often posing for good pictures. Over the days following, several other sharks make an appearance and from the pictures we take, we compare them in a book at night to check if our shark is named an identified. And if we have two clear pictures (from the left side and ride side) of an unidentified shark, we can share the pics with the shark foundation and if indeed unidentified, we get to name the shark. No such thing….. All sharks we collectively take pics and video of are named. Lucy, Ropy, Penny, Droquin, Johnny, Lady Bolton and Luca Arnone make their appearances. It is fun to see and identify Great White Sharks but it dawns on me that the book has only got 229 sharks in it. A testimony how few of this great animals are still around in this part (or any part) of the world. We had no ‘new’ sharks this week and it fills me with the dreaded feeling that we are killing off these majestic creatures who took millions of years to evolve to what they are today.
And what about this fierce reputation of mindless man-eating machines? Well, I was hoping for some adrenaline rushes with the shark showing his teeth while trying to get into the cage. But nothing like that….. They are totally not interested in these bubble blowing, noisy things dressed in black…. The cages (and us in it) are ignored although we are often checked out when the shark swims close by the cage. So what about the tuna bits tied to a rope floating at the surface? I hope that the video shows that the sharks are slow, cautious and deliberate in their approach. They swing around the bait checking it out before finally approaching to take a bite. The tuna is tied to a rope and the shark wranglers on topside have the task to pull the rope when the shark moves in for the bite. For those that are in the topside cage, it is a front row seat to a shark biting a piece of tuna. Super impressive especially when the shark catches the tuna and the wrangler pulls on the other end. A tug of war ensues which is usually won by the shark! Impressive, super strong and yet composed and in total control, the shark occasionally takes off with slap of tuna!
But what I already knew from all other shark interactions, sharks are not these mad eating machines as often portrait in the sensationalising press. We had the pleasure spending time and talking to Pascal whose entire life as a Marine Biologist is dedicated to studying sharks. My next blog shares some of the learnings.
Sharks and shark behaviour
Pascal opens up with statistics and explains immediately that there is no such thing as a shark attack but that there are shark accidents. He explains that when a shark attacks prey, it aims to obliterate the target. Depending on size of shark versus prey, a shark may chose to ram its prey at high speed in an attempt to immobilise its target. You can see this in famous footage where sharks ram seals from below and throw them through the water. In doing so, the shark ensure that he can can go in for the kill later and eat the seal without fear of injuring himself. Shark incidents with people happen rarely and is not a result of an ‘attack’. We would simply never survive a shark attack. The real problem comes from sharks being inquisitive and testing what they are curious about by taking a ‘nibble’ or also labeled a ‘test bite’. You can see from my footage that baby seals do the same thing. Underwater, animals are curious about the camera, the lights and even me at times. And when seal toddlers nibble, we find it cute but if a shark did it, we call it a Shark Attack. Pascal continues and shares some (graphic) footage of shark bites and explains: “There is the ‘bite’ and then the secondary damage.” In many cases, the wounds are much larger then shark intended as the normal human reaction is to pull back your arm as an example if a shark has sunk its teeth in. Provided that you could be cool, calm and collected and you do not react, the shark likely lets go and all you have to show for it are the holes left by the teeth. The secondary damage, large open cuts or entire bits missing, comes from the jerk reaction from people, not the shark. If there was an attack, we would not live to tell the story and death would be pretty instant. That all said, I am certainly not in favour of trying the theory of letting a shark bite me and try to stay cool, but it is clear that shark do not have people on the menu, or that people are ‘attacked’ with the intent to kill and eat. But if you are a curious animal and you have no hands to touch your topic of interest, your only way to try the sensation is to put in in your mouth. And voila, we have been ‘attacked’.
So what about sharks when we are under water? How do we behave? All science and experiments have shown that sharks seem not very different from dogs and that is that you have to stand your ground and make yourself large (vertical better then horizontal). Second (and different from dogs), keep eye contact. Sharks like to surprise you as they are a very cautious animal. Having eye contact takes away their main element of surprise. And if they still come close? Push the shark gently to your side and make sure that you do not stick your arms in their mouth. So from the top of the nose or from the side. If all fails reach into the gills with your hand and squeeze hard. The breathing organs are the most sensitive and sharks attacking sharks go for each other’s gills. It dawns on me that I am happy diving with a (large) camera so that if required, I can push the shark gently to the side without the need to touch them.
So what about the people on surfboards being attacked? I was always in the believe that these ‘attacks’ are the result of mistaken identity between the silhouette of seal versus surfboard. Pascal explained that test have shown that this can not be exactly replicated and that the latest thought on surfboard attacked is still developing. All the statistics have shown that the large sharks species attacking surfers are under 4m large and it is therefore concluded that these sharks are all juveniles and have not reached adulthood yet. As to ‘why the interest', experiments have shown the sharks are likely attracted to contrasts in the water. And are these ‘attacks’? Pascal repeats that if they were serious about an attack, there would be no surfer left to tell the tale. In other words, it is again a shark’s way to satisfy its curiosity by taking a nibble or a bite out of its object of interest.