DRAWING ATTENTION TO THE PLIGHT OF HIGHLY VULNERABLE SHARK AND RAY SPECIES WORLDWIDE

 

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 MALPELO SMALLTOOTH SANDTIGER SHARK EXPEDITION

In February 2012, PIP Photographer Andy Murch organized a guest expedition to Malpelo Island, Columbia. The expedition was advertised through Big Fish Expeditions; the primary funding source for all PIP Expeditions.

Isla Malpelo is a remote destination 200 miles off the coast of Panama. Although this small barren island is well populated with shallow water sharks, the specific focus of the expedition was to encounter and document the smalltooth sandtiger shark Odontaspis ferox.

The smalltooth sandtiger is considered vulnerable by the IUCN because recent evidence of shallow water aggregations in a number of areas (Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Pacific Ocean) suggests that the species may be more vulnerable to fishing pressure than previously assumed, and potentially susceptible to coastal habitat impacts as well as to over-exploitation because of its presumed very low reproductive capacity. Although this species is not specifically targeted by commercial fishing activities, it likely has very low fecundity making it susceptible to local extirpation, even at seemingly small capture rates.

 

ANDY'S JOURNAL NOTES ON THE SMALLTOOTH SANDTIGER EXPEDITION

The tropical skies are overcast. Its raining but weíre cooking in our 7mm wetsuits. There is a 5ft chop trying to throw us out of the inflatable and Iím more than ready to jump ship. Welcome to Isla Malpelo, Columbia; a barren volcanic island 200 miles southwest of Pacific Panama.
The shark diving here is intense. Hammerheads swarm like mosquitoes in the liquid sky, whitetips and occasional Galapagos sharks dart past divers and disappear into the fog. Here and there, silky shark fins cut the surface but its hard to see them today because of the white caps. It sounds like every seasoned shark diverís dream but we are not here to play with reef sharks. We have spent the last 48 hours sliding over the Eastern Pacific in a tiny catamaran because Malpelo has a deep, dark secret.
During the winter months, smalltooth sandtiger sharks which normally live down in the endless black, rise to tangible depths worth risking on scuba. Technical diving is frowned upon by the Malpelo Authorities so when I say Ďriskí I mean sneaking down on a single air tank to 220ft for the opportunity to swim beside the 12ft long behemoth cousin of the common sandtiger shark.
Some years, more than a dozen smalltooths (Odontaspis ferox) ascend to within 200ft of the surface. Other years, they donít. Arvid, our fearless Dive Master and Captain of the Inula, knows divers that have made the pilgrimage three times and still havenít seen a smalltooth. Please donít let that happen to us!
I am nervous. Itís a long way down and the currents are fierce. What if I get swept off the seamount before I get to the right depth? What if my camera floods under the increased pressure? What if I get down there and Iím too narked to shoot straight? What if the sharks are so deep that we canít reach them? And my greatest fear: what if my dive buddy Mike Powell gets the shot and I donít? Oh the pain of having to Ďlikeí all of his smalltooth sandtiger shots on Facebook; Ďgreat photo Mike!í ĎWow, you really nailed it buddyí while I quietly drown my sorrows in Panamanian rum and cry onto my keyboard. Gotta put thoughts like that out of my head. Focus!
Arvid maneuvers the inflatable into position over Bajo del Monstruo; which literally translates as Seamount of Monsters. The currents rip us away again while Arvid sloughs on his BCD and stage bottle (how come he gets a stage bottle!). He also has a strange canister strapped to his tank which I find out later contains a radio and locator incase the currents pull us so far away before we surface that the boat driver canít find us.
Arvid pulls us back to the spot and slowly counts to three; its time! Back rolling into the warm green water, I follow my routine of staring at my camera alarm light through those first critical inches and then satisfied that Iím not carrying a new goldfish bowl, I locate Arvid below me and kick head first into his bubble stream as fast as my straining ears can handle.
One hundred feet down, we punch through a vicious thermocline and look down through gin clear water on a beautiful sight. Four enormous sandtigers and milling slowly around on the sandy slope at the base of the wall. I am ecstatic!
Knowing from experience that those first precious seconds (before the sharks are spooked by the group) will probably result in my best shots, I continue kicking head first into the abyss as fast as I can, but something starts to feel terribly wrong. My ears seem like theyíre equalizing just fine but there is a strange pressure building on the right side of my head. Confused, I try equalizing harder but it doesnít help and the pain quickly approaches screaming level. Iím negative now and falling, and even through the narcosis I know thatís all kinds of bad. Against every shark diving bone in my body, I level out and start kicking up as fast as I can.
I soon rise past Mike and the rest of the group on their oblivious descent. In their collective narcosis, no one apparently notices that Iím heading the wrong way.
Back at 30m the pressure suddenly releases and I let out a mental sigh of relief and wonder if I still have time to go back down. I must be racking up a lot of nitrogen by now but its not like I can come back next week.
Descending a little slower this time, I try to gauge each sharkís angle of trajectory as they scatter from the paparazzi. Even though they rarely encounter divers, the sharks are swimming off fairly nonchalantly and I reckon that I can catch the deepest one as sheís further from the divers and not really fleeing very hard.
The combination of extreme depth and frantic kicking is taking its toll. My perception is narrowing and I know that I really shouldnít be exerting myself like this. Hell, none of us should even be down here! But we are, and with a few more kicks I am finally swimming beside a three meter Odontaspis ferox! Frame. Shoot. Frame. Shoot. Hmm dark images. I wonder why. Who cares why! Crank up the strobes. Frame. Shoot. Frame. Shoot. The world is getting very small. Nothing exists beyond this experience. There is just me and the shark. Ok thatís enough! I need to get out of here while I can. Where am I anyway? My computer says 220ft. The other flashing numbers are meaningless symbols to me through the fog of my narcosis but the insistent beeping probably isnít a good sign.
I begin kicking up the slope. The other divers are not far above me now and I join them at 100ft for our first two minute deco stop. We hang on the lip of a rocky ledge and watch the hammerheads far above us through the thermocline. It doesnít occur to me to take any pictures.
At 30ft we deploy our surface markers and start a 40 minute hang. Everyone is glued to their camera review screens. I am filled with trepidation as I scan through the sequence of images. Pictures that I barely remember taking look back at me; good pictures; maybe even great pictures! The framing is a little shaky here and there but somehow, although I could not have spelled my own name at 220ft, my camera still knew what to do.
We finally surface. We have almost drifted back to the Inula that was moored on the other side of Malpelo. Back on deck, I pull off my hood. A small trickle of blood dribbles out of my right ear. Piecing the events together, I realize that I must have had a hood squeeze during my initial descent which is why it felt so strange. A hood squeeze occurs when your hood sucks so tightly onto the outside of your ear that the water canít get in to fill the gap as the air in your outer ear shrinks in volume. Curse you Henderson for making such great fitting wetsuits! As I was able to keep equalizing my inner ears, my eardrum eventually bowed outwards beyond its breaking point and ruptured.
Being the cautious diver that I am ;) I decided to take two entire days off before jumping back in. It was painful watching everyone else disappearing in the zodiac while I sat around on the boat. Fortunately, 48 hours turned out to be enough because I was able to dive for the rest of the trip with no issues and I even joined Mike and Arvid for another smalltooth sandtiger shark encounter before we pulled anchor.
Next year Iíll be back but the smalltooth sandtigers might not be. Malpelo is plagued by illegal fishing boats and a species like Odontaspis ferox canít handle that kind of pressure. But, overfishing isnít always the issue. Some sharks are just naturally rare and smalltooth sandtigers are at the top of that list. If you make it to Malpelo, and if the weather is good enough to dive Bajo del Monstruo, and if you descend to 40m and look down through that thermocline and see large dark shadows slowly cruising over the sand, consider yourself very lucky indeed because the Monsters of Malpelo donít show up for just anyone.