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
ANDY'S JOURNAL NOTES ON THE SMALLTOOTH
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
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
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.