A cage dive with California’s great white sharks

Flashback (Sept. 2002)—A cold chill ran down my spine as I descended into the cold waters of the Pacific.

I may have told myself otherwise, but it had nothing to do with the 56-degree water temperature.

It was all about what lived in the water.

I was in the Farallon Islands, located off the coast of San Francisco, Ca. home of some of the largest great white sharks on the planet.

Specimens there range from 14 to 18 feet long with the occasional 20-footer making an appearance. Although in the safety of a well-crafted steel cage, I felt a sober sense of mortality while gazing into the surrounding sea.

Yes, I was frightened, but also more excited than ever.

After all, this was a dream birthed in childhood and it was now happening in real time.

Before the dive when we reached the islands after a very rough ride across the Pacific, I asked the captain if he needed any help chumming.

“Chumming?” he asked.

“Yes, putting fish oil or blood into the water to attract sharks. I do it all the time shark fishing in the Gulf of Mexico,” I replied.

“We can’t chum here. It’s illegal to chum here in the Farallons. We might start attracting sharks to people,” he said.

A bit dumbfounded, I asked, “Isn’t that the point?”

I then went into a min-lecture of how Jacques Cousteau always had a horse carcass or a huge tuna hanging overboard and that since we paid to see great whites, some chum or at least some bait would be helpful.

“Oh, we have bait. It’s in the long box at the back of the boat,” the captain said.

I quickly walked over and flung the long box open.

“There’s no bait here,” I quipped.

“There’s just a big yellow and red surfboard.”

“That’s the bait. We’re going to pull it behind the boat and the sharks will see it and think it’s a seal,” he said.

Interesting.

The first 30 minutes in the cage did nothing to change my skepticism. Other than the surfboard getting hung up on the cage while they were pulling it like a topwater plug, nothing happened so we moved and had a bite to eat while cruising over to another spot on the island.

Just as a lack sleep turned into drowsiness, the water behind the boat exploded with great fury.

A 15-foot great white grabbed the surfboard and jumped completely out of the water. It spit out the board, then circled and bumped it again. Then another shark from below rocketed out of the water and slammed the board.

I was awake now!

“That’s the coolest thing I have ever seen!,” I exclaimed.

Someone else appropriately said, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

The captain motioned for the cage to go in the water and I realized a childhood dream was coming true. The four other people who paid for the expedition opted to stay out of the cage

“Maybe they’re the smart ones,” I thought to myself while descending into cool water.

At one point while submerged, a small school of squid swam up to the cage and swam for a few minutes. Then suddenly they bolted out of the area.

I could have sworn I heard the “Jaws” theme playing as a huge dark shadow moved through the silt below the cage, obscured but obvious that it was something living and very large. When I returned the surface, the captain decided to troll with the surf board some more so the cage was lifted and board deployed.

Within a few seconds, an 18-foot 2,500-pound monster breached the surface and destroyed the surfboard. This shark had some hang time and for a moment we locked eyes.

In “Jaws”,  Capt. Quint talks about whites having dark eyes “like a dolls eyes.”

I agree.

The monster shark and I seemed to make eye contact, if only for a brief second. I could see no conscience or thought, just an instinctive drive to do what sharks do. I was in awe.

The great white shark is nature at its purest and best, no matter how ugly or cruel it might seem to us.

Living in a world where we buy our meat from a market and live in air-conditioned homes, we humans sometimes lose touch with what true survival is all about.

The great white shark embodies that better than any living creature I can think of. More profoundly, it gives us a sense of humility.

Even though mankind has conquered everything from polio to space travel, there are still things to which we are vulnerable; sometimes, we are not at the top of the food chain.

Chester Moore, Jr.

The Truth about the Blacktip Shark (Attacks and more)

My first encounter with a blacktip shark came while soaking a big hunk of cut mullet behind a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

I will never forget seeing the streamlined fish burst from the water like a wayward rocket and achieve an almost marlin-like tail walk on the sandy green surface. To my fishing hosts, this was just another annoying shark but to this young angler it was an amazing moment.

These sharks are popular and important for sport anglers on the Gulf Coast, yet they are greatly misunderstood.

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The author with a large blacktip shark caught and released near Venice, La. in Oct. 2012.

For starters, all “blacktips” are not necessarily blacktips.

Young bull sharks are sometimes mistaken for blacktips by novice anglers due to the black markings on their fins but on closer inspection, the rounded nose and bulldog like appearance of the bull is a striking contrast to the sleek blacktip.

The spinner shark however is much more difficult to differentiate from blacktips. In fact, many veteran anglers and biologists have a hard time telling the difference at first glance.

They are very similar in body shape and size and both are quite acrobatic when hooked although the spinner twists like a tornado as the name implies while blacktips do more straight jumps.

The best way to tell them apart is the anal fin on the spinner is black whereas the blacktips is not. In reality, the spinner has more black on its tips than the blacktip in most cases.

If you were to ask anglers if these species were dangerous, most would answer with a resounding “No” since they are not in the lexicon of deadly sharks.

In fact, the Discovery Channel produced a highly rated program about the top 10 most dangerous sharks and neither made the list, while both the oceanic whitetip and shortfin mako did.

Those species rank far below both the blacktip and spinner in terms of unprovoked attacks on humans according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

ISAF data show blacktips are responsible for 28 unprovoked attacks and 13 provoked attacks (think feeding, harassing, etc.). Spinners have been responsible for 15 unprovoked attacks, and one on the provoked side.

For comparison, the oceanic whitetip committed five unprovoked and three provoked attacks, while the shortfin mako dished out 8 unprovoked attacks and 15 provoked.

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Photo courtesy NOAA

In the network’s defense, its list featured numerous factors, including fatalities, size, and likelihood to encounter humans, which would obviously put species like the great white above many other known attackers, but in terms of raw attack data, blacktips and spinners deserve our respect.

They are also species humans are likely to encounter in shallow water along beaches, where anglers tote stringers of speckled trout and other sport fishes, not to mention the scores of swimmers.

It is also possible blacktips and spinners are responsible for more attacks than ISAF can accurately list.

“Positive identification of attacking sharks is very difficult, since victims rarely make adequate observations of the attacker during the ‘heat’ of the interaction,” according to George H. Burgess of ISAF.

“Tooth remains are seldom found in wounds, and diagnostic characters for many requiem sharks (including blacktips and spinners) are difficult to discern even by trained professionals.

“Realistically, almost any shark in the right size range, roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) or greater, is a potential threat to humans because, even if a bite is not intended as a directed feeding attempt on a human, the power of the jaw and tooth morphology can lead to injury.”

This does not mean you should start worrying about becoming a blacktips next meal. After all, shark attacks are rare no matter the species. However, you might want to give them a bit more respect because the statistics don’t lie.

They deserve it.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Bass Green: True color of conservation

They seemed a little out of my league.

Pictures of famous professional anglers like Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon holding beautiful, huge largemouth bass haunted my imagination. I thought the anglers I read about in the magazines were cool but those bass they held were at another level.

Those fish blew my mind.

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At this point living near the coast, my freshwater fishing was limited to a gully down the road from my house. Me and other kids in the neighborhood had amazing times there catching garfish, grinnel and bullheads.

That’s all we caught though.

I brought down Creme plastic worms and Beetle Spins I bought at the local tackle shop but the only bites came from grinnel. None of us ever caught a single bass.

One day while fishing that gully, the tide brought in purple water. And I mean solid purple.

No fish bit that day.

I found out a local factory had been dumping plastic dye into the water along with other pollutants and the oxygen levels in the system were very low. Most fish could not live there and the bayou itself was named the most polluted in Texas.

A few months later I ventured down a couple of miles from the house on my bike and came across a rice canal that pumped clean water from the Sabine River into local fields. When I crossed over the levee and saw the water I was stunned. This water was clear like the footage I saw when tv pros Jimmy Houston or Bill Dance fished Florida.

Swimming slowly along the shoreline was a largemouth bass. It was a 4-5 pounder.

April Bass Cover

It looked like Moby Dick to me.

As I pondered the amazing sight, something clicked.

This water wasn’t dingy. It certainly wasn’t purple.

It was clear.

There was lots of vegetation growing and it had bass.

“There must be something to clean water and bass.”

From that day on I made the connection between water quality and quality fisheries.

And it obviously wasn’t just me that had a similar epiphany somewhere down the line.

Just the catch-and-release ethic birthed by bass fishing alone has changed fisheries worldwide.

“There is no doubt that live release of bass during tournaments has elevated the mindful conservation of fishery resources by anglers. Before B.A.S.S. introduced the ‘Don’t Kill Your Catch'” concept in 1972, bass were filleted and donated to the local communities,” said Bassmaster Editor James Hall.

“Once the mindset of catch and release became a part of the bass fishing culture, the management of the sport fish became a priority for both angler satisfaction and tourism industry. Now, the same conservation ethic has been established with other species: walleye, redfish, etc. The angling public sees the benefit of returning fish to the water so they can be caught again.”

Hall said working in the bass fishing industry has had a profound impact on his personal views of conservation.

“Working closely with our conservation director, Gene Gilliland, as well as having relationships with fisheries biologists throughout the country, I have developed a keen interest in water quality issues. I heard about the grass carp release at Lake Austin, which destroyed a killer largemouth fishery, and it makes me sick to my stomach,” Hall said.

“The controversy between “Big Sugar” and the water quality issues they have created below Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades sets a dangerous precedent. And I see a lot of great things, as well, like B.A.S.S. Nation groups adding artificial structures to lakes to improve bass recruitment.”

Pete Gluszek of The Bass University said their organization is focusing on environmental issues because they impact everyone.

“It’s important that we utilize The Bass University platform to bring attention to issues related to the health and advancement of our fisheries,” Gluszek said.

“There are all sorts of things from storm water runoff, pollution, watershed protection and habitat development, to name just a few  that impact the resources that we depend on for great fishing.”

That includes hiring Craig Durand as their environmental director.

“I applaud Bass University’s vision and commitment to protect and improve the health of our lakes and rivers,” Durand said.

“We all live downstream, we all cherish our waters, and I look forward to supporting Bass University’s mission to improve our fisheries through education and community involvement.”

It’s a vision that virtually everyone in the bass fishing world has embraced whether they realize it or not and it has had a huge ripple effect.

I got reconnected with my personal “green” revelation a couple of years back.

I was asked to dive a private lake that had only been fished by family and inspect some of the deeper holes away from the shore.

When I approached a huge log, something moved out of the murk on the bottom into the clear water above.

It was a 10 pound class bass you can see in the clip above and when I locked eyes with it I was immediately transported back to that rice canal 30 years ago.

For some reason it looked like the exact same shade of green as the one that impacted me  so profoundly. After shooting a quick video the bass disappeared and I would be lying if I said I didn’t return and flip a jig around that log a few times-unsuccessfully.

That encounter reinforced the importance of letting such a fish grow to maturity and it also reminded me without clean water and healthy habitat no fishery whether in a private lake or in the Gulf of Mexico can be sustained.

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The author had the honor and privilege of helping the Texas Parks & Wildlife Deparment locate key areas to stock Florida bass into the very bayou that had areas uninhabitable by bass 30 years. One particular stocking involved releasing retired broodstock.

Over the years I have worked with numerous fisheries conservation projects, most notably southern flounder, but it all goes back to my first “green” encounter in a rice canal in West Orange, TX.

And with the fishing industry focused more than ever on water quality and healthy fish bag and size limits the future is bright.

Maybe it would be more proper to say the future is bright green or better yet “bass green”, the true color of conservation.

Chester Moore, Jr.

NMFS Sea Turtle Facility

Yesterday our journey through the “Wild Gulf”-our summer long quest to raise awareness to wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico paid a visit to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sea turtle facility at Galveston, TX.

Since 1978, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been participating in an international Sea Turtle recovery program. Currently the NMFS Galveston Sea Turtle Facility is participating in a variety of projects including injured and sick turtle rehabilitation, satellite tracking of wild turtles and numerous studies involving Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs).

We will post more on sea turtles later this month but for now here are some photos from yesterday.

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Kingdom Zoo’s Rachel enjoyed seeing the one-year-old loggerheads.
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Loggerheads are the most abundant sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico but that doesn’t mean their populations are healthy. They are down to around three percent of estimated historic levels.
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Erin and Abby learned what to do if they find a sea turtle stranded on a beach and were impressed with the amount of effort that goes into conserving these endangered marine reptiles.

For more information on the facility click here.

Deadly jellyfish found in Texas-Gulf waters!

One of the most dangerous of all sea creatures is the box jellyfish.

They are famously abundant in Australian waters where fatalities are reported on an annual basis.

They are also present in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Gulf, we have the four-handed box jellyfish, a species I was made aware of by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist Jerry Mambretti in 2014.

“Our gulf sampling crew caught four-handed box jellyfish, Chiropsalmus quadrumanus, a member of the class Cubozoa, in 3 separate trawl samples about 2 miles off McFaddin NWR beach,” Mambretti said at the time.

“Box jellyfish are known for the extremely potent venom produced by some species, including this species, which is normally found in the west Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. Their sting is very venomous and dangerous to humans, especially children.”

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Box jellyfish from the Caribbean. Public Domain Photo

A study by William Guest noted the species has been known to be abundant in the Matagorda Bay system in the 1950s and their presence has a lot to do with salinity levels..

“The development of a large population coincided with drought conditions and high bay salinities along the Texas Gulf coast. When bay salinities dropped considerably in 1957 the jellyfish disappeared. The jellyfish were found to be living on or near the bottom at all times and preferred areas of soft mud.”

TPWD recommends for most jellyfish stings to splash the area with salt water.

“Then apply a paste of unseasoned meat tenderizer. Don’t press the skin. The pain should go away within an hour. Regular vinegar or a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water also work to alleviate pain.”

If you think you have been stung by a box jellyfish however seek medical attention immediately. Encounters are rare but the potential for serious problems exist if you do happen to bump into one of these tiny creatures.

Chester Moore, Jr.