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.

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.