Oceanic Whitetip Sharks of Cat Island – Part 3

If you’re just getting here on Part 3, please go back and read Part 1 of this story first.

Rather than try to render some kind of chronological account of everything that happened, I’ll just offer some vignettes. You’ll have to forgive the delay in getting to Part 3. But I wanted to wait until some new photographs were available and they’re not available until the photographers tell me they’re available. I actually have a huge cost/ease advantage by diving without a camera, but in exchange for that, I am (quite correctly) at their mercy as regards my access to their pictures. And I need to say they’ve been very gracious about offering those to me. They spend absurd amounts of money on equipment. Then they put a ton of effort into composing and lighting the picture just right. I’m grateful for any photographic gifts they offer me.

So, courtesy of Dustin Hurlbut, here are some astonishing pictures from the trip…

The business end of an oceanic whitecap

Getting back to the boat

I said in Part 1 that they warned us to keep our masks in the water when we kicked back to the boat. The first time I saw a group of divers go back to the boat, I learned why. Our dives were all quite shallow (basically nobody went below 40′ and I was above 30′ the whole time) so dive times ran upwards of 90 minutes. Anyway, our group of four Italian divers (lovely people, all) were the first to wave good-bye to the divemaster on the first dive of the trip. He indicated the direction they should go and off they went. The idea is that they would kick out away from the buoy holding the bait box, then surface. The boat would spot them and come get them.

Well, as soon as they headed for the surface and started kicking along the surface, two or three whitetips peeled away from the bait box and started following our divers. Closely. There was no incident and there never was an incident during the week, but it was startling to see how immediately the sharks would abandon the bait box and chum to see if that commotion of people up on the surface was potentially serious food.

Sharks and divers everywhere

From my perspective, it was kind of a game. I’d go to the surface, always arranging to go with somebody (more choice of targets for the sharks :-) . Then we’d attract the boat’s attention (which occasionally took a couple of minutes). In the meantime, the sharks (it was always 2-3 of them) would come up and swim right at us – just to see what we’d do. If they came too close, one of us would kick a fin at them, which would make them swim away. Briefly. We’d make it to the ladder of the boat and they’d be right behind us, just swimming back and forth across the stern of the boat (“You’re really getting out of the water, aren’t you?”).

Sometimes they’d start tracking you while they were on the surface. There were a couple of youngsters who liked to come zipping up out of the deep blue right at you. But they clearly had an understanding of whether you were facing them or not. It was like dealing with an aggressive dog – you just told them who was boss and it was all fine.

Except the time I pissed one off, I guess. I got a calf cramp (as will happen to divers) on the kick back to the boat. I stopped and stretched it (you pull your fin tip toward you) and basically shook myself out. I had my face out of the water for maybe 5-10 seconds. Later on the boat, Dustin comes up to me laughing.

“Man you pissed one shark off.”

“Huh?”

“You were the one with the leg cramp up on the surface, right?”

“Yeah, that was me.”

“So, when you straightened out your leg, you conked a shark right on the head. He swam down a few feet and dropped into a threat display [severely dropped pectorals, arched back] then swam back up toward you. He just wanted you to know he wasn’t happy with the way you treated him.”

“I didn’t even know oceanic whitetips do a threat display.”

“Neither did I – sure wish I coulda gotten a picture of it.”

Getting close

Being an underwater photographer is hard. Aside all the other problems, you have water between you and your subject. Any significant amount of water reduces the quality of the image to unusability. So they use massively wide-angle lenses (I think 10-17mm was the favorite lens on this trip) and get incredibly close to their subject. As I described before, whenever they saw a piece of fish chum floating in the water, they’d dash over to it because they knew that within a few seconds, some shark was going to dash in too.

I named this one "Left Hook" for obvious reasons

They did have a slight aid in that the electronics in their cameras and (particularly) their underwater strobes created RF fields that attracted the sharks. So sharks would often swim right up to the photographers, trying to understand why their Ampullae of Lorenzini were saying “food” while the rest of their senses weren’t. The result was often a shark nosing around literally within inches (or against) the dome port of a photographer’s camera housing, while the shooter giggled into his/her regulator and fired images as fast as the strobe would recycle.

Andy has white strobe filters that hang from the strobe housing – he can use them to diffuse the light from the strobes if he wishes. What we noticed early on was that the sharks were attracted to those filters, dangling from the strobe housing. I mean, they looked just like, oh, a piece of fish such as was being thrown into the water. So the shark would see a small white object, sense RF field, and go over to check it out. Right into the sweet spot of Andy’s lens. That’s why he’s a pro shooter and trip leader.

It also created a number of amusing pas de deux between a shark and photographer. The shark would nose in on the camera and the photographer would be like, “I want you, like, 18″ away” and try to back up that distance. Shark: “No no – wanna see what the buzzing is about” and push in close. Photographer: “Here, I push you back 18″ and quick take shot.” Shark: “Wanna see what that buzzing about…”

Keeping track

We never had fewer than 7-8 whitetips in the water on any dive. Sometimes it was easy to tell where they were – particularly when they went after freshly tossed chum. But between “feedings”, they’d just cruise around the divers, waiting for something to happen. You’d be watching one or two, and then think to yourself “You know, Beto waved seven fingers earlier. I see… 4… 5… sharks…”. You’d turn around [1] and “Hello!” there’s a shark cruising right behind you. Or over your head. I don’t know how many times I randomly twirled 180 degrees to see nothing but brown shark-body passing me. I could literally count the sea lice and read the tag number that some ichthyologist had stuck on the animal.

The big lesson

Oddly, the most powerful moment on the trip didn’t come underwater and had nothing to do with sharks. We were at breakfast on the second or third day and somebody noticed that Dustin was making bacon sandwiches, putting them in baggies, and into his backpack to go onto the boat. This despite the fact that they sent lunch with us each day. A question was asked and Andy, the trip leader, said “Dustin – why don’t you tell them your story.” Seems that Andy had hosted Dustin on previous trips and knew about this…

Multiple decades ago, Dustin was on a military helicopter that flew into the side of a mountain in the American Pacific Northwest. Seven people were onboard; two survived, Dustin was one of them. He went through the windshield and was extremely lucky in his trajectory and where and how he landed. But he was still unable to move. He went without food or water for three days. On the third day, when he knew he was going to die and had gotten comfortable with that idea, a mountain climber found him. The climber was in an area where people rarely go, in a season they rarely go. The military search choppers looking for him flew right over earlier but couldn’t see him (or the wreckage) because of the cloud cover.

Not too long after that, during a lull on the boat, I asked Dustin, “So, what do you know that we don’t?” “Every day is awesome. I feel that every day I get is a bonus.” Dustin isn’t the type to say carpe diem, but that was both his message and the way he lives. As I said, he was always the first one in the water and the last one out, and you just got the sense that the normal nuisances of life don’t get to Dustin very much.

That was my big lesson for the week.

The last day, I was one of the first ones ready to get in (Dustin was already in the water, of course). I was on the port swim step and divemaster Charlotte said, “You ready?” I looked over to the starboard swim step where divemaster Beto was about to go in; “Beto! Listo?” “Listo – ¬°Vamanos!“, and we were in the water.

The bubbles cleared and two exquisite Oceanic Whitetip Sharks swam up to greet me. Dustin is right; every day is awesome.

Amazing view

[Note: that's me, bottom left. I'm probably only 10-15 feet from the sharks, but the wide angle lens distorts distances and sizes]

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[1] There’s a very natural and easy “rotate about your center of gravity” maneuver you can do on scuba if you’re hanging upright in the water. You basically kick one fin forward and the other back – you twirl like a ballerina.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Nolan,
    I’m so glad you got to cross this off your bucket list. I loved your blog. Your writing is compelling and makes the reader feel like she is there with you.
    Hugs,
    Linda Johnson

  2. Mariana says

    Las fotos de los tiburones son hermosas!

    Amazing adventure, great story and a very important lesson. Thank you for sharing it :)

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