Covering a multitude of events, ranging from a third and final sawfish excursion to the first time teaching a shark conservation specialty course.
March 06, 2019
THE SAWFISH DIVE
Ten dives and fifteen days after the last sawfish expedition, I am once again back aboard the dive boat preparing to lead a final trip out to see them. My requests had been heard and we would only be putting in a total of ten divers.
The sea conditions were favorable, with less than 2ft on the forecast. I briefed the dive, once again explaining both the unexpected behavior of the sawfish and the expected behavior of the divers so not to startle the skittish animal.
Moments after our splash in, we were visited by yet another great hammerhead!! Curious to our activities, the hammer showed itself briefly before turning away into the murky haze that rested beyond our 35 feet scope of visibility. As quickly as it had come into view, the 10-12ft apex predator was now gone from sight.
As I briefly detailed in the previous sawfish story, hammerheads are experts of avoiding detection. Not that us humans are particularly well equipped to hear sounds underwater, none the less, the overlapping and teeth-like meshing that covers their skin called dermal denticles allows the shark to move freely in the water without making a sound. This adapted evolutionary feature is also what gives shark skin that sandpaper-like feel. Similar to an owl, it allows the shark to advance in close to their prey without any warning.
Despite the excitement felt from seeing a majestic predator such as this, we had to do our best to control the electrical output we were discharging into the water. The animals are very receptive to these disturbances and it, along with the sounds of our grouped together bubbles, pose a similar level of necessary evolution: avoiding detection!
The visibility was back to what would be expected for this area and made for a challenging time locating landmarks. As I read the bottom topography, looking for any signs, we approached the spot where we often see them. No signs of the sawfish.
However, once again the hammerhead made another pass by, swimming in front of the group and then back up to recede into the sun-filled haze lingering atop the ledge. It was certainly curious to our doings there, but was not sticking around for very long. It would go on to make two more passes, the final being very close and perfectly poised as its broad, arching body went before a bated and ready cameraman. Even with its close proximity, it was a stretch of a shot to gain adequate focus and detail. Given the current light and conditions for the day, it was the best pass one could hope for.
We returned to the surface, still elated from the dive. It’s a different kind of fun having a mission such as this. My mind is fixed to the substrate along the bottom, searching for depressions, looking for sudden movements in the distance, strictly moderating divers behavior and then ensuring when the time is right, that they are all in good position to get a glimpse of something as miraculous as a smalltooth sawfish. It’s a new avenue and my adventurous spirit pours into activities like this.
I switched gears to simply relaxing and exploring the dive site in a less focussed manner. Something from the corner of my eye caught my attention...
Having felt like this spot had run dry for encounters (although I would get back in just to see that hammerhead again!) we moved to a nearby location that too also boasts a high probability for seeing sawfish. Very similar in its profile, not much would change. During the dive, I followed a couple of long, rubbly fingers out in search of them. As I backtracked my way in, I noticed an obvious sawfish depression in the sand. It was quite wide, very long and the thickness of where the rostrum had indented was quite impressive. It truly meant we were in the right place just not in synch for timing.
I always reserve a little vestige of hope to find something in the eleventh hour, but my senses were telling me the “event” was over. I switched gears to simply relaxing and exploring the dive site in a less focussed manner. Something from the corner of my eye caught my attention. It looked like a piece of garbage lying on the ocean floor.
I gently swam over to it, to be surprised that it was not a piece of plastic but a pale turtle shell reflecting in the sunlight. I cocked my head to the side as I studied this animal I’d never seen before. It had a blue-gray tint to its carapace and skin. The flippers were flattened, elongated and stuck out from the body at an angle I’d never noticed on other turtles. The shell lacked definition, but had also slightly upturned edges. From the angle I was floating at, I was able to view its head pinned beneath the rock it was resting under. It was narrow with a pointed, bird-like beak and a very white, fleshy underside. I got the other diver over to look at it and he carefully hovered above gathering a few photos without disturbing it in the slightest. I noticed it had a tag on its flipper and hoped some of the photos would be able to reveal those identifying numbers. We both looked at each other in amazement as he too thought we were looking at something possibly rare and uncommon in the turtle species.
For the remainder of the dive I had been churning the words through my head. Upon surfacing, I was finally able to utter the question, "Did we just see a Kemp's Ridley? The rarest of all sea turtle species??"
Kemps Ridley migrate across the world to nest on a single beach in the Gulf of Mexico in an event known called arribada or arrival. Sure enough we had and were grinning ear to ear at this amazing and possibly once in a lifetime occurrence. Something about finding this totally rare and unexpected turtle sleeping peacefully along the dive was nourishing to our fascination with the sport. It spells out clearly the magic and mystery of the ocean. And despite not seeing sawfish, finding traces of them was exciting enough. I should note, that after reaching out to my pal with the camera, he had the unfortunate mischance of putting in a corrupted data card and no pictures from the day were obtained. You can all say now, "No photo? Didn't happen!" Hah!
THE SHARK CONSERVATION CLASS
The dives for Friday may have been complete, but my day was far from over. I returned to the dive store later that evening and conducted a 2.5 hour long lecture/discussion for my first ever go at teaching the Project Aware’s Shark Conservation Specialty course.
The hand selected group of divers admiration and enthusiasm towards sharks took the discussion into some really interesting avenues and was primarily responsible for filling up the extra hour of class time. In addition to the materials provided by Project Aware, which covers the plight of sharks across the globe due to overfishing and habitat loss, I spent the past three months dedicating my time towards creating an entirely new, specialized and local-orientated presentation that instead focused heavily on the sensory functions of sharks, what to do when encountering a shark, the signs of aggressive shark behaviors and twenty different shark specie profiles. It too went into the aspect of shark conservation by explaining what the marketability of each shark is and whether it can be harvested locally or not. It received a round of applause afterwards and I was glad to assist in the education and awareness of my favorite underwater animal. Sorry dolphins, you just lack the teeth to compete.
At the end of the presentation, I spoke briefly about what the following day’s dive objectives would be, but by now it was alreayd 2100 and despite the excitement, we were all ready to get our rest for the morning departure.
THE SHARK DIVE REDUX
The last time I’d been on this dive charter was ironically when I had scheduled a trip with some close pals for my Farewell Florida dive tour. The six of us (you know who you are) all ventured out to a site called, Hole in the Wall before I took off to South America for a yearlong backpacking trip in October of 2015.
At the time it was not only my 300th dive, but also my deepest, reaching a max depth of 139 feet as we swam through the feature the site was named for. I’ll forever remember these images in my mind as we swam above the ledge looking for the sign of the hole: a pile of Goliath groupers sitting outside its entrance. We dove down, rapidly shaving time from our no-decompression limits and as we approached the entrance to the rocky swim through, we were met with more goliaths waiting from within the cavernous insides. The whole pass through was brimming with schools of fish. I pushed my way in, keeping to the top of the cavern as I saw the final minutes of no-deco show up on the dive watch. I rise up and exit out of the hole, returning into the hundred feet of visibility water and make my way back up to the surface grinning and heart racing from the thrilling adventure.
Now, after 3 1/2 years and 260 dives later, it was March of 2019 and I was back in the water, drifting along the ledge towards that same spot. There were hundreds of boats fishing the ledge and I instructed everyone to stay as a group to ensure we would remain safe and make the time up top for the captain as comfortable as possible. He would have the challenging task of tracking us as we drifted along underwater.
We were immediately met with the tantalizing image of bull sharks swimming casually above the ledge, fifty feet below us. We would stay in a suspended drift at 100’, while the ledge remained at depths of 130-150’. The bull sharks begun to take notice of us and ventured their way up, but dropped back down shortly after they realized we were not the divers coming with handouts. We may have encountered six to eight bull sharks in total. Some, towards the end of the dive, were coming right up to us during our different staged stops. I staggered different safety stops at 70’, 50’ and 20’ to decompress and off-gas the densely loaded nitrogen.
Everyone did perfectly during the dive and we were joined by a few shark suckers (Echeneis naucrates) on our final safety stop. They are interesting to watch, but can also be pesky and are known to nip at divers legs when sneaking up from behind. For the marine animals the echeneidae family of species do attach themselves to, it's possible their persistent sucking can cause skin lesions and also infections.
Here is a photo of a dolphin that may or may not had lesions caused by the attachment of a remora (Remora remora). It's undetermined if the remora causes this irritation or if the remoras are simply drawn to an irritated area that has been caused by something else. We're unable to ID remoras, but certain dolphins have been flanked by an attached remora for multiple years.
After coming to the surface and seeing the volume of boats, I could sense the captain did not have as enjoyable of a 50 minutes as we did. To his relief, I said lets go inshore and get away from this mess. I considered going to the Wreck Trek as it too boasts a multitude of species and had been getting sightings of tiger sharks lately, but it was occupied by another operation. So, we jumped one step further inshore and went to another one of my favorite sharky sites called, Tunnels. When Tunnels is on, it can be one of the most exciting dives in Jupiter. Sure enough, that’d be the case today. I back-rolled in and found myself surrounded by crystal clear blue water. Nearly double what we had on the deep ledge, the visibility here was pushing a hundred feet and activity was buzzing all over the site.
We encountered a cavernous underside to the ledge that was temporarily housing four rambunctious nurse sharks. Their tails could be seen curling out from underneath and they were shifting side to side, making room for their thick selves. Another cavern held two goliath groupers and two adult loggerhead sea turtles. We saw two stingrays side by side out in the sand and Caribbean reef sharks were dancing all over the place, zipping by every time we’d pull our head out from peering into one of the cavernous ledges. I noticed a shimmer of fish on top of the reef and made my way over carefully to find out it was a multiple-hundred wall of schooling kingfish (referred to as snakes while in this juvenile stage).
I could tell the divers were through the roof with excitement. It was a huge success and all of our shark encounters were un-baited and of totally natural behaviors. I could not have mastered a better course outline than to see what all we saw. Okay, maybe a few more shark species, but the objective was certainly obtained!!
THE WILD DOLPHIN EVENT
If that wasn’t enough fun and excitement, I quickly left the docks to get cleaned up for the Wild Dolphin Project’s annual, Wild Ocean Sciences event. I was at the location early to help with the event setup and then as the crowds started to roll in passed out goodie bags from the doorway. I enjoyed schmoozing with all the guests, but most of all, seeing my pals from the dolphin boat livens my spirits like no other. I realized I am in a tailspin countdown awaiting that day of the first trips' departure!
The guest speaker was Brian Skerry, a prominent photographer and cover story artist for NatGeo. His hour long lecture was truly remarkable and took us through the various stories that he created through the use of images. It was well-rounded in that it didn’t just expose us to amazing animal encounters in remote and magical places, but it showed the pressures put on these animals. It didn’t stop there, he conveyed the actions that can become the solutions to these problems. He said its a very unique time when we can both site the problem and the solution to it, while also having the capacity to carry it out, should enough action and force get behind the cause. It cemented in my mind of being a proponent of ocean awareness and eduction.
I couldn’t have been more proud of the staff that assembled this amazing event. It had over 300 guests and I think we’re nearing capacity on almost all of this years summer trips, which is a huge achievement for the project. That’s a major component of their sales and also outreach into the community. Not to mention the advancements to the data and research coming from the longest underwater dolphin study organization.
THE WILD DOLPHIN VIP CRUISE
As a thank you to the sponsors that contributed to the project, we had brought Stenella up to Old Port Cove to take passengers on a VIP cruise along the local waterways. After docking the first trip, an unexpected wind blasted over the barrier island and smacked us with a steady 20kt breeze. It did not relinquish its presence. Given we were only cruising around the intracoastal waterways, this was no issue, but made me nervous for my dive trip the following day. Everyone had a grand ol’ time as I like to always say, "Any day spent on water is a good one!"
Here’s to more educational classes in the future, more shark encounters, heading towards summer and of course, awaiting those magical cetacean creatures! Kisses!