THE MOST ELUSIVE ELASMOBRANCH
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
Next to the world famous whale shark, I don't believe there is a more elusive and mystical creature in Florida's waters than that of the smalltooth sawfish.
February 08, 2019
(Photos and videos courtesy of ascubadude)
It's a delicate balance between wanting to discover great new places and amazing animals
Today, I’d be leading an underwater expedition to a dive site of which I won't reveal too much information about in order to protect the habitat of these critically endangered species. Much like the whale shark, we can’t help but to be avid fans of this also majestic creature and want to see them, but when news surfaces that they have been spotted, boats will bare down on the animal by the dozens all hoping to get a glimpse of it for themselves. It puts pressure on the animal, and in effect, actually reduces the chances of ever seeing them again. It's a delicate balance between wanting to discover great new places and amazing animals, while not over exposing details to the public and forcing them into becoming an exploited tourist commodity.
The argument always goes, put more value on the animal or reefs to be kept alive and they will gain many decades in protection for that particular environment or specie. To put it even more simply, money talks! The value of a square kilometer of reef for the intended purpose of eco-tourism is in the millions of dollars per year and is capable of regenerating that income for many decades to come. Whereas using that same patch of reef for the sole purpose of commercially harvesting the fish that live there and using age-old tactics like dropping dynamite into the water or bottom trawling for anything and everything that can be brought up by a hook, and that same kilometer will result in a fraction of the comparable incomes (around $50,000 US). And worst of all, the reef will undoubtedly become expired before a decade is up. It seems obvious, but there are parts of the world, US included, that still adopt these age-old practices and backwards thinking mindset. The meme "learn to code" or perhaps altered to fit this scenario, "learn to dive" seems apropros here.
The main downside and in turn, responsibility, to turning that reef or animal into a protected commodity is that they will then also come under intense pressure and exposure from the tourism industry. It doesn’t take long for human involvement to register disruptions in migratory patterns, changes in mating habits, alterations to the availability and selection of natural food sources and so on and so forth. For example, whale sharks in the Baja, while heavily protected and considered sacred by UNESCO are still under intense pressures by being forced to share those ideal nesting waters with thousands of whale watching boats coming there throughout the calving season.
Why I feel its important to still go and witness sawfish, in particular, is because very little living, underwater footage of these animals exists. Unfortunately, most the concrete scientific data comes from inspecting these animals after they've already been harvested or accidentally killed as by-catch. Their long, snaggy toothed rostrum is notorious for getting entangled in fishing gear and gill nets. Not to mention they were tragically hunted to near extinction simply as a piece of wall decoration. It wasn’t until 1992 that they became protected from any sort of harvesting in Florida waters. By 2003 they were listed as endangered world wide and it took until 2006 to make it onto international policies for restrictions in their trade and consumption.
Many of the ancient coastal cultures around the world regard these species as having supernatural powers and providing protection over their mariners. Our operation, sensing this magic, has chosen to become a resource for documenting underwater behavior and providing observational evidence towards its chosen environments, feeding habits and aggregation locations. Today, we would hopefully play witness to some of that mystic lore surrounding Florida’s most undocumented and elusive native shark specie, the smalltooth sawfish or Pristis pectinata. Elasmobranch is a way to define fish that are built solely of cartilage, such as rays, sharks, skates and sawfish and also contain no swim bladder. They date as far back as 400 million years ago when the southern continents were amassed into a supercontinent called, Gondwana. After a period of rapid development, post a global, mass-extinction, the surviving members of this sub-class that we still see today are descendants of the Cretaceous time period, having existed alongside dinosaurs.
The morning began as usual, arriving at the dive facility promptly by 6 am. In the still dark hours we loaded the truck and upon glancing at the manifest, I now realized today’s trip was “billed” as going to find the sawfish. I had been out of the loop for some time, but was instantly hit with feelings of luck, joy, pride and nerves all at once. This would be my first time leading the sawfish expedition, so I was eager to go.
We prepped the boat and pulled it around to the T-head ready for passengers to board. The sun started to break through the clouds over the Jupiter inlet and one gentleman showed up early, bright eyed and gleaming. He told me he had driven from Fort Lauderdale and was brimming with enthusiasm. After finished assembling his equipment, he shared with me his camera settings that'd been adjusted for shooting distance incase the sawfish were not keen on being social with us today.
After him, a trio of Germans arrived, ready to begin their three day shark diving extravaganza. Starting the weekend off with a sawfish encounter would certainly be a good way to go. I helped them get set up as more divers continued to come down the dock. We had nine people total for the day, which is just over half-capacity. The winds were ten knots from the east and seas were expected to be a cozy two feet. The inlet looked calm and the air temp was steadily rising. Rain sat in the direction opposite to where we were going and things looked great all around.
The ride out was smooth and I started to draw on the white board our dive site, noting where it takes a turn, stretching out towards a pile of rocks. This was the area we'd anticipate seeing them. I’d certainly had enough conversation with the other expedition leaders to know it well enough from their information to then lead the dive myself. The diver from our operation (ascubadude) who had first discovered this site was on to take photographs and the captain himself has spearfished in these waters for two decades. The boatful of eager divers were in good hands for the know-how and experience to see what most of Florida has never witnessed.
The captain slowed the boat down to let me finish the briefing and I thoroughly coached people on the layout of the site, the anticipated behavior of the sawfish and much more, the expected behavior of the divers to not spook the animal. Sawfish are extremely skittish animals and we aim to have as little disturbance towards their routines as possible. Having been accustomed to the differing measurements for US and European, I explained our depths and pressures in both metric and standard, giving the bar/psi and meter/feet limits as well as the standard dive times for the area. Sitting atop the site, the water was cobalt blue, which for this region is extremely unusual. A good day would be thirty feet tops for underwater visibility and the coloration is usually that of hazy, swamp-colored green.
After I completed the briefing I tell everyone to start getting a hundred percent ready by going all the way into their wetsuits and BCD’s. I go and start putting on my layers, adding a neoprene hooded vest atop my long sleeve fleece liner. Attempting to wriggle through the taught fabric, I slipped my shoulder out of its socket for the fifth time. In November of 2017, I suffered an injury while wheeling around a tank cart and fell from a curb. Attempting to catch myself as I fell, the impact and angle of the fall caused the tendons in my shoulder to become stretched like rubber bands as the ball came out from the socket. I gave it a good recovery period, but again in the summer of 2018 it had come out again while getting knocked off balance on a staircase in rough seas. It has since popped out two other times while working on boats and today, I was minutes from jumping into the water, and injury had struck again.
I made a sound signaling to my buddy that something had gone wrong. I dropped my arm down and shot him a look like, you know what just happened. Having watched the ER doctor put it back in, I’m now accustomed to what move needs to occur. I hold the arm at a ninety degree angle and use the elbow like a fulcrum to swing the wrist outward. It just rotates itself back in, but has a bit of soreness depending on how aggressively it comes out or goes back in. I turn towards him, ready to coach on how to reset it and as soon as I bent and touched my elbow, it sucked back in like a magic button had been pressed. I laughingly asked him if he had seen it go in and he shook his head yes, half amused / half repulsed by witnessing the disfigured image.
I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I finish getting into my wetsuit, strap into my BCD and approach the back of the boat, gazing over everyone’s equipment making sure I saw no tell-tale signs of equipment error. We tell the captain we’re ready and he puts us over the spot like he’s done maybe a dozen times now.
Splashing into bright, shimmering blue water... The chill of the water spills down my spine. Descending, I count the divers with me. Equalize. Look down, there’s the mark. Dropping, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty feet. I see spadefish hovering in the water column. I adjust buoyancy by slowly adding small amounts of air. Is everyone together? Level off, seventy, eighty feet. The bare, striated rocks line the path for us. There’s discarded anchor lines floating loosely as the other ends of it are wrapped around rock piles. There are very few corals growing here. It appears much more rugged of a dive site than what I am used to seeing.
A tail sticking out from the rocks! Sand colored hide, a double dorsal and a long angled caudal fin. Was this it?? Divers carefully surround and start to photograph this unidentifiable object. I wasn’t sure, though. This to me looked to be the characteristics of a nurse shark. I swam around to see if I could get a glimpse of a flat, ray-like pec, but there were none. This was a ginglymostoma cirratum in its usual habitat of resting beneath a ledge. It became spooked and exited the rock, thus confirming for everyone else we had our sights set on a big female nurse.
We drift on. The group looks great. They’re off the bottom, holding the exact profile I had instructed them on and no one is racing to be the front of the pack. We’ve got a good group and should we run into them, the sawfish will be in expert company. We continue to drift for about five minutes. There’s lots of activity with schooling fish and more nurse sharks emerging from the cavernous undersides.
We approach the rock area. THERE !! Laying in the sand just ahead is our first sawtooth! Its toothy bill lifted slightly off the bottom and those big, orange, cat eyes staring right back at us. It shakes itself up from the floor bed and starts to swim slowly holding position to just a few inches from the silty bottom. It passes beneath every mesmerized diver. They all remained calm and excellent footage and lighting angles was captured by all. Its sort of like finding dolphins early on into the research trips. To have an early lead lets you sit back with a stroke of confidence that you’d done your job and passengers got what they came for. But like the dolphin project, we would never quit there. Without much delay, three more sawfish follow suit. Their heads slicing back and forth as they carve a path directly towards the congregated bunch of elated shark enthusiasts.
Their bodies so unique. I take time to study the most obvious and unique feature of this species: its long, white, conical toothed rostrum. I notice where some of the teeth have fallen out. They slash this “saw” into schools of fish stunning the fish and will then consume the meal as a ray would from the ocean bottom as their mouth is located underneath the flattened, wide-angled head.
I instantly fell in love with this animal. And from that moment of pure, heart warming joy... my heart was instantly shattered. In the trio that passed by, one had fishing tackle so tightly wrapped around its head that the skin was bulging on either side. It stopped just below me and started to turn, as if about to give the signal that it would like to receive some assistance. In the time it took me to figure out if I would be able to cut line from a ten foot sawfish it had continued on. It could have eviscerated me with a single swing of its head, but it isn’t that uncommon for marine species to come to divers for assistance in getting something life-threatening removed or untangled.
(Photos and videos courtesy of ascubadude)
Knowing this was their spot, we hung out for fifteen more minutes hoping the sawfish would return. We swam out to the west in the direction I saw them go and only one made a return visit. We angled back in towards the rocks and continued on with our dive. As the months progress, we may see upwards of thirty in this location as we believe they are possibly congregating here as part of a mating aggregation.
No more sawfish were spotted, but tons of nurse sharks and lots of very friendly turtles were seen coming up to our cameras showing us their social side. Schools of snook were seen tracking above the rocks and quite a few gag groupers swam in the water column while below them juvenile hogfish sorted through the sand.
(Photos and videos courtesy of @ascubadude)
We surfaced and all just gleamed in the glow of having nailed it on the first attempt. We would repeat the same dive, but we know it doesn’t get better than that first encounter. Generally, the animals are less spooked the second or third time they see a diver. So, chances are if they are to be found in that same spot, we could possibly get a longer encounter. We counted down the minutes on the surface snacking and sharing our thoughts on it all and then geared up to repeat the process again.
Dive in to the still blue, shimmering water...
I watch the divers splash into the water as I hang, suspended a few feet beneath the surface. We descend down to the exact same spot we dropped in on the first time. As if watching the first dive played back by a recorder, I see the same cloud of sand go up where that first nurse shark had been spotted. I drift to the front of the pack and set a slow, relaxed pace going towards the rocky outcropping. The others are hanging back, adjusting the white balances of their cameras and snapping photos of the schooling fish hanging out at the corner of the ledge. I turn to the diver next to me and am met with an even greater surprise. Passing right in front of us is a great American hammerhead! Its stout, engorged body goes within feet of him as he holds the camera steady. It had a casual and inquiring demeanor as it swims by. This great megafauna of the shark and ocean kingdom glances towards us from its specially adapted cephalofoil and then turns to the north never to be seen again.
Cephalofoil, or distinct head shape of the hammerhead, is an evolutionary adaptation thought to further enhance the sharks olfactory senses and ability to triangulate prey.
I let out a yell of excitement so loud and hard that the air released caused me to sink down into the sand. I was awestruck. Spellbound. My heart was racing and my excitement probably extended all the way up to the departing visitor. It’d been four years since I’d seen one and this moment was truly magical. Up close and personal. It was not rushed and there was no human involvement that brought it in. Complete amazement. I look to the others putting my fists to the corners of my head signaling hammerhead, but none of the other divers had near the same enthusiasm as me so I figured they hadn’t seen it. The thing with sharks is, I believe, a major component to their survival, conservation as a species and tactics for hunting are to always be avoiding detection. In my experiences, they seldom reveal themselves unless they have chosen to. Their superior sensory skill set always just keeps them on the horizon of what is detectable. So unless you’re right there looking in that fleeting moment of selected exposure, you’re none the wiser. The divers looked at me like I was crazy, so I kept it together to hopefully lead them towards a repeat encounter with the sawfish.
Having the endurance to swim in the current that most do not, I hooked off the line when we reached the rocks and swam the perimeter inspecting for signs of their traces as I went. None were in sight, but right around where I had hooked the line off, I noticed two distinct depressions in the sand very close to one another. It was facing into the current and lying exactly where we’d seen them resting at previously. As if needing further confirmation, were a clearly visible path of scrape marks in the sand about four feet from the imprint of the pectoral fins. I tap one of the Germans who was nearby to show him this and he photographs me measuring the distance between the depressions and the tip of the scrapes with my arms. The distance was as wide as my arms could go, roughly totaling about five feet in length. From pec to tail could have easily reached another additional five plus feet, thus using these rough approximations to suggest we had encountered nearly mature sawfish (max 18ft).
Calling it a wrap on this spot, we continued down the ledge. Another diver and myself continued to collect and remove any foreign objects we found laying on the sea floor. There’s plenty of loose, thick anchor line flowing in the currents, but its not nearly as impactful as jumbled fishing line and chicken wire used for chumming. I pulled from the sand a few small pieces, picked up an empty glass bottle (careful, some stuff has inhabited these objects and its better to leave than to take from an octopus its home!) and then the other diver pointed to some large, entangled refuse wedged between two large boulders. I inspected it to see if there was much life growing on it, but it was mostly clear. I carefully pulled it from the crack and clipped it to the float line as I could tell this entangling hazard weighed about ten pounds. We started to make our way to the surface drifting over gorgeous, lively, ledges filled with schooling fish.
The excitement on the boat was uncanny. As mentioned, it was an experienced group of divers, so we weren’t too over the top about it, but we all knew how fantastic those dives were. Truly memorable. We had eighty feet of maximum underwater visibility, or about sixty feet of true clarity. Mild north current and perfectly blue, seventy-four degree water. Sawfish, hammers, nurse sharks, loggerheads, snook, groupers, hogfish, amberjacks, spadefish and angelfish. It doesn’t get any better for wintertime ocean offerings in beautiful South Florida.
(Photos and videos courtesy of ascubadude)
PART TWO - A WHALE OF A REVIST
February 16, 2019
Yesterday, leading another sawfish expedition for Scuba Works, I got dealt some difficult cards with having sixteen persons on board. Six of which had never been diving from a boat before and were freshly certified.
Nothing I couldn't handle, but it took me out of the role for leading the sawfish exploratory search and instead gave all of my attention to the six new divers. Not only that, but I am very open about my concerns of putting pressure on a once nearly extinct animal by sending hordes of divers down to look at just a few fish in possible sacred nursing/mating/spawning grounds. We've since redacted our approach and will be limiting seats on these excursions. I am proud to say I work for a very environmentally conscious operation that understands its role as not inhibitors but accelerators of ocean consciousness and environmental awareness.
Despite the cards, the first dive went successful for all with the photographer group encountering multiple sawfish and I kept the new divers safe throughout the dive and back up to the surface without any issues.
While seeing sawfish whatsoever is a HUGE success, the real magic happened during our surface interval between dives. A water spray had been seen in the distance and we motored in its direction to be completely shocked! There, breaching with its head and body exposed, was a mother right whale and her newborn calf. We were in seventy feet of water, which meant they wouldn't be diving down deep. We spent the entire hour in complete amazement as they were on the surface for most that time. We got great footage of them diving in unison and even saw the calf turn to the side, angling its fluke vertical and going beneath the mother to nurse.
Later, after reporting the information to the Florida Wildlife Commission, they were able to identify the mother from the documented footage. They said it was this particular mothers first time spotted with a calf. Having no observed newborns in the year prior, this recent surge (seventh calf so far this season) is a tremendous accomplishment. With any highly migratory species it becomes extremely difficult to garner accurate and discernible scientific data beyond what is simply observed with the naked eye. FWC estimates that there are less than 500 of these whales in existence and consider a sighting to be the, "rarest of all large whales."
They are physically a huge animal. About the length of our boat (30ft) and weighing up to 70 tons. When the mother's fluke came up, it too matched the width (15ft). This was one of my best cetacean sightings ever and I was actually in a position where I would rather remain on the surface and visit with these amazing whales over going down to the bottom of the ocean and looking for one of the rarest and most elusive shark species! It was a tough position to be in, but we were there for the sawfish.
On the second dive, I was still with the newbies, and the rest of the group was able to encounter 4-5 sawfish again. I suggested we dive the site in reverse, moving north to south to allow us to cover a possible second encounter zone and use the slack current to our advantage.
As the front of the group reached that spot where the sharks dispersed as usual, this time one ventured back towards the divers there with me. I signaled shark and pointed towards it as it arched its path right in front of all of us. I was elated that my bunch of newbies got to see something as spectacular as this on their second boat dive ever! I turned around giving them all a salute, having now delivered the highest of achievable results for any given day of Florida diving.
(Photos and videos courtesy of ascubadude)