Monday, November 16, 2009

Regarding Sharks

All photos Copyright 2009 by Barry Fackler

When someone learns you are a SCUBA diver, the conversation inevitably leads to the topic of sharks. Even people who have never been near the ocean feel dread and loathing regarding sharks as well as a certain fascination. Here in Hawai'i, sharks are fairly abundant but seldom seen. Every year there are, indeed, a handful of attacks in Hawai'i. Most are non-fatal and some "attacks" are little more than a nip. Even so, swimming in the presence of something significantly bigger than you that is equipped with nearly innumerable teeth is disquieting at best.

I took these photos in July of this year at Honaunau.  Betty and I have seen Scalloped Hammerheads like this probably more than a half-dozen times at Honaunau. Usually we see them far from the Two Step out near the southern lip of the bay. This big girl was in pretty close. When I took these photos the shark was cruising right by the drop off just several yards seaward of the "ALOHA" sand patch. This is an area of significant human traffic with a near constant presence of swimmers and divers during the daylight hours.

As impressive as this hammerhead was, it didn't display any behavior that could be interpreted as threatening. As I approached it in an attempt to get better photos, it casually turned and swam slowly away fading from view within moments.

With experience and knowledge, encounters like this are exhilarating as opposed to frightening. Hammerheads like this have a pretty low incidence of attacks on humans and an almost non-existent record of attacks on SCUBA divers. They usually feed on sea floor creatures like rays, crustaceans and octopi. This is not said to minimize the shark's capacity for injury. Like a dog, any shark can bite under certain circumstances. The circumstances on this day were in my favor:

1. Excellent visibility...the shark could not mistake me for typical aquatic prey.

2. A historically non-lethal species.

3. I'm on SCUBA...hammerheads generally don't like bubbles. The photos & videos of        
schooling hammerheads usually have to be taken by freedivers.

4. The presence of many splashing snorkelers presenting much more attractive targets.

Seeing an apex predator like this in the wild is a thrill you don't forget. No other fish swims like a big shark. The movement is like a muscular and endless sine wave. The creature seems to exude confidence and self-assurance. Aside from the head, the most striking feature of this shark is it's almost absurdly tall, straight dorsal fin. At first you think your looking at an Orca!

Having said all this, I'm not always at ease with sharks. One morning I was diving Honaunau alone in low light and poor visibility when I came upon my first Tiger Shark. It was in shallow water and the shark seemed huge. I felt pretty intimidated but not panicked. I let all the air out of my BCD and settled on the bottom to see what developed. The shark gave me no notice at all and swam away in less than a minute. The whole time the shark was present, my thoughts were "go away, go away". However, once it swam off I couldn't help thinking "where are you?" Just because you can't sense the shark, doesn't mean the shark doesn't sense you.

And, therein, lies the "take home message". Probably anytime you go swimming in the ocean there is something big and well-toothed out there that is aware of your presence. Sharks have tremendous senses of smell as well as acute perception of vibration and the electrical fields that all living things produce. When you're in their realm, they have all the advantages. As such, you can choose to stay on the beach or accept the statistical evidence that the sharks prefer to ignore the hundreds of thousands of swimmers that enter the water everyday. I'm going to go diving!

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