Mission Blog: August 22, 2009
The Gift of the Sharks
By Raymond Boland, Scientist, Technical Dive Supervisor
Ray Boland conducts a fish transect while Rich Pyle inventories species at 200 foot slope at Midway Atoll. (Photo:Kelly Gleason/NOAA)
The sharks. Everyone will tell you about the sharks in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They are much more abundant up here than in the Main Hawaiian Islands. From the pesky little reef white-tips to the grandiose, put the fear of god into you, monster tiger sharks; sharks are part of the scene here on nearly every dive.
So you get used to seeing them as you roll over backwards into the water from the boat blind to whether it's actually water, a reef or some poor shark. (We've never hit one yet, reef or shark). Usually they show up on the descent, or when you first get to the bottom. At Kure we encountered four Galapagos sharks on the bottom at 187 feet at the end of my transect. There they were, posed like a rock band on an album cover, interested but cautious.
Ray Boland prepares for a 200 foot dive at Midway Atoll on his birthday. (Photo:Greg McFall/NOAA)
Today was a special day for me: I got to dive with the great fish nerd and my AME brother Dr. Richard Pyle and Tekno diver/Gas Blending Babe/Underwater Archeologist extraordinaire Dr. Kelly Gleason. The site did not hold much promise: a steep slope from about 200 feet to 185 feet. Not like the fantastic ledges and walls that we have encountered earlier on this cruise, but this type of topography has done well for my fish surveys. Of course there were sharks before we even got in the water. Galapagos sharks between 3-5 feet long. As we descended, they kept a respectful distance. On the bottom, their curiosity got the better of them and they came in for a closer look.
There were quite a bit. At one point I counted about 20 within visual range (vis on the bottom was about 70 feet.) I got one survey in while Kelly shot photos and Rich made mental notes about the various species. Overall the bottom was not extraordinary but a good data point. After 20 minutes we owed about 50 minutes of decompression.
Kelly Gleason spends her decompression time with several visiting sharks at Midway Atoll. (Photo:Ray Boland/NOAA)
Launching our liftbags we began our ascent. The sharks came a bit closer but did not appear threatening, with 50 minutes of deco, its probably a good thing. Our support divers met us at 110 feet. There were sharks cruising in and out of visual range which had opened up to about 150 feet (thank you open ocean water). At 70 feet we saw them coming up from the bottom, all you could see were their noses and their tails swishing from side to side behind their heads, about 10 in all. No, about 15. Actually there were a few more down there behind them: 20? 30? The sharks ascended and met us, a large school that milled about us, descended, faded away and then reappeared. Their sleek bodies no larger than 5 feet gliding along. It was absolutely beautiful. The school grew and then shrank and then grew again. Rich and I started counting. At one point I counted over 60 sharks, Rich counted 84. There could have been easily over 100. Kelly photographed like a mad woman. A few times they drew too close, but an aggressive moves on their part was minimal, almost non-existent. It seemed they were trying to figure out what we were, obviously we weren't on the menu (yet) but what was going through those little shark brains: "ooo, cool what are these?" "those are funny looking sharks" "hey, why is everyone schooling over here?".
Fifty minutes later we surfaced, elated and unscathed. Well actually not unscathed, that experience will always leave a mark on my mind's eye and appreciation in my heart for the shark. They were the guests that crashed my birthday, but were the best behaved crashers I have ever had.