|ACTION Mounted Fish Taxidermy, can I help you a voice answered. Yes, hello, I replied. I was wondering whether I could get some fish waste off you - I need it to attract some sharks that Id like to photograph.|
Which ones are ye after, mate Makos? You're not jumping in the water with them, are ye
Oh, no no....! I lied, for thats exactly what I had in mind.
I was full of enthusiasm and confidence after sailing back from Fiji, where I had been hand-feeding and photographing reef sharks. Mako sharks had fascinated me long before I started diving, largely due to the mystical ring of their name. Was it of Maori origin, or was it just a corruption of the English word, mackerel
The Isuridae family, or mackerel sharks, include the porbeagle and the great white. Some consider the mako to be the little brother of the great white, but I prefer to call it the pretty little sister. To quote Richard Elliss book of sharks: [The mako] is probably the most graceful of all sharks, the most beautifully proportioned, the fastest, the most strikingly coloured, the most spectacular game fish, and one of the meanest looking animals on earth.
For me, this was more than enough reason to seek out and capture this magnificent creature on film. Little did I know what a complex project I was letting myself in for.
Equipped with little more than my enthusiasm and a couple of berley bombs (2-litre plastic milk bottles filled with I-dont-want-to-know-what and sold commercially to attract fish for anglers), I choose a calm and sunny day to go out in my little yacht to look for makos.
I had dived in New Zealand extensively, but the only shark I had ever encountered was a little carpet shark. I decided to start five miles off the nearest rock. I cut the engine, rigged the spinnaker pole to the side of the boat and hung the berley bombs with some bonito bait to the end of it.
I settled in for a quiet day at sea with a cup of coffee and a book, and every now and then I checked the bait. The water was perfectly still and blue with 15m visibility, which was unusually good for New Zealand.
As I was pulling up the berley bomb that I had hung 20m deep, the silhouette of a shark came circling out off the abyss. It was cruising about 5m under the boat, but even at that depth I could tell what it was - a mako!
The size of the animal did not quite match my enormous excitement. I was jumping up and down on the deck, trying to rig a harness to a halyard so I could lean out face down and get a close shot. Meanwhile my mako was eyeing the bonito, approaching and retreating at gradually shorter intervals.
It would have been a strange sight for any passing boat - this little yacht in the middle of nowhere, with a pole sticking out of its side and a man dangling from a halyard with his nose not a metre from the surface. They would not have seen the casual sweep of the sharks head as it took the bonito in one swift gulp.
In my excitement I failed to expose a single frame. Having had its free meal, the shark floated back to where it had come from without so much as a twitch of its tail.
Then, BANG! Something had just hit the stern of the boat. I forgot that I had tied another piece of bait to the stern, and, obviously liking my swim-through restaurant, the shark was back for a second helping. This time it had caught a tooth on the rope and could not get away so quickly. This gave me enough time to race aft and pull the bait away, and I was rewarded with the most magnificent dental display imaginable.
After this first experience with the mako, I decided I needed a cage. I got hold of a sheet of mild steel mesh - the kind used to reinforce concrete - and, with the help of a DIY-minded neighbour, rolled it into a body-sized cylinder, added a floor and welded it all together. I thought I got a pretty good deal - it cost me 13 and a few cans of lager.
I decided to rig the cage to the stern so I would not be jerked up and down too much as the boat rolled. With an ingenious rope-and-pulley system I would, in theory, be able to move myself towards or away from the boat.
I went out to test the cage, not intending to attract any sharks, but I tied on a couple of bombs to see how I could control the berley flow. Immediately after entering the cage from the little duckboard of the stern I started making a mental list of improvements. My legs kept floating up, so I decided to fit some foot straps, and the flotation needed to be better balanced to stop the cage from banging around.
Then, an undulating shape in the haze broke my concentration. What joy! A little blue shark was meandering its way up the berley trail, trying to gulp every shred. It was hardly shy - it came straight up to the cage and tried to stick its nose in. Because of the rather low light level, its back had an almost purple shine. With its exaggerated long snout, pectorals and tail-lobe, it was a friendly-looking creature that would not have looked out of place in a Walt Disney film. Once the food had gone, it dawdled off, leaving me confident that I was on the right track.
I had heard that the best sharking spot was by the Ninepin, a rugged pinnacle with over 100m depth around it. After a week of foul weather, the water was turbid from the run-off and there was an unpleasant residual swell, but I had ants in my wetsuit-pants so I went anyway.
Minutes after lowering the cage, a triangular fin knifed past. I struggled into my wetsuit in record time and jumped into the cage, nearly bashing the lens of the Nikonos on the rim.
Looking backwards, the visibility was so bad that I could hardly make out the hull of the boat 3m away. Looking forward - good thing I wasnt in a drysuit - there came gliding out of the muck an enormous conical snout. A mature 2.5m mako in bad visibility, viewed from the front, looks exactly like a great white. In fact, a couple of weeks later a 4m great white was tagged at precisely the same spot.
Whereas the smaller makos have their teeth hanging out of their mouths, the bigger ones keep their mouths shut like the great white. On exceeding 2m, makos undergo a change in attitude, becoming superiorly confident and bold. Female makos mature sexually at around that size and can grow up to 4m.
The conditions were not good enough to take decent pictures so I decided it was time to make an exit. I scrambled onto the duckboard with little grace, trying hard not to dangle any of my appendages in the water.
My heart rate barely had time to slow down before I noticed two more, even larger, individuals homing in on the bait. One of the sharks tried to rip the berley bombs off. It thrashed about with half of its rear end out of the water, shaking the cage violently and almost dragging it under in the process.
I was glad I was not still down there - they were a magnificent sight, even from a dry vantage point. As soon as the water was clean of chum the sharks disappeared.
In the following weeks, my patience was stretched to the limit. I went out to look for the sharks at every opportunity but the ocean seemed void. The boat, usually well cared for, started to smell like a Taiwanese long-liner from the bait fish waiting to be used. Every time I came home I was discreetly shown to the shower, and I began to wonder what a marriage counsellor would have to say about my latest obsession.
The only shark-like behaviour I observed in all this time was displayed by the anglers, who would circle me out of curiosity, then boldly throw their lines into my berley trail. One day, when I had painfully coaxed a shy shark up to the boat, a runabout full of beer-sloshing fisherman roared past so close that I thought they had run over my shark.
Some days when the conditions where particularly good I would jump into the cage just to cool off and see what was around, and would end up spending hours in the water trying to win the battle against boredom and cold. More than once I was close to giving up.
The friendly taxidermist had given me a bag full of marlin meat that must have weighed at least 20kg. On a particularly calm day I decided to put out big chunks at 10m intervals down to 40m. I attached the deepest bait to a fishing reel - without a hook - so I would know when it was taken.
I had learned that the best sharking time was in the early morning when there were no fishing boats around. I had my leisurely breakfast and was just about to go about my business off the duckboard, when the reel started to whine. I jumped to cut the line, and seconds later a torpedo shape appeared on the surface. Caught with my pants down again, I thought, rushing for my dive gear.
I took a few handfuls of marlin and threw them aft before hopping into the cage. By now I had worked out the perfect balance for the cage and had sorted out the right gear for the job. Suddenly, a shark appeared. It did not emerge out of the blue - it was just there all of a sudden.
The visibility must have been 30m. Cruising around me, seemingly without a twitch of its tail, the mako was faster than any shark I had ever tried to photograph. But then, it was in a different league; reef sharks seem like puppies in comparison.
The mako kept vanishing and reappearing. Not knowing how close it would come, or if it would come for another round, I was snapping away as fast as I could rewind. I eventually gave up looking through the viewfinder and instead followed the shark with my eyes, trying to anticipate its next position and intercept it with the camera.
After a while, a second mako appeared on the scene and I was treated to a fine demonstration of the anti-social behaviour these creatures are reputed to have. They were chasing each other around the cage. What a spectacle! Finally the intruder seemed to prefer not to have its tail bitten off and vanished. I took the inaction as an opportunity to get back on the boat to change cameras.
Meanwhile, back in the water the original shark was becoming decidedly more aggressive, and it went straight for what it thought was the source of the delicious smell. It bit into the cage, allowing me a glance down its gullet, then shot off in frustration, never to return again.
For another hour I stared into the abyss, high on adrenalin and not feeling my limbs going numb. Later, chugging home happily, I was seriously looking forward to some relaxing reef photography.