Shark
Shark crossing, but Chris Harvey-Clark spends as little time at the surface as possible.

 ENJOY WARM, CLEAR BLUE WATER and friendly fish as much as the next guy. As for many drysuit-clad, gear-laden northern divers, come January the Caribbean beckons. I put down my snow shovel and, once there, cant be shifted from that fabulous warm, clear water.
Thats one reason why, sitting on a floating dock in June with my fins dangling in black, freezing sub-Arctic water in Canadas Gulf of St Lawrence, I feel a tad apprehensive.
The other reason for my nervousness is Somniosus microcephalus, the Greenland shark. Right under my fins, somewhere in that crappy 3m visibility, I know that a couple of huge, spooky, nightmare-visaged sharks are cruising around.
I know this because my French-Canadian colleague and volunteer diver Alain Simard turned on the 3D depth-sounder as we steamed into a narrow fjord-like bay on the north shore of the
St Lawrence River. Following the shoreline in about 9m of water, our boat the Quebec Waters passed over two Greenland sharks, their 3m bulk showing clearly on the screen.
We could even see their long, thick tail-fins on the LCD as they cruised the bottom of Baie St Pancrace, near Baie Comeau in northern Quebec. Now its time to try to find those sharks for ourselves, in water the colour of coffee.
Through thickly gloved hands I can feel my housed video camera equipped with a laser measurement system, part of our research project to identify and measure these sharks. In Alains capable hands is a 2m pole spear tipped with a breakaway point attached to an acoustic telemetry tag the size of a cigar.
What makes diving with Greenland sharks so compelling After you have seen them once, these majestic, eerie sharks have a way of swimming through your dreams at night.
Perhaps it is everything we dont know about such huge, stealthy creatures that captures both the conscious and subconscious mind.
Questions occur as you descend into their murky world, questions any schoolkid would ask about a completely unknown shark. How old do they get, where do they spend their time, how do they breed And will they eat us
The real tension in diving with these mysterious animals is this - are they predator or scavenger

GREENLAND SHARKS ARE KNOWN from 19th-century accounts of early Arctic whalers as voracious scavengers of marine mammal carcasses. As
a researcher, I have looked in the stomachs of these creatures and found virtually every animal species in their ecosystem, from crabs to fish to seal.
The stomach contents of a 250kg shark can weigh 50kg.
They will eat anything, and relish dead marine mammals, which their giant nostrils and souped-up olfactory system can track from miles away. And their jaws are formidable, a giant, razor-sharp ice-cream scoop that can carve a 5kg bowl-shaped chunk from the flanks of a whale in seconds.
We approach these animals with caution on their own turf, and our research group, the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group, has developed methods of diving and conducting research to maximise diver safety.
Avoiding splashes and ripples, we slip off the dock from a seated position, using the low-energy water-entry technique, and drop fast to the 12m bottom, circling as we descend. With poor viz the rule in this region, scanning 360 above, below and around in a virtual sphere to avoid a shark surprise is standard practice.
At 9m we break through the brackish surface water and enter green water, colder, more saline and slightly clearer, with perhaps 4m of lateral visibility, and almost no light, due to the filtering effects of the dark upper water layer.
We check lights and cameras, adjust the buoyancy balance between drysuits and BCs, move 3m off the bottom and head out of the bay on a bearing to scan a standard grid pattern for sharks. We call this running a transect.
On the outbound transect, we spot an acoustic receiver about the size of a Thermos flask that we tethered to the floor last year to monitor shark movements. The bottom is sandy and devoid of fish but littered with shells, plumose anemones, sand dollars and the occasional snow crab.
Swimming slowly along, the combination of murky water and imagination tricks the eye. A long, ghostly shadow materialises and, heart starting to pound, I steer towards it.
Its a rock. My heart rate slows and I move back into line with my partner.
Twelve minutes in, I take a 10-second break from scanning the murk to check my computer. Water temperature is 4C and depth is 23m.
I look up, directly into the right eye of a huge Greenland shark passing a metre away, and already turning.
HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN I have been diving with and studying these animals for four years, and they still have an uncanny ability to get way too close to me before I see them.
Heart thumping, I signal Alain. He saw the shark at the same moment as I did, and is already turning in pursuit.
It may seem a little crazy to be pursuing a 3.5m shark that weighs 300kg and may be stalking you. Being human bait for these sharks has been a learning experience. We have learned to stay close to them, because they will move out of visibility, then circle back to investigate you from another angle.
They have no problem finding you in zero viz, as I learned in a frightening encounter two years ago.
It is common to see the same shark multiple times throughout a dive and on the same day. They have different personalities, too. Some are mellow and swim slowly along at speeds of 20cm per second, seemingly oblivious, while others head rapidly for deep water.
Occasionally, one will turn into your path in a game of underwater chicken that can have only one winner.
Generally we find sharks near the bottom - but just when you let your guard down, you run into one cruising in midwater, or see one follow a diver to the surface.

FOR A MOSTLY DEEP-SEA SHARK found to depths of 2800m, Greenland sharks appear comfortable in shallow water, and we have at least one account of one meeting a diver in only 2m.
Nothing is predictable about these animals. We frequently see the same sharks travelling in groups, and sharks of both sexes stay together, often following one another closely.
As many as 11 individuals have been seen on a single transect dive.
There are numerous persistent scars on the sharks, especially on the tails, flanks and pectoral fins of females, which makes us wonder if these mysterious giants are indulging in
a little rough love play. Yet most of the sharks are not yet sexually mature, something that occurs at very large size (more than 4m for females).
Greenland sharks off Baffin Island in the high Arctic suffer from a strange crustacean parasite called a copepod that attaches to the cornea of the eye, effectively blinding them. Thousands
of the Arctic sharks have been examined and, in that region, the infection rate is close to 100%.
Intriguingly, few of the St Lawrence sharks are infected, so they appear to have some ability to see objects and divers. We wonder to what extent they rely on visually discriminating us from seals and other underwater prey.
The mysterious gathering of Greenland sharks near Baie Comeau seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. We began to see sharks here only in 2003, at a dive site that had been heavily used each summer for 30 years. Searching the local archives revealed that in the early 1930s hundreds of Greenland sharks had suddenly appeared during the construction of a large wharf nearby, perhaps attracted by the noise of pile-driving. Then they disappeared and were not seen again for 70 years.

ALAIN AND I CLOSE IN ON THE SHARK and I begin a standard sequence of videotaping the right and left side, top and bottom (for characteristic marks and scars) and the genital region.
The shark is an adult male, about 3.5m long with well-developed claspers, the paired male reproductive organs. Greenlandsare one of the biggest sharks, and can grow as long as 8m. Turning on the green lasers, I position myself parallel to the accelerating shark to get the best lateral shot possible. I lay a 28cm grid on the side of the animal that we later use to calculate size from jpeg video still images.
Alain swims behind and to the right in safety-diver position. This is necessary, because we frequently encounter other sharks while working with one animal, and I have to concentrate hard on swimming and shooting.
Then something unexpected happens. As I move close to the big males side, it reacts by braking hard with its pectoral fins, going into a bizarre head-down,
tail-up immobile posture with the pectoral fins depressed.
We have seen this odd display before, and it seems to occur when the sharks are pproached closely. It is probably agonistic behaviour - the sharks way of expressing displeasure at my proximity. I take the hint, and back off a few feet. After some 20 seconds the shark resumes a normal attitude and speeds up. These animals slow tail-beat is deceptive. Though barely moving, the huge, paddle-shaped tail, they can rapidly outstrip the fastest diver.
Alain, realising that we have only a few seconds left before the shark leaves us in the dust, moves into the tagging position, beside and above it. He plants the acoustic tag just behind the dorsal fin. There is barely a reaction, but with a slight tail-flip the shark accelerates into the murk.
We stop to catch our breath. Low on air from the gruelling work of keeping up with the shark, we follow the fjords side and swim up the slope into shallow water for a safety stop.
Paralleling the shoreline back to the entry point in 5m of water with the land to our right is standard safety practice at this site, to limit the number of zones we have to watch.
Once in a metre of water, we climb back onto the dock. This caution, an attempt to minimise time at the surface, stems from having found the hind limbs of several seals in the stomachs of Greenland sharks. The moment of most vulnerability, whether for seals or humans, is likely to be when backlit against the surface in murky water.

EXPERIENCING THIS SORT OF HIGH-ADRENALIN DIVING, feeling like both hunter and hunted, causes the sort of post-dive elation combat flyers feel after surviving a mission. We dry off, board Quebec Waters and begin the half-hour run back to port, relaxing on deck.
Skipper Sylvain Sirois was one of the first people to find the sharks here in 2003 and knows a lot about them. Jabbering in Franglais, accompanied with a lot of hand gestures, the après- dive energy and camaraderie is great.
Drysuit diving and swimming hard to keep up with sharks is the best work-out imaginable, and we slug down litres of water. Whale-watching is a side benefit of diving here, and travelling to and from the dive site we get to see numbers of marine mammals from harbour porpoise to minke whales, and occasionally blue, fin and sperm whales, as well as harbour and grey seals. Its easy to see why a predator/scavenger such as the Greenland shark makes its home in this rich region.
In Baie Comeau we unload and head for our hotel to review footage, replenish batteries, prep gear and get ready for the next days work. Baie Comeau is an industrial town of 30,000 people with a pulp mill and aluminum smelter, and has most amenities needed for visiting divers, including a dive shop and knowledgeable local charter operator.
In the evening, we gather at a local brasserie for massive home-cooked meals. Our Quebecois hosts know how to enjoy life, and this is reflected in the food and drink culture of northern Quebec. Like their ancestral French counterparts, they make great regional food such as cipaille, a kind of shepherds pie with game and herbs layered between potatoes and pastry, delicious and very filling, as well as classic French cookery such as tortiere, brochettes, onion soup, crepes and local seafood.
Wine is a staple and there is a potent local Biere Fort. This powerful (9%), sweet local brew is bottled under such scary names as Fin De Monde (End of the World ) and Dents du Diable (Devils Teeth). It deserves respect.
Every meal ends with a plate of the local cheese, especially the made-fresh-every-day squeaky cheese, like compressed curds. If its really fresh it squeaks when you bite down on a piece.
Until 2003 only a few expedition-based divers in the high Arctic had met the Greenland shark, with all the cost, uncertainty and inconvenience that goes with Arctic diving.
The Cote Nord region around Baie Comeau is an untapped coldwater divers mecca. Within a few hours drive are many superb dive sites, including the Empress of Ireland shipwreck, just across the river near Rimouski, and the superb marine life of the underwater dive park at Les Escoumins.
This site of massive submarine upwelling is a magnet for whales and one of the few places where you can watch blue whales from shore. Now, before the international dive community discovers Baie Comeau, is the time for adventurous advanced divers to enjoy this region, its rich, friendly culture, and to be among the first to meet the spooky and enigmatic Greenland shark.

  • Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group, www.geerg.ca.

  • Marine
    Marine biologist Chris Harvey-Clark took the first pictures of Greenland sharks in shallow water.
    Heading
    Heading for the dive-site aboard Quebec Waters.
    The
    The claspers show this to be a male Greenland shark.
    They
    They may appear slow-moving, but a Greenland shark can easily outpace the fastest diver.
    Divers
    Divers are required to cause as little disturbance on entry as possible.