I got the blues!
THE SUN IS SHINING. I’m peering into the water and suddenly I can see it – a shape that must be a blue shark is lazily moving towards the boat.
It morphs into a definite shark shape, its upper surface a dappled mix of aqua and royal blue, with hints of purple and lines of bright sunlight criss-crossing its slender body. The sunshine makes it difficult to be certain, but as I strain to look into the reflections as they come off the glassy-smooth water, I see it again.
The clumsy humans are then sent into a frenzy of kitting-up, some grabbing masks and snorkels, others with full dive-kit trying to make sure that everything is OK.
In what seemed like an eternity but was probably two minutes, I was standing on the lift of the dive-boat Wave Chieftain, waiting for the signal to jump in. A touch of apprehension crossed my mind: what if I was met by a mature 3m specimen – would I be as comfortable as I’d like?
Entering the water as noiselessly as possible (difficult) I finned away from the boat and did a quick 360. All I could see were bits of herring in the water. Had I frightened the sharks off already?
You’ll be reading this in the depths of winter, but I’m writing it back in an autumn that has been very benign, with October giving me some of the best UK diving experiences I’ve ever had.
Last summer the mainstream press often carried sensationalist reports of big sharks – “Man-Eaters Spotted off the Coast” headlines most likely being the result of confused identification of a basking shark, or even a dolphin. But interest has also been building in the presence off our shores of the charismatic blue shark.
The blue is designated “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List. Commercial fishermen in the North-east Atlantic thankfully don’t target the species, in part because of EU regulations preventing the horrific practice of finning, and I’m hoping that the post-Brexit UK Government will happily accept this sensible piece of European legislation into law.
Unfortunately, each year throughout their range many blue sharks are accidentally landed as bycatch.
The blue is a very wide-ranging fish, found in tropical as well as temperate waters. Tag studies in the Atlantic have shown that these sharks ride the Gulf Stream from the south-eastern USA to Europe, then go south before returning to the Caribbean using the North Equatorial Current.
Travelling this route only in a clockwise direction, the sexes separate, and British waters contain more females than males. The whole North Atlantic population of blues is considered to be a single entity.
ANECDOTALLY, OVER THE PAST 10 years sightings off the Cornish coast seem to have been increasing, which might be due to bycatch of other species jettisoned from trawlers providing easy pickings for the blues.
I had wanted to see some blue sharks for myself, and Nigel Hodge, who runs Wave Chieftain from Falmouth, regularly runs trips to find them. The season lasts from late June to October, and he had some spaces free in early October.
Although Nigel runs dive-trips at all levels, it’s fishing that is his first love. For a number of years before the diving community started seeking out the blues he had been running sport-angling trips to catch these beautiful creatures.
Don’t be alarmed. Nigel is very much aware of the conservation issues surrounding blue sharks, and just as interested in the success of the species as we all are.
To this end on his fishing trips the sharks are caught with non-barbed hooks, and they are tagged and released, where possible without being removed from the water.
Nigel is currently involved in a joint venture with the Scottish Shark Tagging Programme (tagsharks.com) to tag and record data on blues he comes across. There is no UK-wide research into blue sharks, something he is keen to address.
WE HAD LEFT FROM picturesque Mylor Yacht Harbour. Not having to worry about slack water for this sort of trip, Wave Chieftain could be loaded at a very civilised 8.30 for a 9am ropes-off.
As everyone was loading their own gear onto the boat, Nigel had brought several boxes of frozen herrings onboard. We would be travelling about 20 miles south of Falmouth, and did have a couple of stops on the way to try to catch some additional fish – though not very successfully as it turned out.
Snorkelling is often the best way to see the blues, and although Nigel does allow scuba, his modus operandi is that once on-site the engines are stopped so that the boat is just drifting with wind and current. Chum is then set up – he fills perforated bins with the frozen herring and positions the bins so that water surges over them with the normal movement of the boat.
Once thawed, Nigel will mash the herring up to add to the chum trail.
He also sets up an early-warning system. A number of bait-fish are tied to the end of a fishing-line, though no hooks are used.
The bait is set at a depth of about 5m with a small buoy at the surface, and the whole lot is attached to one of Nigel’s monstrous shark rod and reel combinations. It’s then a waiting game.
For participants’ safety and so that Nigel doesn’t need to start engines to pick up drifting snorkellers (potentially disturbing the chum slick) he deploys a loop of about 100m of floating rope attached to the bow and stern of Wave Chieftain. All participants have to swim, snorkel or dive within this loop, ensuring that everyone stays close to the boat.
Droplines are attached fore and aft, giving the scuba-divers a reference point and something to hold onto – after all, the water we were in was more than 80m deep!
The beauty of Nigel’s large offshore 125 is that there is room to move around, and he has all the creature comforts and provides hot lunch.
On this trip it had taken a good two hours for the sharks to materialise. The first indication that they were around had been the buzz of the ratchet on the shark-reel, as a blue took the early-warning fish snack.
NOW I WAS IN THE WATER, I decided to find a good observation point. The bright sunshine meant that looking towards the sun produced a lot of glare in the water and actually limited the visibility, a bit like driving in fog with your high beam on.
With the sun behind me, it all was so much better. As well as better visibility, the sunshine was producing beams in the water that resembled a rock band’s light-show dancing before my eyes.
Once established at the vantage point I didn’t have to wait long before a couple of blues materialised at the edge of visibility then slowly cruised past me, effortlessly gliding through the water.
They passed in a large arc, then disappeared again. After two or three minutes they were back, making the same casual swim past.
I was sure they were trying to work out where all the bits of herring were coming from – were they leading to a metaphorical shark pot of gold?
They continued to make their passes, each time a bit closer until finally a blue passed so close that I could have reached out and touched it.
Its cold eye watching me, just as I was watching it, I felt very much a visitor to its realm.
The individuals separated. One would go under me, one to the side, and they would disappear for a minute or two before returning individually or together.
On one pass a compass jellyfish was drifting past and one of the blues took a distinct detour to check it out, quickly veering away once it realised what it was.
The sharks remained onsite for a full three hours while those on the boat got in, snorkelled and dived with them, then had a break and went in again.
I was able to get out to change camera lenses, which enabled me to get some varied shots.
The trip was blessed with sunshine, light winds and good surface vis, the only essential being the light winds.
IN ADDITION TO THE BLUES , it was interesting to see numerous garfish, a barracuda-like fish, also attracted by the chum trail. They would come in and feast on the small chum particles close to the surface.
These fantastic wild creatures are there just a few miles from our coastline, and a number of Cornish dive-boats offer trips to try to find and observe blue sharks.
This experience should be on every UK diver’s bucket-list – it was a long day out but a memorable one, and I fully intend to do it again next year.
|For eight-hour shark-diving days for groups of up to 12 divers, Wave Chieftain charges £600, including hot lunch and refreshments. Overnight accommodation is available on the boat for £10 a night (it sleeps 10), with toilets, showers, laundry, secure parking, bar and restaurant nearby at Mylor Harbour. Nigel Hodge also promises some night dives with the sharks this year! www.divefalmouth.com|