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BIO OF ANDY MURCH

 

 

WHAT IS ELASMODIVER?

Not just Shark Pictures: Elasmodiver contains photos of sharks, skates, rays, and chimaera's from around the world. Elasmodiver began as a simple web based shark field guide to help divers find the best places to encounter the different species of sharks and rays that live in shallow water but it has slowly evolved into a much larger project containing information on all aspects of shark diving and shark photography.

There are now more than 5000 shark pictures  and sections on shark evolution, biology, and conservation. There is a large library of reviewed shark books, a constantly updated shark taxonomy page, a monster list of shark links, and deeper in the site there are numerous articles and stories about shark encounters. Elasmodiver is now so difficult to check for updates, that new information and pictures are listed on an Elasmodiver Updates Page that can be accessed here:

WHAT'S NEW?

Shark picture - green sawfish

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Shark Diving For Dummies

First published in Xray Magazine #34 (Jan 2010)

 

Shark Diving

 

Last summer, I was asked to join a week long shark tagging expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. The primary purpose of the trip was to find, photograph and satellite tag an illusive aggregation of whale sharks.

It sounded like an interesting project but the actual work was slow and monotonous. We spent most of our time staring at endless blue water while chugging along looking for shark fins. After a few days, we were all tired of getting cooked by the hot Louisiana sun, so we took a break and tied up to an oil rig to chum up some silky sharks.

Being an experienced shark diver, I happily donned my gear and slid into the circling sharks to start framing pictures. My partner Claire followed soon after and together we casually swam back and forth through the excited sharks as we have done so many times before.

At first, the sharks were inquisitive but it didnít take long for them to figure out that the black skinned animals (us) holding the small flashing animals (our cameras) were obviously not food and probably not dangerous. Once the sharks relaxed we were able to weave between them, pushing them away with gloved hands when they came too close to photograph.

The incredulous fishermen that we were working with, continued to drop fish scraps into the water and the photogenic ball of sharks slowly grew into a respectable sized swarm.

All was going well until, with a loud splash, the expedition videographer (Ulf) jumped into the fray wearing just a pair of shorts and a colorful T-shirt. All of the sharks immediately swam in his direction and he began back peddling franticly to try to get out of their way.

I wandered over and politely suggested that he climb back on deck and return once he was dressed appropriately. This he did and the rest of the shoot went swimmingly.

Ulf Ďs naÔve entrance seemed funny at the time but it could have ended badly. It got me thinking that there are some diving skills that develop naturally but when it comes to shark diving you canít just pick it up as you go along.

Unfortunately, there is no Shark Diving for Dummies book so Iíve compiled a list of ten things that every budding shark diver should consider before jumping in with a school of sharks:

 

#1, Do you homework.

Just because you donít have first hand experience doesnít mean that you canít take advantage of other peopleís. If youíre heading out with a professional shark diving operator then you can probably rely on their guidance. If youíre planning to motor out into the blue with a bucket of dead fish and a prayer then make sure you at least know what species youíre likely to encounter. Talk to local fishermen. Ask divers if they see sharks and ask them how aggressive they are. Ideally, talk to local spear fishermen. They get harassed by sharks more often than other divers do, so their advice will be invaluable. And, as melodramatic as it sounds, ask locals whether anyone has been attacked by a shark in that area. Solid information is your first line of defense.

 

#2, Dress the part.

You donít have to wear a black ninja costume to avoid a shark attack but at least get rid of obvious flashes of color or anything shiny that isnít essential. The idea is to make it easy for the sharks to tell the difference between you and the bait. Youíd be amazed how often sharks will swim up the chum slick and completely ignore the bait because something else caught their eye.

Wearing a dark suit may be best in most situations (e.g. around tropical reef sharks) but remember that the big boys are partial to marine mammals. If you think you may encounter white sharks then try not to look like a wounded fur seal. To this end, I usually wear a black wetsuit in the tropics and a bright blue drysuit when Iím chumming in areas where great whites might show up for dinner.

One of the most important shark diving accessories is a pair of dark gloves. No matter how good your diving skills are, when youíre dodging excited sharks, you sometimes have to use your hands. You donít want to be waving around exposed fingers or be wearing light colored gloves that look like pieces of fish.

Fins are also prime targets. Lately, there has been a push for brighter and more elaborate fins by dive manufacturers. Some companies are even selling fins that have fish-tail shapes on the ends. If they help you swim more efficiently Iím all for them, but they may generate more interest than you bargained for. Simple fins work just fine and donít buy the white ones unless you want to show the teeth marks to your friends after the dive. The moral of the story is: if it moves, wiggles or shakes; try to tone it down.

 

#3, Avoid erratic movements.

Its common knowledge that sharks possess a sixth (electrical) sense. Beyond this, they also have many more subtle ways to interpret their surroundings including a row of tiny hairs in a raised canal running laterally along their flanks. The sensitive hairs register tiny movements in the sharkís environment. The more abrupt the movement, the more likely they are to investigate it. Unless you want to be closely checked out, use slow, rhythmic fin strokes. Good buoyancy is also important. Crashing into the reef or struggling to stay down could generate aggression or it may work in reverse and scare away a shark that you were hoping would stick around.

 

#4, Look but donít touch.

The best way to get bitten by a shark is to touch one. It sounds obvious but a surprising amount of divers decide to break this golden rule. We are tactile creatures. It is natural for us to want to experience how things feel but it is important to resist the urge to prod, stroke or grab a passing shark. Mostly they will just move away but occasionally they react violently and reef sharks can turn on a dime no matter how rigid they look.

This goes for sleeping nurse sharks too. They can spin around and latch onto an intrusive hand so fast that the recipient wont register that it has happened until it is too late.

On the other hand, sharks sometimes like to touch too. Getting nuzzled by a gang of beefy sharks can be rather frightening until you get used to it. Sharks donít have hands so they frequently use their sensitive snouts to feel their surroundings. Getting nudged or grazed will really get your heart pounding but this behavior doesnít necessarily mean that youíre in immediate danger. The key is to pay attention to the rest of the sharkís behavior. If they begin to speed up or move in exaggerated ways then you should probably retreat to a safe distance. The difference between curiosity and animosity is subtle. When in doubt, assume the worst and leave the water.

 

#5, Stay out of the chum slick.

When hunting, sharks use their senses in a specific order. Over long distances, they use their famous sense of smell and their finely tuned ability to pick up on vibrations and audible sound. Once they are close enough their eyes take over but when they are almost upon the bait they roll their eyes back or raise their nictitating eyelid to protect their sensitive eyes from harm. During the final dash they rely on their electrical sense to home in on their prey. If youíre positioned right in their path you canít blame them (while their eyes are shut) for mistaking your arm for a fish.

Also, if youíve been holding onto the bait you will undoubtedly have picked up its scent so keep well away from the feeding event.

 

#6, Donít play dead.

From a sharkís perspective, any animal that floats at the surface is either resting, sick or dead. As sharks invariably pick on the weak and also eat carrion, they are programmed to investigate objects on the surface that may represent an easy meal. To avoid looking like a dead animal get underwater as soon as you can and stay there.

Generally, I only snorkel with sharks if they are too shy to approach while diving. If theyíre so skittish that they wonít come near your bubbles then youíre probably fine anyway.

 

#7, Scan, scan, scan.

Now that youíre underwater, upstream from the chum and dressed in your featureless black wetsuit, this isnít the time to become complacent. Keep slowly rotating so that youíre sure that no animals are approaching you from behind. Just like big cats, most sharks are stealth hunters. They are much less likely to try to sneak in for an inquisitive nip if they know that you have seen them.

 

#8, Watch for changes in body language.

Some attacks come with no warning at all but sharks often signal their intentions to avoid confrontations. Any shark that starts to swim fast or erratically has something on its mind. Exaggerated movements indicate that a shark feels threatened or aggravated. Among reef sharks, lowered pectoral fins, arched back and tight swimming patterns are well documented pre-attack postures. Maybe youíre crowding the bait, maybe the shark is just having a bad day, either way the best course of action is to retreat.

 

#9, Cameras create tunnel vision.

Of course you want to bring your camera; who wouldnít? But try not to become so obsessed with what is going on inside your viewfinder that you forget about all the other things Iíve discussed.

Remember that your depth perception changes as your lens gets wider. Donít swim so close with your fisheye that you invade the sharkís personal space. Your huge dome port looks a lot like a giant eyeball. You could be intimidating your subject without even knowing it.

Also, because of the electrical fields that surround them, camera strobes always get a lot of attention. Be prepared to get your strobes bitten if youíre shooting in close quarters to an excited shark. And, if a shark starts posturing DO NOT FIRE YOUR STROBES! Many shooters have incited an attack by ignoring a sharkís warning signals. Donít learn that lesson the hard way.

 

#10, Sharks are NEVER expendable.

If you feel that the only way to safely encounter a particular species is to bring along a powerhead (bang stick) or other weapon, you should not be in the water. There is no justification for killing or wounding a shark just because you want to have a fun dive. If you think that it is too dangerous to dive without a weapon then donít do it. There are cage diving operations all over the globe that can safely bring you nose to nose with the oceanís top predators.

 

One final thought, over the last decade I have photographed more than 60 species of sharks and dove with many more without being harmed. I take every available precaution to stay safe partly because the repercussions of a shark bite donít end when you get to the ER.

Before you take chances with your own safety consider the inevitable media frenzy that accompanies every scratch inflicted by a shark and how that effects the publicís perception of sharks in general. Many species are teetering on the brink of extinction. The last thing sharks need right now is more negative press.

 

Find out how you can help to protect sharks by visiting elasmodiver.com:

http://elasmodiver.com/protectingsharks.htm

 

 

Author: Andy Murch

Andy is a Photojournalist and outspoken conservationist specializing in images of sharks and rays.

 

 

 

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