Like a stingray stranded on a mud flat, I have been stuck on land for way too long. I spent the winter working in other fields to raise a shooting budget for 2010 and with that taken care of, its time to embark on a six week expedition through New England, Florida, The Bahamas and Honduras. The plan as always, is to shoot as many new species of sharks and rays as possible.
Right now I am in Rhode Island. Home to makos, blues, threshers, the occasional white shark and lots of deep sea skates. For those that don't know, skates are a type of ray and are therefore closely related to sharks. One big difference between skates and other rays is that skates lay eggs. They are also very specious. If fact, they are the largest of all shark or ray families and because most live in very deep inaccessible areas, scientists are still finding new species on a fairly regular basis.
I am particularly interested in shooting barndoor skates which Greenpeace International recently added to its Seafood Red List. Greenpeace's red list is a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries. On the other hand, NOAA recently downgraded the barndoor on its 'species of concern' scale but the continuing directed fishery and high by-catch levels make it an ever-vulnerable species.
You can't dive with deep sea skates in their natural environment unless you happen to own a research submersible. Sadly, a sub is out of my budget this year but I have a buddy named Brian Raymond who works on a fishing trawler that often plies the waters of The Georges Bank where barndoor and other skate species are fairly common.
You may think that its odd for a conservation minded shark photographer to be hanging out with a fisherman but Brian is no ordinary fisher. After 5 years in the industry he is very tired of being part of the problem. This summer he is quitting his job and going into business with Shark Film Maker Joe Romeiro. They will be running eco-friendly blue and mako viewing trips out of Rhode Island so if you're up this way and want to get in the water with some beefy New England sharks, give them a call: 333 Blue and Mako Shark Expeditions
The boat that Brian works on mostly trawls for squid but trawling is an indiscriminant form of fishing so the by-catch levels are often horrendous. Recently, they have been dragging in 1000ft where there are a number of vulnerable skate species so we worked out a plan to try a catch and release photo shoot with some of the skates that he rescued from the nets. It should have been a simple way to nail some shots of never before photographed species but the best laid plans can go awry.
While Brian was returning from his last fishing trip, I flew in, stashed my stuff at Joe's place and got ready to start shooting. Brian and his girlfriend Jen met me at a local beach and Brian pulled a tote of slowly flapping skates out of the back of his truck. When I found that he had managed to bring not one but three deep sea skate species I was as happy as a kid at Christmas.
The plan was for me to swim out to clear water and release the animals on the sand and rocks where I could get some usable ID shots before they swam away. I was petrified that they would bolt before I could get any images but that turned out to be the least of my problems.
R.I. is recovering from the worst flood in 200 years which has thrown millions of gallons of dirty water into inshore coves like the one we were shooting in. To make matters worse, the day we chose to release the animals, the weather was far from ideal. Strong winds, lashing rain and turbulent seas made the whole swim out from shore rather daunting. I went out for a test run just with my camera and found the going pretty tough. It didn't help that I was nursing a fever and a throat infection and apparently my drysuit had somehow gained a lot of extra buoyancy over the winter :) leaving me considerably underweighted.
Unperturbed, I kicked back to shore, found some scrap iron on the beach and strapped it to my tank. Then, I filled my pockets with rocks and ventured out again, this time with my camera in one hand and a lobster trap full of deep sea skates in the other.
Clutching such a voluminous object in rough seas put me in an unexpected position. I found myself at the mercy of the rip which dragged me out of the bay into an area that was churning like a washing machine. Looking down, the visibility was so bad that I couldn't see my camera dangling at my side, let alone photograph marine life. I tried retreating but I could barely make any headway back to the beach and I was slowly drifting sideways onto a patch of submerged rocks that was throwing extra large waves in my direction.
I tried sinking under the buffeting chop but my drysuit inflator jammed open, lifting me back to the surface and filling my suit to Michelin Man proportions. I had no choice other than to disconnect the air hose but as the air trickled out, the sea trickled in and within a minute or two my suit was completed flooded.
Now I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. I'm not one to panic but I was riding so low in the water that I couldn't tell which way the shore was. While I was deciding whether I should drop the lobster trap (making the entire trip to New England a disaster) I spotted Brian waving from the rocks with a pair of binoculars around his neck. With new resolve I inched towards shore. Cage in the left hand. Camera in the right. KICK! Look up. reorient to shore. Head down. KICK!
It was slow going but I made it back into the shallows and dropped the cage in a sheltered spot to rest. There was no way I was heading out to sea again so I gently lifted a skate out of its confinement and let it go. The skate swam around a little and then settled onto the sand, cupping its body to provide the suction necessary to resist the surge that was still pulling me around.
By working with a fisheye lens within about six inches of each skate, I was able to get some images that looked like they were shot in much clearer water than they really were. After maybe an hour I dragged my wet and weary bones out of the bay and left the skates to find their way out to sea.
Barndoor, Smooth and Thorny Skates
That was two days ago and I'm still feeling whipped but the images came out great. Three more species for the Elasmodiver Shark and Ray Field Guide. Three more elasmos available for any conservation initiatives that might need images.
Next stop Washington State for a couple of days diving on the Olympic Peninsula with Claire and then I fly down to Florida to lead a week long Photography shoot at Tiger Beach in The Bahamas. After that, the trip starts to get interesting!
In other news, Sharkfest is getting exciting. As a new facet of the Predators in Peril Project we are starting a simple new campaign inspired by a constant flow of emails from people that want to do something to help sharks in their local communities. Its called the Shark Friendly Restaurant Initiative. The idea is for individuals to use fact sheets and decals that we will supply to approach restaurant owners in their communities that sell shark products (not just shark fin soup). If a restaurant agrees to become part of the solution, they get a Shark Friendly Restaurant Decal for their door and a listing in the Shark Friendly Restaurant Guide on Elasmodiver. Where possible, we will arrange for the campaign to be listed in local food and entertainment magazines so that conscientious consumers can learn what the decal looks like and patronize the right restaurants. Seafood Restaurants that already refuse to sell shark products get a decal right off the bat which will help to brand the idea.
What does this have to do with shark diving in North Carolina? Well, the campaign is being sponsored by the profits from Sharkfest. If I manage to fill the boat, we'll have a budget to print enough decals to get started. You can find out more about the campaign at this link: Shark Friendly Restaurants.
On a more fun note, we also have our first shark film submissions. The first to arrive was Big Fish Utila an excellent film about whale sharks in the Bay Islands. We'd like to have at least a dozen short films to view over the weekend so if you know anyone that has made a shark film recently or if you have a film of your own to submit, please tell us about it. Film submission is free.
There has been a lot of interest in the trip but there is still room so if you would like to come diving with Sandtiger Sharks with us and a bunch of other shark fanatics for 3 days in early August please let me know. Sharkfest is $640 which includes 3 days shark diving, accommodation, a Sharkfest 2010 T-shirt and our 'shark friendly' Barbeque.
One shark diver suggested that we include a sandtiger night dive in the agenda. That sounds like fun to me but I'd like to hear what you think!
The Tiger Beach Photography Workshop appears to be a very popular concept. I've never seen a trip fill up quite so fast. So... I'm considering running a second workshop/expedition in the fall. Email me if you're interested.
Lastly, Elasmodiver is getting out of control
Some people have commented that Elasmodiver is getting too big to navigate. No argument from me! So how do you get your head around a website with almost 500 pages? Its a puzzle but at least its easy to keep track of recent changes by bookmarking this link: Elasmodiver Updates. Its the simplest way to scan what is new, what has changed and when. And, if you have suggestions on how Elasmodiver could be made better, pleeeease let me know. Elasmodiver remains one of the largest sources of shark info on the internet. Help us keep it user friendly.
For the sharks,