Sunday, 28 June 2009

Just when you thought.... had cracked it...

As promised, here is a resume of the last days of our basking shark expedition. Tuesday had seemed like we had really hit upon a good number of sharks, and that the rest of the week would be easy. A long smudge of brown sat between two tides, hugging the coast of the island, suggesting an algal boom and density of plankton, either related or unrelated. Whatever it was, the sharks seemed to love it, and were there in their numbers. However, heading back there the next day (weds) we were surprised and disspointed to learn that both the brown smudge, and the huge protruding dorsal fins patrolling the coast, had moved on, or down, north or south. Whever they were, we could not see them. A frustrating day plodding up and down the sites that normally hold sharks proved fruitless, until we eventually worked our way towards the final site of the day, a long shot, but the calmest looking water in the area. Lo and hehold, two sets of fins could be seen following each other around a small area about the size of a football pitch. This encounter was to yield the best shot of the week to our Trukish guest, Ozkur Gedicoglu who managed to catch a stunning head on, mouth open shot in beautiful clear water.

What happened next however, was to leave us all in a trance like state for the rest of the night, if not the rest of the week. The two sharks left their plankton feast for a while, and circled below us, checking us out, for what seemed like an eternity. They would head up towards us for a closer look, and then drop again to visible range. When they came close, they peered at us with those deep dark eyes, and one can never work out during these rare ocean encounters, who is the more curious, us or them. I'm sure however, we were the more bedazzled, and it was an effort to break from the trance to remember to take some photos.

Given that it was later in the day that we saw these sharks, we thought there may be a reasonable chance that the plankton was rising to the surface later in the day, to make the most of the sunshine, and might not penetrate the colder waters, which maintained a chill 12-13 degress for most of the week. Our plan the next day was to head out at midday and stay out later, making the most of this supposed feed pattern. How wrong could we be....shortly after leaving port, we got a call from the Silurian reseach vessel, that a good number of sharks had been spotted off an adjacent island. We steemed for several hours to get there, and nervously waited for the first sign of a fin, and hoping the plankton hadn't headed out on the outgoing tide, further out to sea, as we were already on our navigational limit.

However, the sharks and plankton were kind to us, and we enjoyed another period of intense activity. Numbers of sharks were patrolling the surface, and all group members enjoyed memorable encounters and fine images. Our next task was to land on this new Island and find accomodation and fuel for the next day, which proved more difficult than we had bargained for. However, downtime during the day was spent catching mackarel, which Pete and Andy managed to barbecue onboard whilst steeming back to a safe anchor. We looked something like a viking funeral pyre in the half light, and kept our fingers crossed that no shorebound birwatchers would send out a mayday call on our behalf. Luckily the only things to find us were an energetic pod of common dolphin which energetically leapt and bounded around our bow, and a fulmar mysteriously swaying about our stern in the almost lenticular sunset cloud; filled with bleeding reds and oranges of the near midnight sun.

Friday, our final day, and the same area yielded sharks almost immediately. We had seen one or two only half an hour out of port, but decided to try for a bigger group. Four large sharks gave us some close action again, before it was time to head home. This was our fourth day out of five that we had seen sharks, and beyond all of our expectations. James, our captain had taken us on a truly unforgettable journey, and gone beyond the call of duty to make sure we found what we were looking for. We all agreed there very few people in the world as dedicated as our new friend James Fairbairns. We our now making plans for a return next year, so if you are reading this and want to join us, please get in touch...the spaces are already filling.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Basking in Sharks

It's not often that you get to realise a dream. After years of wanting, several false starts, cancelled trips and no shows, we've got our act together and with the help of a great contact who put us in touch with dedicated captain, wildlife guardian and seaman James Fairbairn, we've finally found basking sharks. Five days of searching the scottish islands were always going to be a long shot, but it's hard to sum up the dedication and resolve of James who has literally bent over backwards to help us on our task. Nerves were frayed on monday when we arrived at the location on a dull and misty, typically scottish day. Not good weather for plankton who prefer, like people I guess, to stay away from all that and sink down to the depths where it's half a degree warmer. The sharks followed the plankton on their never ending quest for food, and we were left sat peering into a never ending greyness, wiping drips of scotch mist from our noses, with only a gannet, a puffin and several jellyfish to keep us entertained.
Tuesday was even more frustrating when on arrival at the site on a windless calm sea, and glorious baking sunshine, we were greeted with not the slightest sign of fin or tail. We wracked our brains for an idea as to why the sharks had not shown. Perfect text book Basking Shark conditions, in the place recommended as being the most likely place for the sharks to show. Nothing. Nada. We couldn't work out why, except for the idea that maybe a seawitch had cursed us all at birth and we were destined never to set eyes on a basking shark. However, later in the day, we rounded a point and there they were, first one, then a pair, then gradually through the afternoon serveral rose from the depths to see us acheive our goal.

Giant mouths under those big round noses and coal black eyes, nothing can prepare you for the gentleness and apprent vulnerabilty of these giants. One always has a preconception of how a shark will behave when you come across it, and it's easy to look at those cavernous mouths and think that a shark might swallow you whole. There's plenty of room between those rakers. But when they approach you, they are very aware that you are there, sometimes gently veering to avoid us, sometimes closing down that gape and opening it again once passed. Despite the sheer size of them, they give off an air of distinct vulnerabilty and shyness.

Of all our group on board, the one to breath the heaviest sigh of relief was Nuno Sa, Wildlife Wonders of Europe photographer on his mission to cover Scotland's Basking Sharks. He certainly has a knack of being in the right plankton stream, in front of the right shark at the right time.
We all have some material to take home with us, but so far we are still looking for the shot to beat all other shots. Two more days to go and with the weather with us we have a good chance of cracking it. I will post an update at the weekend.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

To arms once again...

...or at least concentrate on sitting writing a blog for once...My good friends at The Shark Group have developed another petition, to further enhance their campaign to get discovery channel to give sharks a more balanced news worthiness and a better place in the public eye.

It is not new thinking that sharks are being edged towards extinction through finning, as much as they suffer at the hands of those doing the finning, fishing and general killing, they also suffer at the hands of the nonchalant. For evil to prevail and all that....

As any businessman will tell you, PR is king. If one does not have the face that wins a thousand hearts, one will not prosper. Sharks have always suffered a bit of a PR problem; as one person commented once on one of my photos...hmmph..sharks should learn to smile more. He's dead right of course, yet as janet Street Porter knows, it's very difficult to be known for your smile when you have too many teeth jammed in your mouth.

Discovery Channel on the other hand, should know better. Wikipedia, the online infnopedia (the no-info cyclopedia), states that discovery channel "provides documentary programming focused primarily on popular science, technology and history". But then Oscar Wilde, the man with a quote for all occasions, once said that "everything popular is wrong". Addendum: Discovery Channel = Wrong science, wrong history, and wrong technology. Well done Oscar, I couldn't have put it better myself.

The sad truth is that discovery channel has, as with much of modern culture, dumbed down, if it could ever really be said that it ever dumbed up in the first place. That is all very well, if the only victims of empty headed tv gazing are the people doing the watching. There's nothing wrong with watching a bit of car crash tv, a tiring day passes all the more painlessly if we can watch someone walk into our homes via the plasma screen, and show us that things aren't so bad after all, because they've got it a whole lot worse....cue oprah, jeremy, so on and so on...
But there comes a point where the producers, commissioning editors and so on, should realise that there is an effect on society of this uber-pap way beyond that of their precious ratings.

Sharks are in deep trouble. Discovery Channel must wake up to that fact. They must answer our call for more balanced programming, and drop the incessant shark "killing machine" persona present in virtually all of shark week's listings.

Please sign the petition and pass it on to everyone you know.