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Volume 47, Number 2March/April 1996

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Swims with Sharks

Written and photographed by Erik Bjurström

Just off the Red Sea coast of southwestern Saudi Arabia lies the Farasan Bank, an 800-kilometer (500-mile) string of intricate coastal islands and brilliant, little-explored coral reefs. When I moved to the city of Khamis Mushayt in 1981, not far inland from this coast, to work at a hospital, I arrived determined that in my spare time I would dive these reefs to photograph and learn about the more than 40 species of sharks that inhabit them.

To any diver, sharks are either the spectacular highlight of a dive or a source of undiluted terror—depending upon the type of shark and the circumstances of the encounter. My interest in sharks had come from reading the works of the Austrian underwater photographer and filmmaker—later a professor of zoology—Hans Hass. His 1942 film Man Among Sharks was the first to demonstrate that sharks are magnificent creatures that have gone through a long adaptation process in an environment filled with predictable demands. It followed, Hass believed, that the behavior of sharks must be as understandable—perhaps even as predictable—as that of any other creature. Hass proved his point by diving, unprotected, among the sharks he filmed.

But Hass's point of view never became as popular as that of another undersea pioneer, Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau came from a seafaring background, and his frequent descriptions of sharks as ferocious, unpredictable, aggressive and even "enraged" sat well with a public whose fears of sharks are not easily allayed. In the 1970's, the Hollywood hit film Jaws reinforced those stereotypes in the most spectacular fashion.

My plan to dive on purpose to meet sharks persuaded people in Khamis Mushayt that I was crazy. The sharks, I heard several times, would regard me as little more than an interesting dietary novelty, and they cited stories of fishermen who had fallen into Red Sea waters and met a toothy fate. I was even introduced to a boy who had been attacked by a shark in shallow water and was missing a piece of the muscle of one arm. But I took Hass seriously, believing that, within their ecological context, sharks must be respected but need not be feared, and I would not be discouraged. With diving gear, an underwater camera and a couple of friends, I set out in two inflatable boats in search of sharks.

Under water, we did not have to wait long for our first encounter. A half-dozen silver-gray sharks approached, each somewhat less than two meters (six feet) long, with black-tipped fins. They were an extraordinarily beautiful sight, a perfect biological design that has not changed in 135 million years. They showed no aggression toward us, only curiosity. They moved slowly, gracefully, around us and then slipped away.

They were what divers commonly call gray reef sharks, more properly called shortnose blacktail sharks (Carcharhinus wheeleri). With the whitetip reef shark, Triaenodon obesus, they are the most common sharks in the Red Sea. Both species belong to the family of requiem sharks, Carcharhinidae, which embraces 19 of the Red Sea shark species. Gray reef sharks are strongly territorial, which has given them a reputation for aggressiveness.

It was only later, when I had my first meeting with a solitary gray reef shark, that I began to understand this territoriality. On that dive, the sharks had come just as they had many times before: like a pack of watchdogs that investigated us and then departed after a few minutes. But this time, soon after the sharks' departure, I saw my dive partner making frantic pointing gestures to something behind my back.

I turned around and saw a shark coming at me, looking very determined. It was in a typical attack posture: stiff body, pectoral fins bent down, twitching nervously. I immediately felt that this one meant business. Without thinking, I raised my camera in front of my face and triggered the flash, hoping that the bright burst of light might confuse or frighten it. The shark swerved, missing me, but as it turned around it gave me a no-nonsense thump on the leg with its thick tail. I was very lucky that my only souvenir was the blurry close-up portrait in my camera.

As we made more dives, we met more solitary sharks who exhibited the same aggressive behavior. We learned never to turn our backs—even if the shark looked relaxed, even if it had gone out of sight. But aggression was never exhibited when the sharks came in groups. I began to suspect that sharks "turn off" their territoriality when in groups in order to allow cooperation in finding prey. Wolves, also well-adapted predators, do this too. The shark that attacked me, I realized, was probably one of the original watchdog group that had returned to let us know that we were in its territory.

On still later dives, we began using fish bait hidden amid the coral to lure sharks into staying around long enough to be photographed. It took the sharks only a few minutes to appear once we opened our bait bag: Research has shown that some sharks can detect a single molecule of fish blood in 65 liters (17 US gallons) of water. To our surprise, however, they appeared to have difficulty determining the exact location of the bait. They always came up-current, with the scent, and then started circling, trying to locate the source. One by one they zeroed in on the bait, swinging their heads from side to side to follow the scent trail. At these times we got the impression that, although their eyesight has been shown in medical experiments to be acute, they did not appear to rely on it much in locating the bait.

The shark's other senses are unusually sophisticated. The ultra-sensitive ampullae of Lorenzini, minute gelatinous canals in their noses, can register underwater electrical currents equivalent to those generated by a single flashlight battery with its electrodes separated by up to 1600 kilometers (1000 miles) of water. Some sharks have been seen using this electrical sense as a kind of scanner, cruising over the sea bottom to locate living fish under the sand. This sense also apparently makes it possible for sharks to register the earth's magnetic field, giving them a "compass" to guide long migrations that, for some species, stretch more than 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles). Their hearing is not bad, either: They can detect the vibrations of a fish in distress from one and a half kilometers (one mile) away. The sound of a diver, of course, travels considerably further.

Once they found our bait, however, and displayed a few moments of caution—the kind that keeps even sharks from fatal mistakes—their attack came swiftly and with a force that gave us chills. With violent sawing movements of their heads and sickening crushing sounds, the bait fish was gone within seconds.

Six years after my first dive among the Red Sea sharks, one of the highlights of my diving life took place at Sha'ab Rumi, or Roman Reef, on the Sudanese side of the Red Sea, where the shark populations are thicker than on the Saudi side (See Aramco World, July-August 1991). In what had become a familiar ritual, we had attracted several species with bait and they were circling slowly in front of us. The usual gray reef sharks were there, along with whitetip sharks, but then one appeared that we had never seen before: the silver-tip shark, Carcharhinus albimarginatus, an open-ocean dweller that only occasionally approaches reefs.

The scene was peaceful. Somehow, at that moment, I sensed a signal from the sharks that they felt no hostility toward us, that they accepted us into their kingdom. I opened another fish bag and held out the bait for them. One by one, like pets, they came up to me and took the fish from my hand. I was euphoric. When I had given them all the fish I had, I left the protection of the reef. The water was superbly clear and I was floating in a dark blue space surrounded by 20 beautiful sharks.

Following this magical experience, I wanted to determine the extent to which these sharks might actually consider humans to be edible. We gathered the sharks using fish bait and, after exciting them with this, we offered them beef. The result was clear: They approached, smelled the meat, and then immediately turned around without taking it. To us it proved what the pioneer Hans Hass had maintained all along: A diver risks attack only by either carrying fish or provoking territorial protection behavior.

But sadly, this harmony between us and the sharks was to end. After about 20 dives in the same area, the sharks appeared to learn that they could approach us without risk. Then, the underwater atmosphere changed, and the sharks became more aggressive in their demands for bait. On several dives, my companions had to kick them away or beat them on the nose, sometimes desperately. We had become overconfident, and we had forgotten—temporarily —that we were playing with powerful creatures whose instincts we did not fully understand.

My final encounter with the sharks' territorial habits came while I was sitting on top of the reef, just below the surface, with bait still securely enclosed in a double plastic bag. Suddenly, from the back, I received a terrible blow to my head. I turned around and looked into the white eye of a shark who had an unshakable grip on my diver's vest and was trying to chew it, exactly as it was accustomed to chewing the bait fish, all the while shaking me like a puppet. I beat it on the nose with my elbow, and—fortunately—that was enough to make it flee. Shocked, I aborted the dive at once. My now-shredded vest had protected me from severe injury.

This experience cooled my confidence, but not my interest. I dived more cautiously now, but still among sharks, where other experiences awaited me. At Sanganeb Reef, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) northeast of Port Sudan, we at last met a large group of the elusive hammerhead sharks ( Sphyrna spp.). We spotted them patrolling the southernmost point of the reef at a depth of about 25 meters (80 feet). From other encounters we had learned that hammerheads are not attracted by bait: We just hoped to be lucky enough to get close to them. But they were shy, and kept their distance—until one day when I did not expect them. I was floating alone at the reef's edge 30 meters (96 feet) down. My map indicated that there was nearly a kilometer (about half a mile) of water below me, and I was trying to imagine what unknown creatures might be hiding in that blue-black depth. Then I saw what first looked like a dark cloud in the water above and in front of me. Gradually, it resolved into individual sharks, and I saw it was a school of more than 50 big, three-meter (10-foot) hammerheads coming toward me.

They glided slowly by, only a few meters above me. Their perfectly streamlined bodies shone like polished steel, and their incongruous, T-shaped heads made them look like monsters from a long-forgotten era. They paid no attention to me and disappeared into the water's haze. I was down too deep for my film to work properly, but in my mind is etched one of the most fascinating sights in my 30 years of diving.

It was also off the coast of Sudan, in 1993, that I fulfilled another diver's fantasy: a ride on a whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the biggest fish on earth, a plankton-feeder harmless to humans. In a channel just outside Port Sudan, we encountered three whale sharks swimming together just below the surface, sieving plankton through their enormous mouths. The biggest one was about six meters (19 feet) long—big enough, but a shrimp compared to a full-grown adult, which can measure up to 18 meters (60 feet)! It was blue with white spots all over its body.

I handed my camera to one of my companions and did what I had dreamt of since I was a child: I reached out and grabbed one of the shark's pectoral fins and, with my other arm, reached across its back and rode it. Surprisingly, the shark's skin was smooth and its body soft. When it noticed my presence, it accelerated and started rolling gently through the water. When it finally sounded past a depth I dared not go, I released it. Alone again, I watched it disappear.

The slow reproductive rate of sharks, together with increasingly intense demand for dried shark fins—particularly in some parts of Asia—has led to humankind's first significant threat to shark survival. To date, the Red Sea has been spared the excesses of fishing that have depleted shark populations in other parts of the world, but with recent dramatic rises in world fish prices—including those of shark and shark fins—it is clear that official protection will be necessary.

It was while diving at Sha'ab Rumi that we found one of Jacques Cousteau's old "shark cages," left there after he filmed his 1965 production, World Without Sun. It was the device Cousteau had used to protect himself from the "ravening" sharks. We spent part of that dive trying to lure a shark into the cage, so I could take a photograph illustrating my belief that, in the end, humans are more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to humans. But the Red Sea gray reef sharks had no desire to enter a cage, even for a moment.

Dr. Erik Bjurström, a consultant at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, has lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years. In that time, he has dived and photographed "every corner" of the Red Sea and has won awards in major photographic competitions. Approximately 200 of his dives have focused on sharks.

This article appeared on pages 26-33 of the March/April 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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