Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fiji Expedition: SHARK!

This guest post is written by 2010 Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition team member Nicole Guy-Lovett.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Gau - October 7, 2010
SHARK! ... The goal of the day and the reason for coming to the Nigali passage off the Island of Gau. We rose at our normal time of 6:30 a.m. for the 7 a.m. dive, only to find that the current was running out of the passage, not in. Change of plan, dive preparation delayed until 9:30. So ... the wonderful staff on the Nai’a rushed breakfast for us and we were able to eat our French toast with blueberry compote and fresh fruit an hour early in order that we could still fit in two dives before lunch. Bailey entertained some of us with a taxonomic dissection of a large flying fish that leapt to its death into one of the skiffs during our overnight trip from Namena to Gau.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We arrived at the drop sight about 10 a.m. ... Bottoms up! About 15 seconds in we sighted our first grey reef shark. 1, 2, 3 ... suddenly 6 sharks were circling. A larger school of barracuda greeted us at the bottom as our shark escorts began to take a wider birth. A school of lovely blue streak fusiliers swam by adding some color to the scene. As we worked our way to the passage a sleeping white tip drew the attention of the photographers in the group.

Soon we reached the "bleachers" and hunkered down out of the strong current to watch the sharks make their way through the channel and then turn back to start over again. Some would zip by showing their agility and speed, others slunk by only feet away fixing us warily with a cat-like eye. Oddly enough all the sharks were female--Nai’a staff claim they have never seen male gray reef sharks here. A couple of our scientists aboard are trying to explain this phenomenon.

It was soon clear to my novice eye how more experienced observers can readily tell individuals apart; different markings, fin shapes, and scars allowed me to recognize many repeat visitors. Our view was temporarily occluded by hordes of fish, yellow, white, black, purple, blue, and green which crowded in to snatch bread from our dive guide, the Mighty Mo. They were followed by a school of snaggle-toothed bohar snapper that were so close I could have given them an oral exam. When the fish cleared the sharks seemed to be even more numerous. There were schools of the adorable 18 inch pups followed by imposing but graceful adults as large as 6 feet. Later Bailey said he counted 25 sharks at one time including at least 19 pups, but I couldn’t count that fast.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

All too soon it was time to warm our chilled muscles and work our way up the chute from 60 feet to 20. Along the way I saw a large moray eel at a cleaning station and a wide field of slender garden eel feeding avidly on nutrients passing in the current. It was now time to search for macro life while allowing our bodies to off-gas (adjust to the decreased pressure) before returning to the boat. We explored a sandy plain at the base of an ancient (30ft in diameter) Porites coral . There were numerous Steintz’ shrimpgobies guarding alpheid shrimp busily cleaning house. The 2-inch long, translucent shrimp diligently moved stones and armloads of sand half their size out of the holes which they share with their stalwart guards. More garden eels entertained us snatching their tiny bites from the sea. A few divers even had the luck to watch a sea snake slither amongst the rocks.

Tired but exhilarated, I surfaced after my first shark dive. One hour till we do it all again!

-Nicole Guy-Lovett, Washington DC

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