Witness to a Tragedy: Finding Beauty in the Death of a Blue Shark
I went out fishing with my friend Colin Cornforth and his eight-year-old son Cameron. We took my 17’ Boston Whaler for rigged with everything from spear guns and fishing poles to my land camera and underwater camera. I wanted to be ready for anything.
We headed out around 8:00 a.m. and ran straight to VV buoy a FAD (fish aggregation device) about 3 miles off the Kona Coast. After a brief investigation and determining that that there was only small Mahi Mahi, we turned south and ran. We wanted to try and get down to another FAD before it got to busy or fished out.
The water was amazingly calm like fluid glass and the sun was shining bright which made it great for finding anything floating on the surface of the water, whether a breaking fish or floating debris. We look for debris that floats around in the ocean because it acts like a FAD and attracts bait fish, which then attract the bigger fish we like to eat.
When we got to the area that our GPS said the UU FAD was at we couldn't find it, it’s usually a little south of the mark that is on my GPS, but we couldn’t see it. This was strange due to the fact that the water was so calm. Colin checked the Hawaii FAD web site to see if it was missing and the web site said it was still there. So we motored around looking for it when we saw some splashes outside of our position.
I turned the boat straight out from shore and slowly made my way out. Suddenly this object popped up out of the water not more than fifty feet behind us and to our left. Its head raised up out of the water then a dorsal fin; it lay motionless for a few seconds. Trying to think quickly about what I was now seeing I thought it was a small rare whale called a Dwarf Sperm Whale. I have seen these elusive small creatures in this area before, but a few seconds later a tail poked up and it wasn’t a whale’s tail, it was a shark’s tail.
Looking back towards shore I couldn’t see into the water because of the glare. The shark started moving very slowly and I told Colin that I thought it might be a baby Whale Shark. I had Colin take the wheel and scrambled for my underwater camera. Colin drove up closer to the shark and yelled, “it’s a Blue Shark!” I have lived in Kona for nearly twenty-one years and I have only seen one other Blue Shark and it was here last year. I only saw it for a couple of minutes and didn’t get any good shots of it.
So being such a rarity in the day time here in Hawaii I was anxious to get in and get a couple of photos before it disappeared into the depths. Grabbing my equipment I now realized that I had forgotten my weight belt which allows me to stay under water easier when I’m on a full breath of air, so I had to go without. With Colin keeping up with the shark we got close enough and he put the boat into neutral and I slipped into the water.
Right away I could tell something was wrong. The movement of the shark was all wrong, it was rolling side to side and slowly turning upside down. I could see that the top of the head had a grey bruise like mark just behind the eyes and what looked like line marks just behind that. When it rolled to where I could see the left side of its mouth I could see there was a sizable wound in the corner of its mouth.
The shark was dropping down about fifty or sixty feet and I thought it was going to keep going when it turned up towards the surface again and came straight at me. I started firing photos as fast as I could take them as the shark came up and passed me. It popped on the surface again as it did when we first saw it and leveled off and continued swimming just under the surface, I was thinking “a human had deliberately injured this incredible animal”.
Being a fisherman I have caught many Ono (wahoo), when we catch them we use a bat and hit them right above the eyes in the area of the brain to stun them, because they have very sharp teeth and it's the only way we can bring them into the boat safely. After they're stunned I can then manage them into the cooler safely without worry of getting bit. Someone had done the same to the shark.
I swam with the shark for quite some time taking photographs; I wanted to document this tragedy. Colin had jumped in to check out the shark for a while.
Then wanted to have his son Cameron see what had happened. They were able to get a good look at the shark as it passed by the boat.
I continued shooting photos and the shark would dive and swim straight up to the surface over and over again. I had noticed also that this was a female, she didn’t have the tell tale claspers (sex organs) that the males have protruding out from the anal fins. She would roll onto her back, then right herself, and then swim on her side with her pectoral fin sticking out of the water.
When she would get close to me on her right side I could see that her eye would lock onto me and stay trained on me as she passed by. When I would approach her left side I could see that the eye was damaged on the inside of her head because she didn’t have much control of it. She never once made an aggressive move towards me, I believe because she was so disoriented, but I was always aware that she could snap at me out of fear when I would get really close to shoot a photo.
It was very disheartening to watch her without being able to help or completely end her life. This majestic animal was condemned to die a slow and painful death for doing the only thing she knew how to do, survive. I shot over four hundred photos of her, when I was processing the photos I could look closer at the wound in her jaw and I believe that it was a gunshot. I don’t believe that it was a Cookie Cutter Shark because the meat of the wound was bulging out like an explosion not a neat and clean cut the Cookie Cutter Sharks make.
The bulge on the top right side of her head would be consistent with a shot going from the bottom left to the top right as if she had been flipped upside down and shot. It's unfortunate that this shark was killed for doing what it has has been designed to do for millions of years, which is to consume the weak and injured fish.
Whether it was an irate Ahi fisherman that killed the shark for taking his tuna, or someone else, failing to kill the shark and leaving her to swim for days before dying is completely unjustified and would be condemned by any respectable fisherman. This was an unnecessary killing.
These animals are the keystone species in the ocean, the lions, tigers and wolves of the sea. It's estimated there are over 100 million sharks killed each year just for their fins, that's 11,000 sharks per hour. Over 1/3 of all sharks are endangered, and it's not due to taking over their territory like land based animals, it's simply because they're being slaughtered.
As a lifelong fisherman and spearfisherman I love to catch fish, but I have a deep respect for the magnificent creatures that inhabit the oceans, both big and small, and I choose my fish responsibly.
We all need to do a better job at protecting the precious marine environment. Simply killing a shark because it choose to seek out a meal makes no sense, it could have easily been cut free, and since since it was a mature breeding female it won't be creating any more baby sharks. I hope that some day there will be a shift in thinking towards these animals and we can co-exist and not fear them.
Here's the news report from Hawaii TV: http://www.khon2.com/2013/08/06/local-diver-has-rare-encounter-with-blue-shark-in-waters-off-kona/