Tales from the Bush

Divers go on a marine mis­sion in the Azores

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ROBIN­SON is a scuba in­struc­tor, film-maker and jour­nal­ist with a pas­sion for all marine wildlife, but es­pe­cially sharks.





We were speed­ing across a tran­quil ocean away from the is­land of Pico, the Azores. My diver friends and I were go­ing in search of sharks – but for a very un­usual rea­son.

It had be­come clear to us that blue and other sharks in the mid-At­lantic were be­ing tar­geted by lo­cal fish­er­men, both for their meat and their fins. Not only that, but some sharks were be­ing caught on lines and es­cap­ing, leav­ing large hooks in their mouths. We de­cided to do some­thing.

Over the roar of the out­board mo­tor, we del­e­gated the roles: Mar­tijn, the most ex­pe­ri­enced diver, would take the lead, while Ste­fano and I, cam­eras in hand, would act as look-outs – the risks posed by sharks are of­ten over­stated, but we still had to be care­ful.

We came to a halt 5km from the north coast of Pico, and Mar­tijn be­gan to pour the chum, made from di­luted tuna blood, into the ocean. The sharks that cruised these wa­ters would even­tu­ally sense the blood slick and come from the depths to in­ves­ti­gate. It took an hour for the first fin to slice through the wa­ter, and we made sure the shark was lin­ger­ing be­fore we slipped into the ocean. Soon af­ter, other, smaller sharks started to ar­rive, swim­ming in fast er­ratic pat­terns and bump­ing us when they were able – at­tempt­ing to as­sert dom­i­nance.

Now it was re­ally im­por­tance we stayed alert and fo­cused, be­cause if we al­lowed the sharks to dom­i­nate us it could in­crease their cu­rios­ity and lead even­tu­ally to a painful bite. We let each other know which sharks were more as­sertive, and when one got too close we gen­tly guided it away by push­ing its snout.

Then we saw a glint in the mouth of one of the larger in­di­vid­u­als – this was what we had come for. Mar­tijn had re­moved hooks from sharks’ mouths dur­ing sev­eral win­ters in South Africa, where it is also a he knew ex­actly what to do. He po­si­tioned him­self in front of the shark and as it ap­proached him he placed his hand care­fully on its snout and – al­most mirac­u­lously – turned it up­side down.

It was in­cred­i­ble to watch – the shark lay in­ert, its mus­cles re­laxed, its breath­ing deep and rhyth­mic. It is the abil­ity to put them into this state of tonic im­mo­bil­ity, or pain-free paral­y­sis, that en­ables divers to re­move hooks from their mouths with­out en­dan­ger­ing ei­ther the shark or them­selves.

In a fluid mo­tion, Mar­tijn re­moved the of­fend­ing hook and passed the jagged piece of steel to me. He then re­moved his hand and the shark stirred and swam away, as if re­vived from its slum­ber. It was only a small vic­tory, but it was a vic­tory none­the­less. We re­turned to the boat and raised a beer to each other in quiet sat­is­fac­tion as the lights of the is­land be­gan to flicker on to guide us back to­wards Madalena har­bour.

Sleep­ing Beauty: diver Mar­tijn ‘hyp­no­tises’ a blue shark and watches the sun set from a boat af­ter a vic­to­ri­ous day ( in­set).

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