Tales from the Bush
Divers go on a marine mission in the Azores
“HE POSITIONED HIMSELF IN FRONT OF THE BLUE SHARK, PLACED HIS HAND ON ITS SNOUT AND TURNED IT UPSIDE DOWN.”
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).