CORN­WALL’S BLUE SHARKS

IN CORN­WALL JEREMY CUFF braves bouts of sea­sick­ness in pur­suit of the elu­sive blue shark off the South­west coast of the UK

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by JEREMY CUFF / WWW.JA-UNI­VERSE.COM

Jeremy Cuff goes cage div­ing with blue sharks off the Cor­nish coast.

Cage div­ing with sharks is nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with the great white en­coun­ters in South Africa, South Aus­tralia or Guadalupe in Mex­ico, or per­haps the Scuba Zoo dives that used to hap­pen on the Great Bar­rier Reef, at­tract­ing mostly reef sharks. But to some peo­ple’s sur­prise, you can also do it here in the UK, with the tar­get species be­ing blue sharks…

I’d been aware of the blue shark en­coun­ters that were pos­si­ble off the coast of Corn­wall for some time, so last De­cem­ber, when I was plan­ning a few things for the New Year, the Cor­nish blues bub­bled to the top of my ‘to do’ list.

Op­tions for this type of trip are very lim­ited due to the niche na­ture of the sub­ject mat­ter and the rel­a­tively small time win­dow in which the sharks can be re­li­ably seen. I chose to go for the At­lantic Divers’ trip (www. at­lantic­diver.co.uk), which runs out of the South­west surf cap­i­tal and sum­mer party town of Newquay. It’s run by Chris and Annabelle Lowe, a very friendly, en­thu­si­as­tic and knowl­edge­able cou­ple who of­fer a lim­ited num­ber of blue shark cage-div­ing trips each sea­son from late-june through to Au­gust.

Dur­ing the days prior to the drive down to Corn­wall, I reg­u­larly checked the weather fore­cast, which looked fine for the day of the trip it­self. How­ever, the winds were quite high on the days lead­ing up to it, so I hoped the con­di­tions would have set­tled enough to al­low the trip to go ahead. Af­ter a call from Chris and Annabelle to con­firm my at­ten­dance and check any re­quire­ments for kit, I felt for­tu­nate that it would go ahead as planned, as I later learned that the pre­vi­ous day’s trip had been can­celled due to the winds.

The for­mat for the day was to meet at Newquay’s diminu­tive har­bour at 9am to load the gear into the boat, fol­lowed by a brief­ing in a nearby class­room where Chris and Annabelle de­scribed the day’s ac­tiv­i­ties, as well as wider is­sues of marine and shark con­ser­va­tion, es­pe­cially the work of The Shark Trust, with whom they en­joy an as­so­ci­a­tion. We learned, for ex­am­ple, that there are more than 30 species of shark known to in­habit UK wa­ters.

With all the load­ing, for­mal­i­ties and brief­ings done, we set off un­der clear blue skies, head­ing out to sea in the resid­ual swell from the pre­vi­ous day’s high winds. We would keep go­ing un­til the land was a dis­tant strip on the hori­zon, to a gen­eral area where the sharks have been known from past ex­pe­ri­ence, in around 60m of wa­ter.

The blue shark is a species of the open wa­ter and deep reefs, with a global dis­tri­bu­tion that cov­ers trop­i­cal, sub-trop­i­cal and tem­per­ate zones. They are known to cover great dis­tances, and are thought to utilise cur­rents such as the Gulf Stream to reach wa­ters around the UK and Europe.

Ap­pear­ance-wise, they are very sleek and clearly suited to their pelagic life­style, where they are known to hunt small fish and cephalopods (es­pe­cially squid), though they are also thought to feed on bot­tomd­welling species on oc­ca­sions. Their coloura­tion on the back and flanks, though al­ways blue as their name sug­gests, can dif­fer markedly be­tween in­di­vid­u­als; from a blue-tinged grey to a very deep blue, which con­trasts with a white un­der­side. In terms of size, they can at­tain an im­pres­sive four me­tres in length, though most spec­i­mens en­coun­tered will be sig­nif­i­cantly smaller than this.

It would be al­most im­pos­si­ble to en­counter blue sharks with­out some­thing to at­tract them in, so Chris uses chum made up of her­ring, which cre­ates a slick that leads to the boat, which he de­ploys on the ap­proach to his cho­sen area.

Once we’ve ar­rived and the en­gine is switched off, the cage is low­ered into the wa­ter and we wait, drift­ing with the cur­rent. Noth­ing is guar­an­teed in the ocean, and it’s cer­tainly pos­si­ble to spend all day in seem­ingly per­fect con­di­tions with­out any sight­ings what­so­ever. I hoped for at least a few sight­ings from the cage, but would we get any close en­coun­ters?

As the chum spreads out to cover a wide area, there has to be some way of mak­ing the boat and the area im­me­di­ately around the cage the fo­cal point of the shark’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions, so that they can be eas­ily seen. Chris does this by fill­ing a holed plas­tic bot­tle with her­ring and at­tach­ing it to a rope, which is al­lowed to float 10 or 15 me­tres from the boat. Any shark that in­ves­ti­gates it can usu­ally be seen break­ing the sur­face, which alerts ev­ery­one to its pres­ence. Then, with divers in the cage, Chris can slowly draw the bot­tle to­wards the boat and cage, hope­fully bring­ing the shark with it and into clear view.

The cage it­self is small, but with enough room for two divers to com­fort­ably fit in while al­low­ing a bit of room to move and look around. It’s sus­pended by floats to keep it buoy­ant, with a con­ve­nient view­ing slit be­neath the wa­ter­line. While not in use, it is stowed at the rear of the ves­sel from where it’s low­ered and re­trieved from the wa­ter us­ing a winch. Once in the wa­ter, it’s moved to the side of the boat from where it is ac­cessed. Ini­tially, it looks a bit tricky to get in and out of, but it’s not as dif­fi­cult as it looks.

Be­fore any­one climbed into the cage, Chris ex­plained a few more use­ful tips and facts, such as sup­press­ing the urge to shout, whoop, cel­e­brate and talk loudly if a shark ap­pears, which along with clunk­ing foot­steps and ex­ces­sive splash­ing, is thought to frighten them. An­other clue to their pres­ence can be un­set­tled seabirds, such as the ful­mars that will of­ten bob around close to the cage and boat hop­ing for tit­bits of food. He also told us that the ‘boat record’ was seven blue sharks at one time and that it’s not im­pos­si­ble that some­thing very rare and big could turn up, such as a por­bea­gle, mako or thresher Shark, as they are known to visit the gen­eral area.

Af­ter prob­a­bly a cou­ple of hours of wait­ing, a fin and tail broke the sur­face next to the plas­tic bot­tle; it was a blue shark, our first of the day. A wave of ex­cite­ment swept across the boat as the pairs of cage divers pre­pared to get in. To avoid any grum­bles among the par­tic­i­pants, Chris and Annabelle do a ‘num­ber draw’ to de­ter­mine who gets in first. This seemed to work well to get things started, with a gen­eral re­lax­ation of the run­ning or­der nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring as the day pro­gressed, as some divers opted to sit it out and watch from the deck, as some of the sharks slowly cir­cled the boat.

“Af­ter prob­a­bly a cou­ple of hours of wait­ing, a fin and tail broke the sur­face next to the plas­tic bot­tle; it was a blue shark, our first

of the day”

The first pair of divers to get in the wa­ter had a very good en­counter with the first shark, which briefly granted some close passes of the cage. They came out beam­ing, as oth­ers hur­riedly pre­pared for their turn. Dur­ing my first visit to the cage, I saw the shark but the views were fleet­ing and not con­ducive to any pho­tog­ra­phy, which was a very dif­fi­cult chal­lenge in the buoy­ant cage that bobbed around in the swell. I also vowed to take my weight belt for the next ‘im­mer­sions’, as my 7mm wet­suit made it dif­fi­cult to re­main un­der­wa­ter and able to fully utilise the view­ing slit.

Over the day, we cer­tainly had four sharks around the boat, and pos­si­bly five. Chris said they can some­times be bold, and I was for­tu­nate enough to en­joy close en­coun­ters, with one spec­i­men pass­ing close to the cage on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, and an­other that ac­tu­ally in­ves­ti­gated us by lit­er­ally pok­ing its snout into the view­ing slit while we were in­side. Later, the same shark spent con­sid­er­able time check­ing out the un­der­side of the boat and the chum bag, which Chris would some­times dangle over the side in ad­di­tion to the float­ing her­ring-filled plas­tic bot­tle.

Strictly speak­ing, this isn’t of course scuba div­ing in the true sense of the word (as the only sup­plied air is from a snorkel!), but it’s cer­tainly one that can only ap­peal to peo­ple who like the sea, and the life that lives in it. Though this trip won’t go ahead if the con­di­tions are too rough, the swell from the pre­vi­ous day’s winds turned out to be some­what puke in­duc­ing, as sev­eral of the shark snorkel­ers wres­tled with bouts of sea­sick­ness dur­ing the day, in­clud­ing quite un­usu­ally my­self. The rem­edy is to take sea sea­sick­ness tablets be­fore set­ting out - you’ve got noth­ing to lose and every­thing to gain by do­ing so.

If the blue sharks aren’t enough or they don’t put in an ap­pear­ance, this trip is also good for other wildlife sight­ings; we were lucky to spot a cou­ple of sun­fish at the sur­face, and for ‘twitch­ers’, you can ex­pect to see sev­eral seabird species, such as ful­mars, shear­wa­ters, guille­mots, storm pe­trels and gan­nets. There’s also the pos­si­bil­ity of bask­ing sharks, dol­phins, por­poises and even the odd pass­ing seal.

For fans of wildlife and wilderness, it’s great to think that you can do this kind of thing here in the UK. Like the ven­omous ad­der on land, it’s good to know that there’s still edgy and wild crea­tures left in and around the UK for those who are pre­pared to seek them out. Over­all, we had a great day, com­ing face to face with this fan­tas­tic species of shark. It was very worth­while.

“Though this trip won’t go ahead if the con­di­tions are too rough, the swell from the pre­vi­ous day’s winds turned out to be some­what puke-in­duc­ing, as sev­eral of the shark snorkel­ers wres­tled with bouts of sea­sick­ness dur­ing the day, in­clud­ing

quite un­usu­ally my­self”

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