[Excerpts from November 5, 2010 blog entry – Aboard IO, a 2 year Pacific crossing]
Early morning light flitters and dances and fades into the deep blue depths. One at a time Jaime and I dawn the gear and slip into the water. It’s a bit colder here, we need shorties to stay in for a couple of hours. After the initial splash and chill and when all the bubbles from the entry rise clear from view, I always do a quick 360 to both orient to the surroundings and look for the brethren, the dudes in the grey suits, sharks. We have repeatedly returned to the southern point of a small nearby atoll where we can anchor in 10 meters of water and then swim out to where the bottom drops from view as the depth drops to 30 meters. We have found a spot where the pelagic fish seem to frequently pass by looking for near shore baitfish. It is a game. The game has rules and players. We are learning the rules and have learned that we are not the biggest players. 4 times now sharks much bigger than me have approached.
For me, the most satisfaction has come from how much we have learned from our now countless hours in the water. We watch the baitfish, they usually tell the story. We swim past the edge of the reef, where the depth drops beyond sight and try to find a school of Blue Streaked Fusiliers, (Pterocaesio tile) which are about the size of a trout. In the hundreds they abound, schooling and meandering this way and that, feeding on plankton, never venturing to far away from the reef or each other. They don’t mind our presence, we are of no threat and they seem to know that. So we sit and wait in the blue depths, hovering, watching, usually within sight of the other swimmer. Abruptly the school tightens and spins 180 degrees heading for the reef. I dive. Out of the blue a predator will appear. Often we have seen various species of meter long Trevally and Dog Tooth Tuna larger than my spear gun (1.7 mteres). Mostly we are after Walu, (king Mackerel, Scomberomorus commerson) a 1-2-meter silvery fusiform predator that has teeth like a wood saw and blazes through the schools of Fusiliers selecting out any that are weak or unaware. We have learned the trick to getting the Walu to approach closely. When at depth (5-15 meters) a pack of Walu will usually approach to check you out, but usually never close enough for a good shot. However if one blows out a few bubbles, they come in closer to investigate, then WHAMM! My 160 cm spear hits the sweet spot behind the gill and the real work begins. These are ultra fast, powerful fish that have pulled me through the water for longer than I have wanted before I could get to the surface and breath. Once at the surface, I struggle to lift them out of the water as much as possible because the thrashing fish and the blood in the water often bring in the brethren. We swim towards the dingy and the other swimmer escorts you back always looking for the dudes in the gray suits. Pure fun!
Now when I speak of the baitfish turning 180 and tightening up the school for a retreat, when a predator is near. It turns out that they also do this in response to the brethren. We have gotten used to the behavior of the three species of reef sharks and know when to draw the line (usually) but here in New Caledonia we have run into bigger and (supposedly) more aggressive sharks. Yesterday I saw the school tighten and I dove, only to find that no larger fish came in, that is until I turned around and looked directly into the jaws of a bulky gray shark that was much larger than me. It was so large that it had its own entourage of smaller fish schooling with it. I looked directly into its small eyes and saw both the first and second rows of recurved teeth. When I startled and raised my gun, it turned from me and slowly swam away. While this was the closest view I have had so far, I have had three other similar experiences where I have turned around to find this same species of shark approaching me from behind. Each time that I have faced it, the shark has retreated, but it is a bit unnerving of the repetitiveness of this rear approach behaviour. I have narrowed down the species to either the sandbar or bull shark, both of which a bit of a reputation for aggressiveness. I am convinced that they are of no real threat, especially considering that I speared a Trevally and was fighting it to the surface when out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of these large sharks in the distance. I immediately let the fish drop to the end of the spear and line, putting at least 3-meters distance between the bleeding thrashing fish and me, but the shark did not take interest. Regardless we left the area. We did hear that there is also a Great White Shark that reportedly ate a surfer last year in the reef pass 10 km from here. So there is certainly cause to stay on our toes.
While we are stuck in New Caledonia waiting for a decent weather window for the last passage across to Oz we have taken advantage of this time to get lots of water time and spearfishing, which has turned out to be better than anywhere else on this trip save Suwarrow.