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Dicing with Death
BobHalstead - 4/29/2013 7:18 AM
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Category: Educational
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Dicing with DeathBy Bob Halstead

Not so long ago, sharks were as natural a part of the diving environment as masks and fins, and divers prepared to meet them in various fashions.

One diver had flown all the way from Miami USA to Alotau in PNG to join one of our Telita Cruises. With some surprise I watched this keen young man proudly unpack an anti-shark “bang stick” and bandolier of .357 magnum bullets from his dive bag. No shark is going to get me, he explained.

He had, through some disturbing chance, managed to carry the bang stick and ammunition through both Australian and PNG customs. His luck ran out on board Telita as I proceeded, to his dismay, to immediately dump the bullets overboard in 200 metres of water. No diver with a bang stick is going to get me, I explained.

A married couple occasionally joined our weekend day trips to the Papuan Barrier Reef. They had made themselves two impressive shark sticks about one metre long, painted white, with a nail implanted in one end, a lanyard in the other, and never dived without them. They experienced a fair bit of teasing from other guests, but were confident that the sticks would work, although they had never actually had a shark swim close enough to use them.

We departed the dock strictly at 8 am and never waited for anyone. This day the couple had a flat tyre on the way to the dock and arrived just a minute before departure time. They grabbed their dive bags, jumped on the boat and we cast off.

A few seconds later they realised that they had left their shark sticks in the boot of the car. They proceeded to have a major discussion deciding whether it was safe to dive or not.

Bravery triumphed! They went into the water without their sticks, tempting the Gods of course …. and Inevitably a large hammerhead came up to them and started circling. Without their trusty sticks they just knew their number was up. The hammerhead eventually got bored and swam away. The divers were convinced it was a miracle, and made it back to the dive platform where they vomited from the shock. They obviously reformed their lives since we never saw them again.

I have to confess to making a shark stick myself in my early years of diving in PNG. Dinah and I were exploring new diving areas, and at many of the sites we would find ourselves surrounded by large numbers of excited Grey Reef Sharks within moments of entering the water. But we learned that after the initial excitement the sharks calmed down, and often would not be seen again if we repeated the dive. Over the years and after many thousands of dives in tropical waters we realise that the risk to a diver from a shark is very small. We have inevitably had surprise encounters with large Tiger, Great Hammerhead and even Bull Sharks and could easily have been bitten had the sharks that intention.

The only times we have had problems was once when I was catching lobsters while snorkelling, and once when Dinah was hand feeding Silvertip Sharks with tuna baits. Even then, and Dinah did get bitten, it was our silly mistake since the shark thought a white knee pad was the bait. Attacks by sharks are usually caused by carrying baits, spear-fishing, thrashing on the surface or finning like a wounded fish. I suggest you check your buddy out next time you dive together ….

As individual dive sites become more popular so sharks tend to stay clear and encounters become rarer. Dive operators the world over have found that with few exceptions the only reliable way of getting divers to see sharks is to establish feeding stations. These are now controversial. In 1988 we established a wonderful Silvertip Shark feeding station near Kavieng in PNG where we entertained a family of eleven beautiful Silvertips for several years.

I found out recently that there are now very few, if any, Silvertips at the site anymore – most had been killed for their fins. We recently ran a series of cruises through the Louisiade Archipelago, an area once famous for its shark action. Only a few years ago divers reported being chased out of the water by shivers of large sharks – this time, on almost every likely shark dive, we found a string of shark buoys permanently moored to catch all the sharks in the area. Some reefs had long lines hung up on them where long-line fishing vessels had illegally fished too close to the reefs targeting sharks. Sharks were scarce.

Is there hope, well yes. In Milne Bay PNG in January 2005 twenty one illegal foreign fishing boats were arrested and seized in the Province. Conservation International is well established in the Provincial Capital and is establishing protected marine areas and, in exchange for not fishing, is helping villagers create sustainable agricultural and business projects. There is also the ironically useful news that many sharks are so contaminated with mercury that people who eat shark fin soup risk brain damage.

Let’s save the sharks, condemn the shark killers! And if you hear anyone say anything silly, ask them if they have been eating shark fin soup.

SAVE THE SHARKS – Eat Whale Fin Soup

“We wanna to seea tha Bigga Sharka”

It was late 1970’s, and I was leading a special dive charter aboard the Melanesian Explorer, an ex Japanese harbour ferry converted to a tourist expedition ship. This usually cruised northern PNG, chugging pods of elderly, safari clad, Americans and Europeans on the adventure of a lifetime up the muddy effluent of the Sepik River . At villages they rowdily competed for the attention of the locals, who, disguised as natives, were willing to jump up and down, and exchange lumps of roughly carved timber, for cash in order to buy new outboard motors.

The MX, as it was known, was not my idea of a dive boat. The fittings were quite luxurious – but everything was cramped, and it was certainly not designed for 190 cm Caucasian dive instructors as I discovered by banging my head on the upper deck when attempting to board the vessel.

The group I was hired to take diving consisted of thirteen Italian males (Oh so Male!) and two females – who were, naturally, not to be permitted to dive. The men all sported hairy chests displayed in apish opulence through the failure of the top five buttons of their short sleeved shirts. Nestled in the hair, and strung by gold anchor chain, were massive gold pendants in the shape of …. SHARKS!

No that is not true – it was not actually anchor chain, I just made that up.

I mentioned the short sleeves because the next thing that caught my attention as I greeted them from the aircraft was that each of them had a tattoo on their arms of a shark with their individual blood group underneath.

The leader of the group was a wonderful diver and rogue named Scipio Silvi. His gold anchor chain clasped a giant Great White Shark tooth – extracted, he later informed me, from a Great White Shark he had speared in the Mediterranean where they are known to bother Tuna fishermen by competing for the tuna.

“We wanna to seea tha Bigga Sharka” they repeated.

“No problem mates, but around here you ought to have the tattoo on both arms and a leg, just to be safe”. We were headed for the fabled Wuvulu Island and the Hermit and Ninigo group in the Bismarck Sea west of Manus Island – plenty of big sharks out there.

After banging my head again, this time trying to get into my cabin, I decided to set up the portable compressors and tanks on the open sun deck. More work to carry the tanks, but I was hoping to preserve some brain power for the cruise and, besides, I correctly guessed that the favourite occupation of the two ladies would be to see how little clothing they could wear without actually being naked while basting themselves in the tropical sun. I just assumed that the fumes from the cooking flesh would be filtered out by the compressor when I filled the diving tanks.

The divers swaggered aboard, retired to their cabins, and we set sail. Early the next morning, after tending to the cut over my eye caused by brute contact with the saloon deck head, I came on deck. It is a favourite, magical, time for me. The dawn light glinting on a distant island promised a perfect day. Small ships move slowly – perhaps we were making 10 knots, and there is nothing that can be done to speed things up. I have learned, instead of becoming impatient, to savour these times, and my good fortune. Here I was in a South Pacific paradise, on a fabulous adventure diving unknown waters … with a bunch of crazy Italians.

So I quietly contemplated the day ahead. My preparations were complete, I was ready – perhaps I should have been a trifle concerned about the competence of the divers, none of whom I had seen dive before, but Scipio knew his stuff, I was sure. After all, he had speared a Great White Shark and lived to tell the tale ….. The island crept closer and I could see the tantalising reef colour against the blue, blue water. The ship, belching its deep throated chug, seemed as eager and excited as I was.

We arrived, anchored, and Scipio joined me. “Come” he said, “we go diving”.

“But what about the others?” I asked

“We go! The others – Pphhhht!”.

So Scipio and I went off in the ship’s tender and had a marvellous dive. We were not in the water for more than a minute before a dozen Grey Reef Sharks were buzzing around us, then a couple of majestic Silvertips joined in. Grey reefs come from all directions and act rather nervously but Silvertips just come straight at you. At first the iridescent silver edges of the fins, lights in space, catch your eye shimmering towards you like some alien ship navigating from the deep.

Suddenly the shark has form, body, eyes – and a mouth. Only a fool would move, the shark obviously can out swim and manoeuvre any mere diver. Sharks do not eat people, especially divers – who taste horribly of rubber and metal – unless they mistake them for something else – like a wounded struggling fish . So I kept my fins still, pretended I had not bashed my head, exuded good health, and held my camera in front of me just in case it was a dumb shark. A mere metre away it flicked its tail and made a right angle turn, eyeing me as it moved away. That was a hell of a thrill.

In PNG in the 1970s and 1980s it was like that. Just about everywhere you dived there were sharks. The first dive at a site was always the best, if you dived it a second time there were never as many sharks, and if you continued to dive it sharks mostly never bothered to show. But that first dive – awesome! There were plenty of first dives to be made then, and diving at most sites was so infrequent that returning to the site at a later date usually repeated the action. If you are still a shark virgin and are still a mite concerned about meeting your first bigga sharka when diving I’ll tell you a secret. They cannot stand being stared at. So stay still, eyeball the monster – and it will swim away. Well it works for me, anyway.

Scipio did know his divers – we returned to the ship to find the decks still empty and only after banging on cabin doors and yelling “Multo Bueno!” did we get the others out of their bunks. I was getting a bit of a headache from all the yelling (and contact with a couple more low deck beams) and it was even noisier once we had everyone out of the cabins and they started shouting at each other. I thought there was a fight but it turns out that this is the way Italian divers communicate.

We finally got them in the water. Half were frantically pointing at their ears and wiggling their hands with the “Something’s Wrong” signal, those that could actually dive had dropped at least 50 m down the reef wall and I could make them out way below chasing the few brave sharks to make an appearance. Scipio signalled me to stand by, then demonstrated the way that he controlled ascents – namely by going out and grabbing divers as they shot back up to the surface.

One dive a day was enough for our heroes but Scipio and I were into it. We dived a passage where a line of manta rays paraded past; an outer wall festooned with soft corals; a reef point where we were swarmed by thousands of trevally and barracuda. The corals were vibrant and unspoiled, the fishes abundant and the sharks, well the sharks were beautiful.

No one got eaten, not even an arm chomped off, and more amazingly, no one got bent. I had the worst injuries, to my battered head, which some reckon are permanent. The guests were happy. As we said farewell each of the divers took my hand, hugged me and said “It wasa sooo wonderfull, thanka you so mucha!”.