August 9, 2011 - "Sharkfest 2011"

August 09, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

Photo of the Week
Sand Tiger Shark on the wreck of the Atlas Tanker.
Note the growth on the teeth and mouth. (New)
The famous movie poster image of 'Jaws'.
1975©Courtesy of Universal Studios

When the movie 'Jaws' was released in 1975 I was a mere eight years old but remember clearly the terrifying experience seeing the film. In those days multiplexes did not exist as of yet and the theatre was a large screen in one large auditorium style room with a balcony. I remember standing in the lobby on a long line waiting for the previous viewing to end and the movie goers to exit. As each harrowing scene developed towards the climax of the movie, loud shrieks emanated out of the theatre from the viewers along with the blood curdling scream of Captain Quint as his thorax was crushed by the steel like Jaws of a Great White Shark. "Egads", I thought to myself. "what the heck is going on in there?".  The only other time I ever heard screams like that was on Space Mountain at Disney World. I was terrified before I even got in to my seat. Even though I was scared out of my whits I still voluntarily entered the theatre with unabated curiosity. As the opening scene ominously developed (anyone who has ever seen Jaws knows this scene well) my toes clenched together and my eyes bugged out of my head while I completely forgot about the Milk Duds I was clutching in my hand.
Captain Quint meeting his fate.
1975©Courtesy of Universal Studios

As the scene ended and the daylight setting from the following scene illuminated the theatre my mind slowly came back in to consciousness and another Milk Dud finally found its way into my mouth. By the time I walked out of the theatre, I was thoroughly entertained by the film as well as totally freaked out. (It's ironic how these two emotions run hand in hand in our society.) Apparently, I wasn't the only one though. This film created a mass hysteria on the scale never before seen in the American public (maybe with the exception of Orson Welles radio production of War of the Worlds in 1938). People by the thousands were literally scared to go back in the water for the irrational fear that a leviathan with razor sharp teeth was going to eat them up. I myself do not recall missing a single day of swimming and snorkeling after that but maybe at that young age I was able to separate fact from fiction and that movies are not reality. Not only did the film create fear it also inadvertently created an animosity and stigma towards sharks that led to their wholesale slaughter. A slaughter that was unjustified. Shark attacks on humans are very rare considering the hundreds of millions of people who enter the water every year. The media however cashed in on this hysteria in the public and saturated the airwaves with stories of shark attacks real or imagined. Statistically, one has a better chance of getting struck by lighting then they do getting bitten by a shark but you would not have been told this my the media in 1975. Sharks became enemy number one and were fished on a massive scale and sometimes for sport with only photos taken and whole carcasses thrown in to the dumpster minus the jaws and teeth. Only today have sharks began to be better understood and given the respect they deserve as apex predators of the food chain and not man eaters. We as the human race have a long way to go in treating them as a vital part of the marine ecosystem and protecting them from extinction. For example, Sharks are still being slaughtered by the millions worldwide as a food source or exclusively for there shark fins which are used in Asian delicacies such as shark fin soup. The fins are cut off and the shark tossed back in to the ocean sometimes while still alive. Scientist indicate that many species of shark have been reduced by as much as 95% worldwide due to such wasteful practices as these.

There is hope for sharks yet. Many of you reading this blog are already aware that seeing a shark or sharks underwater while diving is a pinnacle experience and we sport divers pay good money to see them. Many countries such as the Bahamas, Palau and all of Micronesia have stood up and taken notice of this influx in tourist spending and are acting if not for the good will of sharks then for the improvement of the economy of there country by passing laws prohibiting fishing for sharks. They are starting to realize that a shark alive is worth considerably more money than a shark is dead. 

Sand Tiger Shark on the wreck of the
Atlas Tanker. (New)
If this idea holds true anywhere it is in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Without a doubt Sand Tigers and sharks in general are a huge draw for divers at Olympus Dive Center. Barely a day goes by that a group does not request to see Sand Tiger Sharks on the way out to a dive on board the boat I captain, the Midnight Express. In fact, this past weekend Olympus was host to "Sharkfest 2011" led by Andy Murch and his company Andy is an accomplished underwater photographer specializing in, you guest it, sharks. He conducts diving excursions all over the world with groups of shark enthusiasts to such locations as, you guest it again, Morehead City, North Carolina. This year Andy brought 18 divers with him armed to the hilt with an assortment of point and shoot cameras as well as some heavy duty SLR's all with one main objective, to photograph Sand Tiger Sharks and whatever else with big teeth would swim close enough to them for a prized shot. On Friday August 5th, we were to start out the long weekend with a late afternoon dive and a night dive on the USCG Cutter Spar which has been notorious for the Sand Tiger Sharks that populate it. However, I will say with honesty that the Spar has not had nearly as many Sand Tigers on it as it has in years past although there are a few spotted each dive there this year. 
"Captain Barracuda" in the helm station of the USCG Cutter Spar. (New)
The afternoon dive went well enough with a handful of sharks seen by my divers and I even managed to squeeze in a dive on the Spar. Not seeing very many sharks on the scene I swam up to the wheelhouse and spotted the usual school of Spadefish swarming around the watchtower. Right in the center of the tower was one enormous Barracuda. It became evident that this big fish was the master of his domain.  Any time another Barracuda came too close to his perch he quickly chased them away. In addition there was another fairly large Barracuda that had a hook in its mouth and a leader dangling from it that was hanging around the perimeter of the 'bully' on the block. The weight and drag of this hook and line was enough to cause the fish to list to his left side. At some point in the dive the Barracuda swam in to the wheelhouse and just hung out. I swam in the opposite door being careful not to startle the fish.  Amazingly, the Barracuda calmly hovered there for many minutes while I took numerous photos of him. After a little while I was able to approach within maybe 18 inches.  I stopped taking photos for a minute while the two of us just stared at each other. I wanted to reach over and remove the hook or at least cut the leader and I had this weird feeling that the Cuda wanted me to do it. All of a sudden I was the Barracuda Whisperer and reached out to see if I could get close to the leader. At that point he decided enough was enough and made a hasty exit out the port side door. So much for my little fantasy of communicating with fish. It was an interesting but futile thought.

After this dive, due to some technical difficulties, I had to cancel the night dive and head in for the day with the promise that we would dive the Atlas Tanker the following day where many shark sightings on mass scale have been seen there this season already. If the conditions are good it could be a special treat.  
Please visit and view some of the video shorts I shot there this season and read my previous Dive Blog Report, Sand Tiger Shark Invasion! from May 30th.
Sand Tiger Shark on the Atlas Tanker. (New)
Come Saturday morning the 'Midnight' made way for the Atlas Tanker as promised. The Atlas had not been dived for more than a week at this point so the dive conditions were unknown. The visibility in this section of the ocean has a tendency to be on the low side sometimes at only 5-10 feet but, Andy decided the risk was well worth it if there were to be an abundance of sharks to be seen. As we pulled up to the wreck the sea was calm with only a large ground swell bobbing the boat to and fro.  My mate jumped in with the hook and had us secured in only a minute or two and radioed up to me on the com that visibility was a pretty 40 feet or more down on the wreck with a 'ton' of sharks swimming about. He said that he could see the dive boat from 90 feet! This was good news to Andy and the rest of the shark hounds on the boat. Many people who still do not understand that sharks are rarely problematic to humans, wonder why the heck we knowingly jump in to the water and swim with these creatures who want to eat us. They might add it's like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane even though you are wearing a parachute. Well, unless you have never felt the rush of jumping out of a plane you will never understand what it is like to swim with sharks. To do it is to understand it. With this said, it didn't take long for all my divers to get geared up and make the jump in to the water without their parachutes. One by one they headed down to get a glimpse of these awesome critters on their home turf.

Sand Tiger Shark on the Atlas Tanker. (New)
As each diver returned it became apparent that it was mission accomplished. Not only did they all get close encounters with the toothy kind, they got to see dozens of sharks all at once. The dive was so good it was decided immediately that we would do the second dive of the day on the Atlas as well. That was music to my ears.  I grabbed my Nikon D300 and got suited up and made a nice long dive blazing away a few photos of the sharks with the wreck as a backdrop. I managed to score a few decent shots while enjoying myself to the fullest in the warm clear water. 

After everyone had had their full of the Atlas for the day we headed home in calm seas and planned on diving the wreck of the Caribsea on Sunday, which is only a few miles away from the Atlas and is also home to a large population of Sand Tigers. Jumping ahead to Sunday morning we sadly had too strong of winds to safely make a dive this day. We had to cancel the charters (insert frown face here). At least the group had a fantastic day on Saturday with rare conditions on the Atlas. I can only hope that the two days of diving was enough for first timers to North Carolina diving to return again in the future to experience all that the region has to offer. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to take a few snapshots of the Sharkfest attendees to include in this blog so please forgive me for my blatant negligence.

On a closing note, there are lots of spaces available on the Midnight Express and Olympus for the month of August and September.  Stop looking at your 401(k) and your IRA's and relieve the stress of the real world and GO DIVING!  I'll see you soon.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

Footnote: The author of 'Jaws', Peter Benchley, after the release of the movie, became an advocate for sharks and spent a significant part of his life educating the public about their true nature due to the unforeseen negative effect his book and subsequent film had on them.

Photo Tip of the Week
This weeks Photo Tip of the Week goes out there to anyone who is shooting with a point and shoot consumer camera or even an SLR camera set to 'program' or 'automatic' mode. One of the first things I tell someone who asks me how to take better photos is "are you shooting on manual mode?. "If not then it is time to start". A digital camera on program mode will select the aperture or f-stop and shutter speed based on the light the camera is reading and most often it does a poor job of it due to the fact that a camera cannot take in to account all of the conditions you are faced with. This holds especially true underwater. If you are content on taking simple snapshots then you need not read any further but if you want to start taking your photography up a big notch then start learning how shutter speed and aperture settings effect your images. So take the plunge and set your camera on manual mode and learn to use the light meter to determine ambient light conditions and how to set your f-stop and shutter speed accurately for optimal exposures. You will start to learn why your image is too dark or too light and how to adjust for it. In the beginning try to shoot without strobes to achieve good ambient light exposures. Once you start to understand the relationship between f-stops, shutter speeds and even iso settings you can add the fourth element of exposure which is the strobes. By shooting on Program mode you are doing yourself an injustice by not learning these basics of photography and the cause and effect of exposure settings. This blog will not go in depth on the subject of exposures though. It is merely to get you motivated to cross over from taking snapshots in program mode to taking top notch photographs in manual mode. Try it, I know you can do it.

See below for the shameless self promotion
section of this blog!

Please visit my web site to see video excerpts from my documentary films and a complete underwater photographic portfolio of my work and purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films.

If you wish to dive Graveyard of the Atlantic contact Olympus Dive Center for more information.

Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
Also, follow me on Facebook at Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken) and click like to receive the latest updates.
Mike Gerken


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