Shark Encounters

Species: Blacktip Reef
Location: KoTao, Thailand. 2005.

My first wild shark encounter was memorable, but certainly not glamorous! Ko Tao is a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. Imagine a beautiful idyllic island bathed in sunshine and you’d be right for every other day except the day I went shark freediving. A low pressure system had hit the island overnight, the sea was grey and rough. When we reached the coastal reef area where the sharks could usually be found it was about 6:30 am and I realised I was in serious danger of losing my stomach! Excitement took over however and I was straight in the water.

My first glimpse of a 5ft Blacktip Reef shark was accompanied by heavy water chop, a wave flooded my snorkel. I swallowed what felt like a gallon of seawater, which pushed my sea sickness to the limit. I kept one eye on the shark, indicated to someone else I’d seen a shark and prevented myself from drowning as I was regurgitating my stomach contents (talk about multi-tasking!), as the retching subsided I was delighted by the benefits my stomach evacuation had bought – swarms of reef fish and with them roaming sharks! Perfect!

Species: Lemon, Tiger, Bull, Nurse, Blacktip, Blacknose & Sharpnose shark, Location: South Bimini, Bahamas. 2006.

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As part of my field research for my PhD, I was fortunate enough to head out to the Bimini Islands in the Bahamas. Stationed at the shark lab on the South Island I was conducting tagging studies on juvenile Lemon sharks to determine their depths and temperatures of water they occupied.

Many volunteers and students have passed through the doors of the shark lab and I am sure all would agree with me when I say it is a truly incredible experience. To get the opportunity to work with sharks everyday was a dream realised. Handling, observing and freediving with all of these shark species, whilst being surrounded by the abundance of underwater fauna the Bimini Islands have to offer such as: Conch, Lobster, Rays, and entire Reef ecosystems teeming with life, was in short an unparalleled experience in paradise.

Species: Lesser Spotted Dogfish
Location: Aberdeen, UK. 2006.

A short note on the lesser spotted dogfish (also known as the small spotted catshark). I remember being slightly unimpressed the first time I worked with this species. I’d seen them in various aquariums; they had been the ones sat on the bottom not doing an awful lot. However after working with them in the aquarium environment for over 2 years, handling them, constructing suitable tanks, and feeding them squid, my appreciation has increased greatly.

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They are individuals no doubt. Males are generally feistier than females, but then I have 1 female who is definitely the star of the show nicknamed (unimaginatively!) “Spot” for the large spot on the lower body region. She always comes to see what is going on and is invariably the chosen subject whose image is used for news reports and press releases. Surprisingly the lesser spotted dogfish has also made it onto the shark attack file; recently an unfortunate fisherman had a dogfish clamp onto his nose whilst trying to de-hook the animal! So there we have it, inquisitive individuals with a danger factor also! In my opinion an impressive yet underrated and overlooked shark.

Species: Spiny Dogfish
Location: Loch Sunart, UK. 2009.

During my research into the shark immune system, I became particularly interested in the conservation status of one of our focal species; the spiny dogfish, also known as Spurdog (Squalus acanthias). Due to population segregation and aggregation, stocks are assessed as subpopulations. The North East Atlantic sub-population that I was working with is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. They are heavily fished for their meat and are considered particularly vulnerable to overexploitation, due to their late maturity and low reproductive capacity.

To try to understand more about the habitat utilisation of the spiny dogfish in Western Scottish Sea Lochs, I deployed 10 data storage tags in conjunction with the Scottish Shark Tagging Program, on animals caught by rod and line capture in Loch Sunart.

Species: Galapagos and Sandbar shark
Location: Oahu, Hawaii. 2009.

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December 2009 saw the undertaking of, well a pilgrimage, to the Pacific Islands of Hawaii. Steeped in sea faring history and the birthplace of surfing as we know it. It was a privilege to surf on the shores of Oahu and to witness a potentially once in a lifetime event “The Eddie” – a big wave event which took place at Waimea Bay a few days after I arrived. To add to this my excitement levels had reached fever pitch at the prospect of seeing sharks in warm water again, I arranged a trip with Hawaii Shark Encounters, a fantastic company whose founders place shark conservation at the forefront of their tours (no chum or food is used to attract the sharks).

We headed out to a spot where Galapagos and Sandbar sharks congregate during dawn as a result of local fishermen reeling in their catches. It was great to be in the water with shark species I had not seen before, the downside for me was being in the cage, however it was a policy that needed to be abided by – enabling the business to operate within specific laws. An interesting perspective, responsible tour operators and I got my shark fix!

Species: Whale, Pelagic Thresher, White-tip Reef, Grey Reef shark.
Location: Philippines. 2010.

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Looking back at my diary I kept whilst in the Philippines – not a day went by when I wasn’t describing my underwater encounters as “mind-blowing, phenomenal, stupidly amazing, out of this world… etc…” The truth is no words can describe the kick I was getting from swimming alongside the biggest fish in the Ocean – the Whale shark, I literally pinched myself several times just to make sure the encounters were real and then getting to dive with Pelagic Thresher sharks, on (usually) a daily basis as well as Reef sharks and other elasmobranchs including Pygmy Devil rays and Manta rays which became regular visitors to the areas I was diving.

Whenever I thought it couldn’t get any better I would get 2 threshers and a manta on the same dive or an encounter for 10 minutes or more with a circling thresher making eye contact on each pass. I was living as close to an aquatic existence as I could manage even descending into yet more dives every time I fell asleep!

Species: Grey reef, Black-tip Reef, White-tip Reef, Great Hammerhead shark. Location: Palau. 2010.

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As if I hadn’t had my fill of shark diving – straight after the Philippines I headed over to Palau to indulge in some more! Technically speaking this was “out of season” for Palau, lucky for me it was as I am not sure I would have survived ‘in season’. My excitement levels were permanently off the scale because I was undoubtedly in my Nirvana with sharks on tap! Reef sharks cruising by sometimes solo, other times there would be 20 or more hanging around current rich areas.

During one particular dive we got treated to a pass by a Great Hammerhead although they have been sighted occasionally we certainly weren’t expecting it, as my brain processed the image that my (saucer-like) eyes were seeing before me, the liquid world was timeless. If I have played that moment over once, I have played it a million times in my mind’s eye. That is the real beauty about diving, you never know what you may see and an unexpected treat is a true privilege.

Species: Black-tip Reef, Whale shark & Manta Ray
Location: South Ari Atoll, Maldives. 2011.

For me the novelty of being able to see juvenile black-tips everyday whilst enjoying a paddle did not wear off! These shark nursery areas were ever present around the majority of the islands, providing visitors with a unique glimpse into their world.

During a dive in the North Ari Atoll region I was fortunate enough to experience a memorable manta ray encounter – a breach. I had observed Manta’s breaching before but only ever on top-side and never from such a unique vantage point – directly underneath! I was able to see the burst of speed and the graceful flip and re-entry, it was incredible and a true blink and you’ll miss it moment (thankfully I didn’t!), it also happened that this dive took place on my birthday, a wonderful present – Manta Ray’s and your aquatic-acrobatics, I salute you!

Species: Blue shark.
Location: Faial Island, Azores. 2013.

Upon arriving at the dive site, a few hours boat ride from Faial Island, I became acutely aware that I had based my entire reason for this trip on this dive – no pressure Blues (please, please, please, show up)!! Given that the water was a couple of degrees cooler than it normally is at this time of year and that a group of diver’s just a few days prior had drawn a blank, I admit to being quite surprised when a shark arrived after around 10 minutes of the chum going into the water. The chum – a primarily sardine waste based mix, was necessary given the vastness of the location (slap bang in the middle of the Atlantic) and the depth’s utilised (we were in a “shallower” area that bottomed out at 200m).

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My next fear was, having been assigned to dive in the second group; would the shark(s) stick around for more than an hour without getting bored of looking at neoprene clad bubble-makers? When my turn came to get into the water I was delighted to realise that not only had the sharks stayed, more had arrived and their initial shyness had been overtaken by a bold curiosity! The Blue’s are an intensely beautiful, graceful shark, my time in the water with them was second to none, this is hands down the best shark diving I have done to date! I have often been asked what is my favourite shark, my answer was that I found it impossible to choose between the Blue and the Tiger shark, well Tiger’s I’m sorry but the Blues are edging it!!

Given the fishing pressure, primarily for shark fin soup, that the Blue’s are currently under I felt both privileged and overwhelmingly sad being in their presence. To find out more about ongoing campaigns to increase protection for Blue’s and other as yet unregulated shark species visit the Shark Trust campaigns page. 

Species: Great Hammerhead, Nurse & Bull shark.
Location: Bimini, Bahamas. 2015.

I realised with some surprise that a whopping 9 years had passed by since I had been in Bimini, with this in mind I decided a return visit was a must and what better time to go than during Great Hammerhead season (Sphyrna mokarran)!!

Put simply, my dives with the Hammerheads blew me away!!
Once the bait had gone in the water wewere inundated with nurse sharks typically after only a couple of minutes, on average we only had to wait around 20 minutes until the unmistakable outline and approach of the Hammers were spotted from the boat, a speedy kitting up and grabbing of camera equipment ensued (with a quick nod to the O’ring gods) and we descended down to the white sand with depths around 6m. Seeing these animals up close in the water was incredible. I certainly don’t possess the vocabulary or the literary skill to do them justice, they are truly humbling and awesome.

On each dive Hammers exhibited different behaviours and swimming patterns which allowed for some fantastic photography opportunities. Unlike the more classic shark body shape the angles and form of the Great Hammerheads combined with the sunlight filtering through the water and the approach of the sharks created the potential for yet another different and interesting shot, the opportunities were endless!

The Bull Sharks at North Bimini Docks were sizeable distractions when visiting the North Islands, never far away and quick to appear when any fishermen were cleaning up their catch!

Once again Bimini was incredible. Prior to my visit I had been anxious that the sharks wouldn’t turn up, I had somehow forgotten how special a place Bimini is – of course the sharks would be there, as were Stingrays, Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Turtles etc etc…

Species: Basking shark.
Location, Oban, UK. 2015.

Basking Shark

August 2015 finally resulted in a successful mission to freedive with Basking Sharks! I have always been lucky with my shark encounters abroad, however in the UK, aside from the rogue catshark, they have always evaded me!

On this particular occasion however everything came together. I headed out of Oban with the Basking Shark Scotland team, on an extremely rare perfect weather day. Calm seas and clear blue skies afforded a superb view across to the Hebrides and North to the Cuillins on Skye. Whilst looking out for that enormous dorsal fin breaking the surface we also had Dolphins and Minke Whales in abundance!

We saw 6 different sharks cruising along and when we saw 2 individuals which were staying near the surface it was our chance to get in the water. The sheer abundance of plankton and zooplankton in the water was the reason for the sharks being there but it also made them tricky to see from a distance, fortunately the sharks actually turned towards us and passed by so we got a great view of these enormous and elusive plankton eaters!

Species: Great White Shark.
Location: Guadalupe Island, Mexico. 2015.

For years I have put the great white shark on the back burner, insisting that there were so many other shark species out there which I should be in the water with… But then in September 2015 I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about!

I decided to book on the Guadalupe trip with “Big Fish Expeditions”, for which Andy Murch the well known elasmobranch photographer, is the CEO and expedition leader. Unlike other well-known sites that are frequented by white sharks such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the waters surrounding Guadalupe were practically crystal clear, with visibility typically ranging from an incredible 20-45m. Great White sharks group together and forage in the waters around the island from July through to February every year. In short it is a shark biologists & photographers dream!

From the point at which we began to drop anchor, we were utterly spoiled rotten by the abundance of sharks, with cries of “Tiburon” (shark) being shouted by the crew from dawn to dusk each day. At one point we had eight sharks, all within view; some sharks would hang around and check us out for a couple of hours, others would stay with us from sunrise to sunset, even accompanying us deeper in a submerged cage.

Everything about these animals fascinated me: their curiosity, speed, size, behaviours towards one another; their sheer presence blew me away. I had always held back from adding the word “great” to their name before; I thought it somehow unfair to the 500 other species of shark. Not anymore, this trip allowed me to fully comprehend the greatness of the white shark.

Species: Bull Huss.
Location: Macduff, UK. 2015.

A unique opportunity arose during my role as aquarist at Macduff Marine Aquarium. Whereby a juvenile Bull Huss (Scyliorhinus stellaris) was foul hooked with a stainless steel barbed ‘J’ hook. Essentially one of the worst types of hooks to ingest. The J shape means it is more likely to lodge deeper down into the oesophagus and become embedded, something the barb also increases the likelihood of and to top it off the stainless steel part means the hook won’t be breaking down anytime soon. Together with the fish vet group we were able to take X’ Rays and locate the hook and plan the best method of removal. Fortunately we were able to remove the hook in its entirety and the juvenile bull huss nicknamed “The Captain (Hook!)” was feeding within 24 hours and made a full recovery.

Species: Oceanic Whitetip Shark.
Location: Cat Island, Bahamas. 2017.

I was attracted by the reputation of the Oceanic’s – bold and feisty, not afraid to approach whatever or whomever happened to be in the water alongside them. They did not disappoint! However despite some close passes, no sharks bumped my camera housing and no displays of aggression were observed. This species curiosity combined with the fact that they are open ocean predators whereby they make the most of predation opportunities, have led to their notoriety in the water as the species thought to have predated on the victims of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The hunters however, have now become the hunted with the North West Atlantic population that I was diving with being classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. I thoroughly enjoyed my dives with the Oceanic’s and I hope effective management of this species will allow stocks to recover in the near future.

Species: Pyjama and Leopard Catsharks, Puffadder and Dark Shysharks, Blue Sharks and Copper Sharks. Location: False Bay, South Africa. 2019.

In 2002 as part of my undergraduate degree, I had the fantastic opportunity to study out in Langebaan, South Africa. Ever since I have been eager to return and get in the water with the multitude of species the Cape Peninsula has to offer.

Species: Pyjama and Leopard Catsharks, Puffadder and Dark Shysharks, Blue Sharks and Copper Sharks. Location: False Bay, South Africa.
And so at the end of March 2019 I headed back out to Cape Town, this time I stayed in Simon’s Town and dived the Kelp Forests of False Bay where I was spoilt by several species of charismatic catsharks and shysharks. I also did an offshore dive from Cape Point and spent some quality time with some very interactive Blue Sharks (still my favourite species of shark… ssshhh don’t tell the others!)!
I then headed across to Hermanus to meet up with collaborators from the Shark & Marine Research Institute. It was fantastic to chat about upcoming projects in person, I also got to head out into the Bay with them to squeeze a dive in with an abundance of copper sharks!

Species: Flapper Skate Egg-laying Site. Location: Inner Sound, Skye, UK. 2020.

In October 2020 I headed out to the recently discovered Flapper Skate (Dipturus intermedius) egg-laying site located within the Inner Sound of Skye. I was there with a small group of collaborators including divers, videographers, creelers and scallop divers to survey the site. This involved counting the eggcases and observing different stages of development in situ as well as conducting exploratory dives at additional nearby locations (we found more eggcases at these sites too!!)

The main site is truly astonishing, with over 200 eggcases laid by a critically endangered species, slotted in between small boulders on the seabed! This is the only known site off mainland Scotland, I will never forget dropping down at the site, my eyes adjusting during the descent, constantly searching until bingo, there they were!