This is an old column I wrote for a diving magazine - not too sure it's entirely uplifting and feel good, but the sentiment is more pertinent than ever.....anyway.....
I’ve just enjoyed a terrific week on the liveaboard Blue Horizon, trolling through the southern Red Sea and diving the classics. Little Brother, Daedelus, The Salem Express – all names justifiably revered in the diving world, and all of which I’m delighted to say thoroughly lived up to the hype.
There were twenty-four of us on the boat, and as with most liveaboard trips the group seemed to span the entire social spectrum. We had a raconteur extrordinaire (a mini-me style ex-Serviceman with a vast catalogue of outstanding stories), some diamond geezers, a nutty professor, a professional Kiwi, a deliciously eccentric doctor, and a spattering of nationalities and characters drawn in by the opportunity to share the big blue spaces with a few sinuous shadows. We all had a great adventure over the course of the week – stormy nights, threshers, curious grey sharks, lone hammerheads, and a profoundly atmospheric wreck. It all culminated in a night that involved apocalyptic volumes of tequila and – to my deep regret and eternal shame – some dancing. When I dance it looks very much like someone has propped up a deep coma victim before repeatedly tazering them. The truly horrifying truth is that – when a certain critical percentage of blood alcohol is reached – I actually think I’m quite good at dancing, and that the extraordinary collection of tics, spasms and flailing limbs make me quite attractive to the opposite sex. I think it’s more the fact that they are drawn in by the bewitching spectacle of someone undergoing a series of what appear to be full blown seizures in a public place.
Anyway, I digress. I’m sitting typing this in a café in Hurghada, nursing a hangover and a cappuccino, and reflecting on the trip. By the way, here’s a thing. Why does the expression “nursing” apply only to drinks and headaches? You “nurse” a drink, or a splitting migraine. It’s a bit like “sporting” something (you know, “He was sporting a …….”), which as far as I can figure out applies only to particularly magnificent hats. And erections.
Right, back to the column (as it were), and the striking of a more sombre note. Foremost in my mind when I came on this trip was trying to get a photograph of an oceanic white tip. This is pretty much the only large species of shark I’ve never dived with, and I was beside myself at the prospect of hanging just below the surface and facing this most curious and bold of sharks. I was gutted when Dray – our excellent guide for the week – mentioned that we were at the very tail end of the season for the white tips and possibly wouldn’t see any. I was – in turn – breathless with excitement when one appeared beside the boat as we moored at Little Brother. On entering the water and hanging in the blue under the bow – a distinctly un-nerving sensation – I was finally joined by the shark in the last ten minutes of the dive. Led by it’s entourage of pilot fish the white tip passed inches away from me, turning on it’s own body length to return to investigate again and again this strange collection of electronic signals, bubbles and flailing limbs that hung in its path. Head on the massive pectorals look like the swept wings of a glider, while the snowy white tips of the fins remain in view even when the grey body has melted into the gloom after the shark has passed you by. You can see them dancing and gyrating against the reef wall like strange disembodied creatures with a life of their own. This is a particularly beautiful, bold shark – a magnificent predator and one of the greatest shark encounters of my life.
As the shark melted away into the blue, and my particular encounter with it drew to a close, I hung beneath the boat for a moment – alone with my thoughts. I idly wondered if I would ever see an oceanic white tip again.
We all know about the eradication of the shark – of course we do. But here’s a few statistics to focus our collective minds.
The oceanic white tip was thought to be one of the most abundant large predators on the planet a mere thirty years ago. The IUCN website (which monitors the status of various species on behalf of the UN) notes that between 1992 and 2000 numbers declined by 70% in the NW and Central Atlantic. That’s nine years ago – nine years of steady development in fishing technology, increased demand for sharks fin soup, and larger, wider ranging long liners.
In the Gulf of Mexico a survey in the late 1990’s, noted a decline of 99.3% since a similar survey in the 1950’s. I’ll say that again. A decline of 99.3% of all oceanic white tip sharks in the Gulf of Mexico in forty years – a sea now devoid of elegant shadows and graceful design.
I know I’m preaching to the converted – divers are invariably passionate and vocal about protecting the sea. But I’ll say again – as I have so many times before – that what will future generations think when that look back on our own? Will they ask – aghast – as to how we could have let this happen? I suspect they will, as they hang beneath the hulls of dive boats, and wait, and wait, staring into the empty, echoing, silent ocean around them.