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A SHARK STORY BY ARNOLDO FALCOFF

a shark story by arnoldo falcoff patagon scuba dive center st.thomas st. john us virgin islands

"Even though incredibly remote, the idea of a possible shark attack is so terrifying that people's fascination and/or fear of sharks defy the logic of statistics. Other potential dangers of equal improbability do not change people's habits or increase their concerns. Sharks do. The US Virgin Islands waters were shark attack free for many decades. Not a single incident was recorded despite the thousands of 'live baits' who take a swim, or scuba, or go snorkeling daily."

Next, is a true story that was written by Arnoldo Falcoff, owner of Patagon Dive Center for a local Marine publication.

One night in August, some years ago, the underwater cameraman, Armando Jenik, long time friend since our diving days in Patagonian waters, phoned me from Tortola to say that finally he was able to buy a whole marlin. The 380-lbs. fish cost him $500, but the price was never the problem rather than the ability to get a hold of one.

Sportsmanship standards make sport fishermen to tag and release back in the water any marlin caught that weighs under 400 lbs. and, of course, the ones captured that pass the weight limit are fewer but mostly are released anyway.

The sole reason for purchasing the marlin was to use it for shark bait, which in turn made it even more difficult to find a sport fishing captain that will accept any monetary offer.

Two months before the fish transaction, in Tortola, Armando was hosting a filming crew to shoot an underwater video documentary that later came with the title "Ecstasea".

Famous names were associated with this project like shark filmer Stan Waterman ("Blue Water, White Death") as guest cameraman and the author of "Jaws", Peter Benchley.
The crew worked for two weeks in VI waters filming extensive footage of our coral reefs, shipwrecks, night dives, scenery and sharks.

The segment reserved for sharks proved to be the most difficult to materialize and by the time the production team left Tortola, this part remained incomplete. During those two weeks, several days were put aside for shark footage. The routine was to head for the North Drop Off, aboard "Piscis" of Cane Garden Bay, long hours were spent chumming and waiting for sharks to show up. Six (50 gal.) drums filled with a frozen mix of fish heads, guts and blood and many large tuna carcasses was the tasty cargo of chum I brought from St. Thomas aboard "Chaucito". The results to attract sharks were poor with only few and solitary and brief encounters with a couple of tigers and a hammer head. But they did exit the area almost as soon as they came in.

The inability to produce to produce more shark activity in front of the cameras could respond to different hypothesis. The lack of better bait probably was one of them and the large diver activity of few underwater cameramen and their safety divers could be another. As most local divers know, to encounter a good size shark in our VI waters is more the exception than the rule. However, sharks are much more abundant in deeper waters like the northern Drop Off. This is the border of an underwater plateau that extends around the Islands 20 miles away from their shores. At this border, depths rapidly increase from 300 feet into an oceanic drop and, when the ocean currents meet this steep inclination deep waters rich in nutrients are forced to the surface. These nutrients, in interaction with sunlight, will produce the phytoplankton, the first link of a food chain that will have the large ocean predators on the other end.

During the fishing high season, in the summer months, sport fishing boats will travel daily to the northern Drop Off looking for better chances to capture marlins and other large game fish. Sharks are actively present in the area and often fishermen report shark attacks on marlins and tunas when the fish are fighting at the end of the fishing line. Chance of survival of the marlins that are tagged and released is still a matter of controversy. The fish are brought alongside the boat when the fighting energy is exhausted and when released they may stay groggy for a period of time. Indeed, muscle fatigue restoration on cold blood animals is a slower process that the more metabolic efficient warm blooded. Data on recaptured marlins that were tagged and released is certainly part of the answer to this enigma that takes place in the vast open blue.

With a marlin in hand, Armando called me that night to ask if I wanted to assist him as the safety diver. Two factors were promising better results this time. First, only the two of us were going to be in the water compared with the larger diver activity of the last experience. Sharks for the most part are shy and distrustful and avoid areas of foreign activity. This may explain why so few sharks are seen in the many popular dive sites of the Virgin Islands. The second favorable factor was the use of a whole marlin as shark bait. We have heard from experienced fishermen how especially keen sharks are for marlin.

Back at the Drop Off once again, a morning with fair seas brought some comfort to the tense mood of equipment preparations. We placed the marlin in 15 feet of water hanging from a large buoy and 40 feet away from the shark cage. With several cuts we made on its flesh, the scent started to spread out with the ocean current. In an hour, in gross calculation, the food source signal could be picked up by the powerful smell sensors of any shark located within a couple of square miles of the water column down the current.

I took the first watch using snorkeling gear. It was certainly an eerie feeling of high expectation looking down upon an immense pure transparent mass of water with no points of reference and waiting for shapes to materialize literally "out of the blue". After about 35 minutes I spotted a large tiger shark entering the area and surveying it with long linear slow swims between sudden turns of direction. In short time Armando and I got back in the water with SCUBA gear, video camera and bang stick but the shark was no where in sight. The marlin though was missing its tail fin but the shark vanished. Indeed it was a strange start but we decided to wait for more action and spend some air. Frustration mounted after 10 minutes in the water with no signs of more visitors but the missing tail was my proof to Armando that we did have our first shark.

Half way through our air supply we see coming a graceful 8 foot bull shark that started encircling both the marlin and us and also made close passes to the marlin which showed some rhythmic motion caused by the pulls of the waves on the buoy.
Actually this bull shark was following the most predicted patterns of behavior: caution, refrain and reassessment in front of a potential food source. A behavior pattern that accounts for one of the many elements that makes these creatures an unparalleled story of evolutionary success. With a fossil record over 300,00,000 years, three times older than the dinosaurs, sharks are among the oldest animals on our planet. A survival efficiency that relates to so many of the species attributes: powerful smell sensors to trace food sources from very long distances, ability to sustain long periods of time without food, swimming speed and endurance, opportunistic feeding habits and a behavior of caution and refrain.

The bull shark gave us long time of camera opportunity but without striking at the marlin. Then a second shark came to the scene. This was a huge male tiger shark that looked simply majestic. He had a school of pilot fish and also two remoras crawling on his body, quite an entourage. And he was Big! While looking at the video later we could see that his size almost doubled the one of the 380lbs marlin.

The tiger shark, after a couple of evolutions of reassessment, went straight into business. Without any rush, took a first bite just behind the dorsal fin and immediately went for a second and terrifying bite. Coming from down under with his jaws wide open, took into his mouth about 3 to 4 feet of the tail trunk and, while closing his jaw, made violent swings to each side, shaking the whole marlin like a puppet and cutting through flesh and vertebral bones. Armando, carried by the intensity of the scene was filming while swimming to closer range getting us at less than 10 feet from the marlin and predator, in waters tinted with fish blood and flesh debris that the remoras were quickly dispatching. Our safety technique was as such that, while Armando was filming or choosing angles I was behind him with my left hand on his shoulder to pass touch signals and looking everywhere possible.

The most compromising moment for us came during that second bite. At that instant the bull shark, with sudden excitement, made a nose first run toward us. With a touch of my bang stick to his head he turned away. In sequence, charged again four more times only to retrieve at every touch of the stick. Unpredictable as it could be the reaction of an excited shark and the stimulus response of a gentle touch of a stick. Armando was capturing this game on camera while both of us were swimming closer to the shark cage. Meanwhile, the tiger shark took another bite of the ventral part of the marlin and then went for a swim on what, most likely was a respite to accommodate in his guts close to 100lbs of meat, the result of only three bites. Now the bull shark started to eat on the fish remains. It was interesting to observe a different biting technique, very rapid, short swings to each side, like sawing.

The action then became more organized and, interesting enough, very territorial. The two animals were either working on the remains of the fish or coming in our direction only to make one pass by our side to return back to the fish. Another tiger shark of good size came by shortly after. To our amazement, we could see a fishing line on him, thick on alga growth and two times the length of his body that was trailing from his mouth. Obviously the remains of a fishing fight the shark was able to pull out when the line snapped.

When the original size of the marlin was diminished to the head and some carcass we ended our free swim. We swam to the inside of the shark cage and pulled a connecting rope that brought the fish right in front of us. The video footage was finished with a good series of close ups. It was certainly exhilarating to watch those jaws working so close in front of our eyes but, hearing the sound of the big vertebral bones being cracked with such ease was even more impressive.

We saved the marlin head almost as a trophy and we came back to the boat very excited and congratulating each other for a memorable experience. Although members of a different ecological niche, these two aquatic apes, felt we belonged to the ocean a bit more than the day before.

Arnoldo Falcoff is a V.I. diver and long time Saint Thomas resident. Invited by Armando Jenik to work with him, Arnoldo arrived in Saint Thomas in 1976 from Patagonia, Argentina. Since 1992, Arnoldo has been responsible for the dive operation at The Ritz-Carlton, Saint Thomas. The footage of the above story became part of the National Geographic documentary "Sharks of the Caribbean".

Armando Jenik is a renowned underwater photographer and cameramen who collected many mentions and awards along his career. His extensive work extends to the Caribbean and other waters of the World. Visit his Web Site: www.Aquaman.VI


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