Friday, August 10, 2012

Snorkeling with Shortfin Mako Sharks

Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)
Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)

Date: 8/6/2012
Time: 7 am - 6 pm
Location: Blue water off La Jolla
Temp: ~70 F on the surface
Fellow shark visitors: Michael Kazma, Robin Jacoway, Bryan Toro, Cesare Naldi, Guy Ohm and Danny Howard

More photos at: http://www.underpressurephoto.com/Dive-Reports/20120806-Snorkel-with-Makos/

Danny Howard and the Yellow Charter Boat.
Danny Howard and the Yellow Charter Boat.

Under overcast skies, we ventured out in a six-pack to search for shortfin mako sharks with the founder of the non-profit Shark Chums, Michael Kazma. I hoped to see blue sharks as well, but Michael advised us that the water temperatures are too warm this time of year for blues. Winter is a better time for them. As we stopped the boat miles off the coast, we looked over and saw salps passing below in the clear blue water. Chum was loaded into perforated buckets and extended behind the boat with a buoy to keep them near the surface. The blowing wind pushed the boat east, creating a steady stream of enticing smells for the sharks.

Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)
Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)

One hour passed, then two, with no sign of sharks. Robin Jacoway and Michael hooked up a pole cam with a monitor pointed at the chum, so we could periodically check for sharks well below the surface. A few of us got antsy and suited up. We were eager to get in the water to see what we could see. As we slipped into the sapphire colored water, visibility extended into the depths. A constant parade of alien salps past by under us, starting about 15 feet under the surface. With the wind blowing, the boat was moving a steady 1-2 knots east. We had to either hang onto the rope attached to the chum buckets or swim to keep up with the boat. We swam with the salps for a little while, freediving down to see them, but soon got back on board the boat. We were advised that the makos would be skittish and probably wouldn't come close if there were people in the water.

Freediver Bryan Toro
Freediver Bryan Toro

The first mako was spotted by Cesare after about 4 hours of chumming. It disappeared as quickly as it came, before all of us could get in the water. About an hour later, another showed up and we quickly suited up and quietly slipped into the water. Our instructions were to stay between the chum bucket and the rear of the boat. The makos would approach the chum from open ocean and we wouldn't want to be between the sharks and the chum. We watched as a brave sea lion chased the second mako shark. It seemed as if the sea lion was protecting us. Each time the mako would come in towards the chum, the sea lion would chase it off. Soon the sea lion disappeared and a different mako appeared out of the blue.

Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)
Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)

We had a total of 3 mako sharks over a period of about an hour. There was a larger 5-6 ft shark, a medium sized, healthy looking one and another smaller, 2 1/2 foot one that had many parasites and chunks missing out of its tail. The sharks were there one at a time and come in for a pass at the chum. As they swam by the chum, they would head towards one of us to check us out. The rule was to never let the shark touch our body. After an investigatory bump, sharks will often take a test bite to see what is floating in front of them. They aren't trying to eat you/it, just examining. Cameras provided a good barrier most of the time and the sharks would usually veer off as they approached before getting too close, providing lots of photo opportunities. On one pass, the medium sized one turned and veered back towards me. It was coming a little close for comfort and I had to push it away from me. The skin of the mako was silky smooth and almost soft, as opposed to the scaly, rough skin of other fish or sharks, such as a larger mola mola that I had the privilege to briefly touch. I suspect evolving for speed leads to smoother skin for less drag in the water.

Juvi Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) getting a little too close, with Guy Ohm in the background.
Juvi Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) getting a little too close, with Guy Ohm in the background.

It was an awesome encounters with shortfin mako sharks. I would have to say this one was more exciting than my previous encounters with a sevengill shark in 2009, reef sharks in the Bahamas or the docile leopard sharks in La Jolla and Catalina. However, it's not for the faint of heart and does require self sufficiency and comfort in blue water and in a current.

Scott

Pelagic salps constantly floating by in the blue.
Pelagic salps constantly floating by in the blue.