Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sharks and Whales Oh my, Oh my!

Right Whales were being reported in the inlet off of Beaufort the first two weeks of December. The annual trip to the calving grounds off of southern Georgia was under way. What great luck to have a group of rare Right Whales spend time in our local waters.

Good Fortune left Morehead City, our winter port, and proceeded down the Intracoastal Iaterway at sunrise. The marine radio was already chattering about whale sightings by the seasonal Bluefin Tuna fisherman. Most of them come from New England where whales are common in the summer. They were more than happy to converse with me about exact locations of there sightings. I spent four hours maneuvering from one group of whales to another until I finally anchored in the bight of Cape Lookout for lunch and a little fly fishing.

While I sat on the back deck I noticed a large commotion in the shallows next to the beach. I quickly launched the skiff, boarded the dog, and headed in the direction of the disturbance. As I approached I noticed a very large animal with a triangular fin. No, it was not a dolphin. The dog jumped out of the boat and dashed through the shallow water right at our mystery fish. It occurred to me that Great White sharks have a triangular dorsal fin. I jumped from the skiff to pursue the dog before he became lunch in the sharks mouth. The dog was jumping around and barking at the fish when I arrived. We were both soaked and out of breath by the time I realized the animal was a shark, but not the toothy dog-eating kind. After some inspection and picture taking I went back out to the boat to consult a shark key for better identification.

The shark had a very distinctive torpedo-like nose with eyes on the side of the nose and no apparent teeth. These characteristics matched the description of an immature female Basking Shark. A plankton eater by trade, this 11-foot shark had been hit by a boat. The wounds on its back were very apparent and perhaps life threatening. When I returned to the beach I brought all the antibiotic cream I had on the boat. She lay still while I plastered the cream into her wounds and, with a rising tide, slowly maneuvered her back into deeper water. The process entailed grasping her firmly by the nose and wiggling the shark back and forth. I also pushed on the dorsal fin and lifted the pectoral fins out of the sand while continuing to wiggle. The huge shark finally broke loose from the sand and slowly swam about 20 feet. She then turned and swam back to my position. I stroked her on the head and back for a short period of time and then turned her seaward. She swam out into the bight on the surface. I followed her for about a mile until she finally submerged and disappeared.

When I worked for the Mote Marine Lab, it was not uncommon to get into the pool with dazed sharks that had been caught on a "long line" and walk them in shallow water until they were revived. We then, of course, got out of the pool. It was interesting to touch and mingle with a shark more interested in a big plate of algae than munching on one of my appendages.

This whole day was a great experience so I have included a short video of the shark encounter.
I hope you enjoy it.