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Freediving N.26 - Winter 2001

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In English.

Published on International Freediver and Spearfishing News, n. 26, Winter 2001, pg. 42-43.

White Shark encounter in a Mediterranean Dive

 

In the Mediterranean Sea weíre not used to shark encounters. Fish are scarce and believed not enough to fed big predators like sharks.

Last year a photographer spent 4 months on a boat, pouring overboard hundreds of liters of blood and chopped fish trying to take a picture of sharks, but failed. He spotted only few, little, gray sharks, but unfortunately dead ones and on the deck of a professional fisherman in Lampedusa, the southmost island of Italy.

However, in the Med sharks do exist. Recent studies have shown that there are mating grounds for the White Shark and a BIG one (a female of over 7 m) was taken in Malta (south east of Sicily).

Great White have been caught in the ďtonnaraĒ, a huge net system, spanning kilometers in the sea, for catching school of tunas during their migration routes. One of the most known professional divers working there, Nitto Minneo, one day told me that one of them, and some days later another one, was caught in the nets. And it was his task to dive and free them so the tuna could enter again in the tonnara and not swim away, spooked by the predator. The second one, a huge female, was not really dead but JUMPED on him with her mouth wide open only few inches from his face. He was able to see the blue of the water THROUGH the monsterís gillsÖ

So it should not be a real surprise to meet one of them if you dive on a bank very far from the coast, along a deep drop-off in deep watersÖ

 

That bank is over 40 nm from the coast and, even with a fast boat (mine is a semirigid pneumatic boat 6 m long with 2 engines of 50 hp) it takes a little bit to get there. Few question always cross our mind during the trip: thereíll be that damned frozen current? The viso will be good? And last, would be possible to find some beautiful fish?

Iím diving on the edge of the drop-off, where tunas and big amberjacks should be met. Iíve caught a little amberjack of about 6-7 kilos but Iíve seen several of bigger size on the underwater horizon. As usual the blue green of the drop-off, falling from 20-22 m to over 40 is impressing in the water never clean. Iím on the bottom in an ďaspettoĒ (waiting) when I hear the dive buddy starting the engines and coming over my head at full speed. What is he doing? And heís not even shutting off the engines! In the meantime thereís nothing here (off course) so I dive up, half curious and halfÖ well, what was he doing there while I was fishing? He is very excited and quickly he is telling me about a big fin on the surface three hundred meters from the boat. OK, OK, letís go see what it is.

At that bank you can really expect, even for the Med, any thing: once we saw a massive swordfish jumping completely out of the water and coming down in a huge butterfly splash. Anyway. The fin is really there. What can it be? Not a dolphin (I know, itís a shark Ė tell me the merry part of my mind), heís not coming out to breathe. Not a sunfish (I told you, itís a shark) thereís water churning well after the fin thatís the tail for the sunfish, and look how much water is stirring that one! Whatís remaining? (Look, Iím sure) A swordfish? The fin is different (any other doubts? I told you from the beginning).

No. Itís a shark. In the meantime weíre nearing it, the engines at the minimum. We arrive against the light, itís not clear under the water: Itís an incredibly flat day (it must be over ten years since the last time over here) and the sun is mirroring over the smooth surface. Weíre very near now; almost sideways to the fishÖ itís diving! Disappointment. We go a little faster, weíre now on the vertical and, standing on the prow planks Iím able to glimpse a big gray-green shape sinking in the deep water almost without moving. I tell in a singsong (donít ask me why) to the buddy at the controls: itís a shark, itís a shark, itísÖ

Stop to the engines.

Around us only flat water. Even the wavelets produced by the monsterís motion are disappeared.

Silence. Around nothing.

We wait.

Nothing.

-          Who knows whereíll be by now?

Silence again.

-          It was beautiful, isnít it? So great!

 

We search the still slab of the sea. Nothing. Not even the whirls of the current.

Letís go away. Unwillingly we start up the engines, slowly we turn the prow again toward the bank edge; we go backÖ

In the wake (whoíll ever know whatís in these animalsí head), here again the fin.

Itís following us. Itís there again!

With the camera in hand I dart on the prow planks so to be high on the water and start taking pictures. The very first one is a bad one, overexposed, but thereís the fin (like in the jokes) out of the water with the little ripples of the beastís movement all around it.

But Iím not satisfied. I want more. Iíve the mouth parched dry, and Iím savoring this excitation, embracing it, so to re-live it again and again later. I want it underwater.

My buddy wouldnít let me in the water. He threatens to open the throttles and to leave me there, but I canít resist. Heís here, itís so near, itís big. I dip the underwater camera, head and arms together trying to take a full picture of him. I resurface for taking a gulp of air; Iím all crooked and contorted on the side of the boat, hot in the sun. I return again with the head underwater, the heart rate maddened, the camera clenched hard in the hands (to lose it now!), and I take pictures at rapid fire. I resurface only to breathe, quickly, quickly.

Weíve overtaken him. Heís behind us now. We stop the engines and the boat slackens its motion and stops sideways in front of him. He turns almost 90 degrees and swims along the boatís side. Itís two meters from me! Again I plunge head and camera, trying to go underwater the most I can, for seeing him, for remembering him, for watching him. The picture will be from the pectoral fin to the mouth.

And then, almost to the surface, it parades the huge tail. The upper and lower lobes are of the same length! (Itís a White Shark, tells me now that merry part of my mind).

- Itís a White Shark Ė tells my buddy Ė itís too big. Look, itís just a bit smaller than the boat. If heís not five meters long heís four meters and ninety Ė keeps telling my dive buddy.

I hesitate, then I give up.

- As a diver, itís over ninety percent that itís a White Shark. As a biologist, I need to look to the pictures, but thereíre high probabilities that itís really a GW.

 

From that moment on this is a close encounter with the White Shark. One of the rarest sharks here, never photographed freely swimming in the Med, for what I know, and the pictures are really close!

And the Shark is what Iíve always dreamed of a Shark. To see it moving gives a sensation of boundless power, a slight movement of that great tail and he progresses almost without seeming (with the engines at the minimum we travel at the same velocity). Smaller sharks do move somewhat sinuously but not this one. He moves like only a compact mass of dreadfully powerful muscles can. I could venture something like squat, but itís a definition I reject immediately. ďSquatĒ has nothing to do with the movement who exhibits this immense ivory/gray torpedo that slips silently through the water with half-open teeth.

Itís perhaps the massive elegance of the male lion, with all his paunch, the mane all uncombed and the head that seems too big even for that powerful body.

But here thereís not paunch and thereís nothing uncombed. Itís a sleek patinated image, with the most pure lines, retouched by airbrush in the passage from the back to the belly. What are out of tune are the teeth. Itís the mouth, always half-open, engraved by lines (scars?) thatís an abrupt recall of the purpose of the beast all: to eat.

And heís there, swimming indifferently on the surface, while we divers, baked by the sun and dazed by the wonder, watch him while heís hardly etching the skin of the Sea, gliding immense and slow in his reign.

His. Till some moments ago I was proud of what more than twenty years of diving had done to me: a diver, sharing, even intermittently, something of the big Sea. Now, abruptly, itís all a hoax. As a sea animal Iím a farce, a fraud. Suddenly Iím being taken back to what really I am, a clumsy loan from the outside world, wallowing and fluttering up there, near the light. Ready to the easy escape and to the ďIím not playing anymoreĒ.

Thus we go, Him in the sea, us in the boat. Slowly. He leads, we follow.

But, again, I want more. I want to be nearer, much nearer than now. To be, perhaps, part of the immense mystery thatís this big, old shark moving in the Sea. Perhaps, I donít know, something of that primate reflex that wants to touch something, just to be sure thatís really there, thatís really existing. Who knows?

The dive buddy, just so slightly, cautiously, move up a notch the engines, and so slowly we approach the big tail churning the water. Iím completely flat on the prow of my boat, camera almost forgotten but a hand nearly touching the water. The Sea is so flat, now.

 

Heís leaving, heís going down. Itís not so clear like for dolphins that arch all the body, lift the tail and sink, but heís bending a little, the big tail rises, the back (Jesus, itís SO wide), marbled from the small ripples of the surface, is less and less clear. The tail moves for a moment a stream of water toward the surface, flattening it, making it transparent like a glass pane. I can, for a split second, watch him completely (itíll be the last image) then the prow enters in the flattened zone and ripples it. He vanishes. Gone.

Faraway dolphins are jumping. We remain alone with our questions.

We have, in the long run, scaredĖannoyed it? It was instead supremely indifferent to our presence, so heís gone away we being there or not? Was he chasing the dolphins? Was he scared of the dolphins? They were big Tursiops, a full school of themÖ

Was he hunting, was he hot, was he following some trace we had not the slightest idea about, there was too much light, the water near the engines was stinking?Ö

 

Waste of energies. Uselessness. It remains only this.

Heís gone.

 

Riccardo A. Andreoli

 

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