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Sixgill sharks in Seattle, the trip report

:: Friday, August 29th, 2008 @ 5:03:46 pm

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A sixgill shark in Seattle

First, a bit of history: Marty Snyderman introduced me to Travis Swanson at DEMA last year and told me that Travis was the “Jim Abernethy of the Pacific Northwest.” Howard Hall and Marty had been out with Hydrus earlier come back with fantastic images and video footage of sixgill sharks (Hexanchus griseus) in relatively shallow water. Sixgill sharks are a deep-water shark species rarely seen by recreational SCUBA divers, and I was really intrigued by the possibility of seeing one. Marty’s introduction prompted me to immediately book an exploratory trip with Travis and Team Hydrus. I invited Douglas Seifert (contributing editor, Dive Magazine) and Simon Rogerson (editor, Dive Magazine) along for the trip; I travel with Douglas frequently, but it had been years since I had seen Simon.

One day before our departure, Douglas was forced to cancel out of the trip (which was too bad — I had to been looking forward to the prospect of a yellow drysuit combined with sharks); luckily, Wetpixel admin Matt Segal was able to hop on with only a day’s notice.

On the morning of August 13th, Simon, Matt and I checked out of the Sleep Inn (leaving behind our lovely view of a Seattle trailer park) and drove down the road to the Des Moines Marina, where we met up with Team Hydrus. At the end of a long dock sat the M/V Katherine Jane, which was going to be our floating home for the next three days. At 65 feet in length or so, the Katherine Jane was plenty large enough for the three of us and all of our gear. We motored out of Des Moines for about half an hour and anchored on a steep incline close to an unspecified island in the Puget Sound. Team Hydrus has at least 15 sixgill shark sites, but we would end up staying anchored at this one for the entire duration of our diving.


The M/V Katherine Jane, our home for 3 days

I really enjoyed meeting the Team Hydrus crew. Travis Swanson is young — younger than I am, even — and unafraid to do things outside of normal convention. When Travis first set up his sixgill operation in Seattle, he received a death threat from an operator on Hornby Island, British Columbia, the traditional place where divers go for a chance to see sixgills. Travis grew up in wild Alaska, and it seems to have instilled in him a connection to wildlife. I can’t quite describe what it was that made the connection obvious, but it might have had something to do with quiet confidence he radiates.

I also really enjoyed hanging out with the rest of the crew: Andy LeTourneau, Dwaine Seiler, and Rick Myers of Bandito Charters. Everyone was incredibly helpful and friendly, and all of them fit in well with my image of the men of the Pacific Northwest (even though Dwaine actually lives in Iowa). I couldn’t help but imagine Kevin Costner playing the role of Dwaine Seiler (they sort of look alike) — born and raised in Iowa, burning with a love for the Pacific Northwest, relocating to the coast in an attempt to make a living on a dive boat… (I’m sure I’m totally wrong :).

Anyway, back to sixgills. Not far from the Katherine Jane was a small motorboat, which was attached by lines to a large shark cage and light frame anchored to the sea floor 60′ below. A second motorboat served to ferry Hydrus staff to and from land for supplies, and as a vessel to dive from.


Dropping bait at the dive site

After arriving at the dive location, we unpacked our gear, set up our underwater cameras, and headed down to our bunks for a late-afternoon nap.

Team Hydrus typically drops frozen bait cubes down to the baiting area in front of the cage a couple hours before sunset. A remote video system monitors the area in front of the cage and wirelessly transmits the video signal to the comfort of the M/V Katherine Jane, where divers sit around watching the monitor and waiting for sharks to appear.

“What you’re looking for is a moving rock,” Andy LeTourneau instructed.

Travis told us that sixgill sharks typically show up “between 9:30pm and 10:30pm.” And it is certainly not a sure thing. The last expedition had been virtually skunked, with only one brief encounter over three nights of diving.

We were lucky. Just as the sun was going down, multiple sixgill sharks appeared on camera. They were actually quite difficult to see in the video feed beamed from the site, but the hypnotic waving of their long, ribbon-like tails provided enough for a clear ID.


Simon Rogerson, Eric Cheng, Matt Segal ready to suit up

Matt and I ended up in the first dive rotation. We wolfed down our dinners and crammed ourselves into our drysuits. It had been a year since I had been in the water in a drysuit, so it took me a bit longer than usual to get ready. But after not too long, we found ourselves floating in the darkness on the surface just above the 1-inch yellow lines that ran down to the cage below. Matt and I descended with Travis and dropped into the cage, which is really well designed. Although it is anchored down on a sandy slope, the cage bottom is designed to sit level. A large door on the top of the cage opens to allow divers to enter, and there are two doors inside along the viewing side that can be opened up easily. The door on the left swings down completely, allowing a diver to swim in and out of the cage, while the door on the right is really just a large window (large enough to stick a Seacam housing with strobes through).


Team Hydrus’ shark cage, 60′ down

The large bait “cubes” float about 8-10 feet in front of the side of the cage (and are also anchored to the bottom). Dozens of dungeness crabs (Cancer magister), spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) and spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei) — also known as chimaeras — swarmed around the sandy slope trying to get to the bait. The crabs were literally climbing on top of each other, playing important roles in what we ended up terming “crab wars.” Prior to my first visit with bait in 60′ of Puget Sound water, I had been under the impression that ratfish were rare critters. In fact, I had bee pretty proud of the portraits I shot of the supposedly-elusive elasmobranchs in Alaska last year. As of now, I’ve been set straight. After all, they have to be called “ratfish” for some reason!


A sixgill shark with a dungeness crab army

Within 5 minutes of dropping into the cage, we were visited by our first sixgill shark — my first sixgill shark ever. She was a relatively small individual, perhaps 10 feet or so in length, but it was hard to tell total length because a sixgill’s tail is so long. In our 45 minutes in the water, we encountered 8 or so individuals, with 3-4 coming in at once. I had to push sharks away from the opening of the cage multiple times (it sounds exciting, but it is actually sort of common when you dive with sharks and bait). They all moved with a deliberate slowness belying their ability for tremendous speed, and the movement of their serpentine tails gave me visions of what it must be like to see a thresher shark swim. I managed to snap a few nice images of the sharks — not so easy, given the lack of visibility and darkness (critters at night have to come within a few feet to be photographed properly). It was also not easy because I forgot to put on ankle weights. Try laying down in a shark cage while wearing a drysuit without ankle weights. It is not fun.

We managed to crawl into bed at around 4am after an incredibly successful first night.

The second night was interesting as well. Long before the sun went down, a sixgill shark cruised by leisurely past the underwater video monitoring system. Matt and I suited up again and splashed into the water. We thought that it would be novel to see a sixgill shark during the day, but after descending down 60′ in green water, we realized that there was basically no difference between dusk and night in such murky water. Shark activity was good, but they stayed far away from us for some reason, never coming between the bait and the cage. Since the bait is still a good 5-6′ away even when you extend a camera out from the cage, this made photography difficult.


A sixgill shark and a light from the light frame

I managed to shoot some decent video footage, but as is turned out, I was unable to leave the cage (Travis was wondering what was going on with me — a veteran shark diver not even attempting to stick my head out??). It turns out that my steel tank had been swapped out for an aluminum one.

SURPRISE!

I title that dive, “DEATH GRIP ON BOTTOM OF CAGE” followed by “DEATH GRIP ON ASCENT ROPE.”

We did, however, surface to one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The water was glassy calm, and the algae bloom made for huge numbers of bioluminescent dinoflagellates. We hung on the line at our safety stop and were literally casting off a constant aura of twinkling green sparks.

The third night was a bust, with sharks only showing up on the video monitor and at the edge of visibility. I spent a lot of time roaming around taking video footage of dungeness crabs, ratfish, and spiny dogfish (but with perfect buoyancy, finally. :). If you go on this trip, you had better get your weights and gear dialed in before your first dive.

Speaking of not getting dialed in, we were joined on the boat by Vince Patton and Michael of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Field Guide, who were attempting to do a story on sixgill sharks. Michael had gotten drysuit certified just for the experience, and we decided to allow him to get into the water to try to get some footage of sixgills. The experience was quite humbling, I think, and Michael vowed to get some serious dive time in before his next gig in cold water. Luckily, there weren’t really any sharks on the third night, which made it a good night to have problems. I wish Vince and Michael the best of luck next time — it’s a good story to go for, and I look forward to the finished product!

LOCAL DIVING WITH WETPIXEL SEATTLE

The Wetpixel community rallied and booked two days of local diving with Matt, Simon and me aboard Bandito Charters. Martin Heyn organized the local charter, and we managed to fill the boat with 14 Wetpixel divers each day. Martin and his wife, Julie, also threw a Wetpixel “meet & greet,” which was a lot of fun. See the Wetpixel forums for photos from the event.


Hanging out with Wetpixel members in Seattle

Special thanks to Team Hydrus for the wonderful experience with sixgill sharks. It was incredible! For more information on diving sixgill sharks with Hydrus, check them out at:
http://www.teamhydrus.com/

LINKS

VIDEOS

Below are two short critter videos from the trip. You may also want to check out the Wetpixel forum discussion about the trip, which has an embedded video feel featuring lots of impromptu videos made while onboard the Katherine Jane.


Sixgill shark comes in on bait, Seattle, WA.


Dungeness crab vs. dogfish, Seattle, WA

PHOTOS

This is really what you came here for. See below for a selection of photos from the sixgill shark adventure, or click on the gallery link below to see all of the images.

| San Francisco, CA | link | trackback | Aug 29, 2008 17:03:46
  • Pingback: Mister Ian’s Weblog » Photo links and more

  • Pingback: Six Gill Sharks - Puget Sound - Scuba Forum - Scuba Diving Forums and Discussion Board

  • Pingback: Boy catches shark | Field Journal | OPB Blogs

  • Tomwilliamsdmd

    When Travis Swanson lived in Portland, I used to dive Vancouver Island w/him (on the Mamro). I thought we went to the north tip to look for 7 gill sharks. I dove along aside one for a good 4 minutes, and it was a lot longer than my 6’1″. I was diving solo because the group was ahead when the shark came up from the depths. I left the shark, caught up to the group just as lion jellyfish tenticals were about to entangle Travis. I caught him just in time that he got only a small part of a tentical across the face. I was just talking to someone in Phillipines about 7 gills and remembered Travis saying their bite strength might equal a great white, not much known about them. I just looked them up on Wikipedia. 7-gills are small. This was around the time he was just starting/or hadn’t quite started studying them in Seattle. If you run across Travis ask him for me what the heck were we looking for up there? (He knows how to find me). All of these years I thought the whole thing up there was about 7-gills. (I was going to invite Travis to join me for free on a S.Carib cruise w/Ron and his girlfriend, but she said that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. He’ll know why). Tom Williams, DMD Portland

  • Lester Henry Smith

    Very interesting as to y they come out of the deep. My immediate theory is that they have to do it to be able to breed. The pressure down deep could crush the sperm and even the shark itself when the sexual organs has to open to copulate. Just a thought. Well done u guys.

  • Heather

    Compression (due to pressure at depth) is principally an issue for gases. Liquid don’t really compress, so I don’t think pressure could be an issue for reproduction.

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