Sunday, October 16, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: a personal sweetheart (aka: shark) at Isla Guadalupe

From September through November, a young - geologically speaking - and rocky island off the Pacific coast of Baja, Mexico, turns into the world's premiere site for viewing great white sharks. Isla Guadalupe, a government-protected biosphere, becomes home to a migratory group of 70 to 100 white sharks, ranging from 12-foot hyperactive males to enormous 18-foot females. During this time, a cadre of international shark ecotourism operators play host to divers, photographers, and the curious thrill-seekers by providing cage diving experiences, enabling people to view these impressive predators in their natural environment.

It is often a game-changing experience for those who consider these sharks as the ultimate, malevolent denizen of the deep. Instead they typically come away with a new-found respect for these magnificent animals, both impressive and endangered, and hopefully they will return home with an appreciation and concern for the threats these sharks face in today's world.

I have just returned from my 17th trip to Isla Guadalupe, spanning 7 years of filming these sharks either for my documentary, Island of the Great White Shark, or on a film assignment, or for stock footage. At the end of each season, I always find myself thinking, "Well maybe that's enough," and yet each fall I am drawn back to this remote spot once more. Such is the allure of the great white shark; there are other sharks that are more beautiful, more exotic, or even more endangered, yet there is something about this particular animal that has found a place in my subconscious.

On this particular trip, I was accompanying my good friend and photo-journalist, Budd Riker, who was there to do a magazine article. This was Budd's first trip to Isla Guadalupe and his first chance to see white sharks in the wild. The trip was arranged by Shark Diver and we were aboard the MV Horizon along with 14 other paying passengers. This would be a somewhat low-key trip for me; whenever I am aboard with paying passengers then my filming techniques become more conservative, confining myself to the cage, as I do not want anyone to assume that they can take the same risks that I do as a paid professional.

This afforded me more time to relax and view these animals without worrying about lighting, exposure, focus, and all the other things that fill your mind when you are hoping to turn a brief encounter into a long-lasting film or video image. This more leisurely pace also allowed me to think back on other memorable trips and memorable sharks - most of these sharks migrate back to Isla Guadalupe year after year and they are easily recognizable, so it's a bit like a reunion and seeing old friends once again.

In particular, I have a sweetheart at Isla Guadalupe: "Mystery," an 18-foot, beautifully proportioned female, stunning in her size and grace in the water. In 2006, while at Isla Guadalupe to get a few remaining shots for Island of the Great White Shark, Mystery appeared to me for the first time and spent two full hours being curious as to the bait offered by the boat and equally curious as to the diver in the water with the large camera. Time and time again she would cruise directly towards me and turn at the last moment, right in front of my lens, providing me with wonderful close-ups. Upon my return home, I re-cut several scenes in my film to take advantage of the magical moments this one particular shark had provided me.

So impressed was I with Mystery that, on a future trip in the Bahamas, I met sculptor Bill Wieger and commissioned him to do an accurate, museum-quality rendering of my favorite white shark based on my video footage. The end result has become a regular feature of Bill's line of animal sculptures but Mystery #1 hangs on my living room wall - a reminder of a special moment in time when nature was most accommodating.

However, for the next two years Mystery was not seen at Isla Guadalupe. Sometimes the white sharks, particularly females, will skip a year. Researchers are not exactly sure why: Does it have to do with reproduction or gestation? Do they simply just stay in one place or travel to a different location? There's no definitive answer yet - one of the many unsolved mysteries regarding these animals - but an absence of 2 years or more is always a reason for concern as the shark may have run afoul of commercial shark fishermen or perhaps was fatally injured in an altercation with another shark.

Or it could have succumbed to natural causes. The life span of a great white shark is estimated to be around 30 to 35 years, but that is an estimate based on the ages of other species and the age of mature white sharks caught by fishermen. No one has found a white shark dead of old age.

I was beginning to worry about the fate of Mystery when, near the end of the 2009 season, she had been spotted at Isla Guadalupe. But she was not seen the following year and had not been spotted this season so far. So once again, I began to wonder if my favorite shark model had met a sad end. Long-standing regulars like "Shredder," a large male who has visited the island every year for the past 10 years, had made appearances - but no Mystery.

During our stay at Isla Guadalupe, we were visited by Dr. Mauricio Hoyos, a prominent researcher of the island's white sharks. I first met Mauricio when he was just a grad student studying under Dr. Felipe Galvan of Mexico's marine institute, CICIMAR, and Dr. Pete Klimley of UC Davis. I featured Mauricio in my documentary and we have remained friends ever since. Mauricio has been coming to Isla Guadalupe each year to tag the sharks with transmitters and track their movements and other vital information so as to gauge the health of the population - he is undoubtedly "Dr. White Shark" of Isla Guadalupe.

As he approached the Horizon in the small boat he uses for tagging, Mauricio announced that there were several new sharks spotted so far this season: several new males and a couple of large females. In fact, over the course of our stay, we saw two new males and one female that were new to the island. Individual great white sharks have unique markings, much like fingerprints, and all the sharks that are seen at Isla Guadalupe are numbered and cataloged for future identification.

And then Mauricio added one more shark that had been identified recently that made me throw my hands up in a combination of joy and relief: Mystery had been spotted. It was getting a bit late in the season but the ol' girl that had graced me with such marvelous images years before finally made an appearance. Later that day, we were visited by a very large female and many thought it might be Mystery but I saw that it lacked her distinctive dark mark, like a birthmark, on the fourth gill slit on the left side. It turned out to be female #109, a very impressive animal and the largest shark seen during the trip.

But even though Mystery and I did not get a chance to meet and say hello after all these years, I was content knowing that she had been spotted. I suppose it's all a bit silly. And, given their estimated life span and the threats that they face year in and year out, it is inevitable that sharks like Mystery and Shredder will disappear from Isla Guadalupe forever - that's nature's cycle of life. However, that is the power of having the opportunity to see these sharks - and many other animals - in the wild. If done responsibly, ecotourism can impress upon the participants both the beauty and fragility of our ecosystems and the importance of protecting them for their own sake and ours.

Click here to see Mystery and learn about Island of the Great White Shark.
Visit Budd Riker Photography.
See Bill Wieger's animal sculptures.
Visit Shark Diver to learn more about shark ecotourism trips.

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