Close Encounters

Close Encounters

I’m very pleased to report that our cruise continues to yield exciting and successful dives! Today I joined the afternoon team with Brian Hauk and Jason Leonard, which means I had a nice, relaxing morning and a hot lunch (French Dip! YUM!) before heading out on the boat shortly after noon.

The deep part of the dive wasn’t spectacular, but it certainly wasn’t boring either. Most of the bottom was sand, but there was a patch of rock and rubble that served as an oasis to thousands of fishes. While Jason and Brian conducted their fish and benthic imaging surveys, I stood by and monitored the other two divers. The fish were mostly known species, but even some of the known ones are exciting to see.

Two juvenile Bandit Angelfish (Apolemichthys arcuatus), one the size of a quarter; the other the side of a thumbnail, hide among the rocks 280 feet (85 meters) deep off French Frigate Shoals.

In particular there were several juvenile Bandit Angelfish (Apolemichthys arcuatus) hiding among the rocks. The juveniles of this species are sometimes referred to as “skunks” because they have a white stripe down the front of the head between the eyes (in the adults, the black band continues uninterrupted like a bandit’s mask, which is what gives this species its common name). One was about the size of a U.S. quarter, and the other was no bigger than my thumbnail. Brian also pointed out to me a small flatfish, barely visible against the sand. It turned out to be a Jigsaw Crested Flounder (Samariscus corallinus), which, while not especially rare, is mostly known from trawled specimens in deep water.

A Jigsaw Crested Flounder (Samariscus corallinus) blends in particularly well against the sandy bottom at a depth of 280 feet (85 m) off French Frigate Shoals.

Most of the decompression was particularly uneventful — to the point where it was downright boring. We are often visited by sharks or other marine life that keep the decompression time — which can last up to two hours on these NOAA expeditions — but this time we only had each other to look at. That is, up until the last 20 minutes of the dive…

Galapagos Shark Investigates Richard PyleCameron Ogden-Fung

A particularly inquisitive Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis) comes in for a close pass as Richard Pyle takes video.

On most of these deep dives in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, we decompress over a seemingly bottomless blue void. Sometimes, however, the currents draw us out over shallower waters. On this dive, just as I began making out the bottom about a hundred feet below us, a fairly large Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis) came in to check us out. This one was both larger, and paler than most of the others we normally see. And it was definitely more curious. I noticed that at first it seemed more interested in our boats than in us — which led me to suspect this shark associated boats with hooked fish, and therefore potential dinner.

A Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis) inspects a reel and cylinder during decompression off French Frigate Shoals.

Eventually, the shark began to pay much closer attention to us; and in particular, my decompression reel. On several occasions it came in and “nuzzled” my reel with its snout, perhaps because the metal on the reel and nearby scuba tank produced a mild electrical signal that piqued the shark’s interest. After each pass at the reel, it came in close to me. At one point I almost needed to gently push it away, but it turned on its own at the last moment.

A Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis) comes in for a close pass during decompression off French Frigate Shoals.

Because I was the last person to clear my decompression, I was to serve as the “victim” in a diver rescue drill. My only job was to play dead, and let the others get my gear off and hoist me into the boat. The whole time, the safety divers in the water were making jokes about having to fend off the shark from me as I was floating “lifeless” alongside the boat. Only later did I learn they weren’t joking at all! Apparently the shark had indeed associated boats with potential food being brought in, and perhaps it interpreted my limp body floating near the boat as a landed fish, and potential meal. In any case, I was never at any real risk, because shark senses are way too refined to mistake my own odor for that of a fresh fish.

All in all, another fun and event-filled day. Tomorrow we have another transit day as we make our way towards our next destination: Maro Reef.