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Salmon Sharks: Dark Lords Of The North

Text and photography by Mark Strickland

 

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Salmon Shark
Little known except to scientists and local fishermen, the Salmon Shark, Lamna ditropis, is a fast swimmer that locates prey primarily by sight. It is also warm-blooded, maintaining a body temperature significantly higher than its surroundings. Prince William Sound, Alaska, Pacific Ocean Image #: 058986

Feeling a strange mixture of apprehension and glee, I watched a trio of black, triangular fins slice across the glassy surface, gradually closing on our position. We were floating in a chum slick, hundreds of feet off the bottom, enveloped by a frigid, planktonic soup that reduced visibility to less than 10 feet. Several sharks were nearly within touching distance, yet the murky conditions precluded seeing anything underwater, adding to our sense of unease. Trying to ignore the adrenalin surging through my system, I scanned the depths, straining for any sort of visual clue. Finally, a sleek shape materialized from the gloom—first as a hazy apparition, but eventually coming close enough to see. The shark was like none we’d ever encountered, yet it somehow seemed familiar. Its robust, muscular body was probably seven feet long, with a pointed, conical snout, huge gill openings, and a powerful, nearly symmetrical tail. At first glance, these features, along with distinctly counter-shaded coloration, made it resemble a young great white. And yet, its oversize eyes, rounded fins and mottled belly clearly distinguished it as a different species. It was a moment we had long anticipated—finally face to face with a real, live Salmon Shark!

Why would anyone purposely immerse themselves in such cold, murky water, especially among  hungry sharks? It all comes down to a malady that is common among underwater photographers—the quest for unusual photos. Naturally, some of the most intriguing subjects are those that have never been well documented. As underwater photography continues to evolve, however, images that were once considered rare have become common. Even elusive subjects like Sperm Whales and Great White Sharks are now regularly photographed. Today’s sophisticated audiences have already seen so much that image-makers now travel to the ends of the earth to find compelling subjects. While anything out of the ordinary has potential, the most popular subjects tend to be large and/or possibly dangerous. Of course the ideal subject would be previously unphotographed and large and dangerous, but such opportunities are few and far between. Salmon Sharks just happen to fit the bill on all counts.

I have been fascinated by these animals since the 1970’s, and often dreamed of photographing them in the wild. Finding specifics on where to encounter them, however, had proven frustrating. Then, after years of fruitless effort, my luck finally improved—on the occasion of our wedding! Of course my bride Suzanne and I already had plenty to celebrate, but a real bonus was catching up with our longtime friend Nancy, whom we hadn’t seen in years. When Nancy explained that she’d been commercial fishing each summer in Alaska, I could hardly contain myself. Naturally I asked her about Salmon Sharks, a topic that usually results only in blank stares, even from native Alaskans. To our delight, however, Nancy not only knew about the sharks, she spoke of a place that was virtually swarming with them! Of course that was too much to resist; plans were made for a road trip, and we hit the highway to meet Nancy in Alaska. At last, it looked as if there might be a chance to see these mysterious predators in their natural habitat. If things went exceptionally well, perhaps we could even get in the water with them for a photo session—something few people had done before.

After ten wonderful days of meandering up the Alaska-Canada Highway, we boarded a ferry at Valdez for the final leg of our journey, a few hours’ steaming across Prince William Sound.  Arriving at the small fishing town of Cordova, we were greeted by a welcome sight—Nancy’s smiling face.  She soon directed us to a nearby pub, where we settled in for a couple microbrews and caught up on the latest fish stories. Nancy had good and bad news: On the positive side, there were plenty of Salmon Sharks around, with dozens or even hundreds reported in certain areas. The bad news was that both BBC and Discovery Channel had already been here for two weeks, filming Salmon Sharks. After all those years of obscurity, Salmon Sharks were finally in the spotlight—just when we thought we’d have them all to ourselves. Naturally we were disappointed, but nonetheless excited about our mission. Later, we learned that the BBC folks had gotten some good images, but only on video; they weren’t shooting any stills. And, it was only with a pole camera; they had no intention of getting in the water! It looked like we might yet have a chance at an “exclusive”, but first we needed a boat.

Our visit coincided with the annual salmon run, which attracts both sharks and fishermen.

Not surprisingly, local boats were in short supply, since almost everyone was busy fishing. Fortunately, Nancy pleaded our case to her friend Gordon, a fellow fisherman and boat owner. He was greatly amused that anyone actually wanted to get in the water with sharks, and agreed to take us out the next day so he could watch. Cordova is one of the wettest places in Alaska, and it was pouring rain when we left the dock—not very encouraging for the ambient-light photography we had in mind. Before long, however, the clouds parted and it turned into a beautiful sunny day—a rare event in Cordova. After an hour’s travel, we pulled into a calm bay and saw an amazing sight. Nearby, dozens of dorsal fins pierced the surface, meandering in all directions. While these sharks seemed fairly relaxed, things were quite different a few hundred yards away. There, in the midst of churning white-water, dozens of salmon leapt frantically to and fro, as several Salmon Sharks charged through their ranks in hot pursuit. At one point, an especially acrobatic shark vaulted skyward like a surface-to-air missile, landing with a resounding splash that threw spray in all directions. It was exactly what we had hoped for, but the tricky part still lay ahead.

When we first entered the water, the sharks were much too distant for underwater photos. Of course there was a possibility that one might briefly wander within photo range, but the chances of getting good images that way were extremely slim. Hoping to improve our odds, Nancy chopped up several salmon, and we soon had a chum trail dispersing behind the boat. It worked like a charm—within minutes we were surrounded by sharks, all of them moving steadily closer. By the time one got within photo range, our pulses were racing. The shark seemed excited too, as it darted within a few feet, circled once or twice, then disappeared into the murk, only to return again a few moments later.

Until this point, our shark feeding experience had mostly been in the tropics with Silvertips, a species known for even temperament. The water there was usually clear, and we worked on the bottom near a big coral bommie, which afforded some protection if things got scary. Today’s situation, however, was very different. For starters, nobody we knew had any experience with salmon sharks; their behavior towards divers, even without bait, was unknown. Now there was blood in the water, which can radically change shark behavior, making even normally docile species become bold and aggressive. As we dangled on the surface with no shelter or visual reference, the sharks could approach from any direction. Still, with only one animal, it didn’t seem like an unreasonable risk. Then a second shark joined the party, and a third, then more, until seven or eight were circling tightly and showing keen interest in us. There was no way we could watch them all, so we simply snuggled back-to-back and hoped for the best.   

The boat had now drifted beyond easy swimming distance, so Suzanne yelled for them to come closer. Gordon eased the boat within a few feet of us, but as he reversed to stop we were enveloped in a cloud of bubbles from the propeller, almost completely blocking our view of the sharks. At this particular moment, my tank somehow slipped from its band, dangling beneath us and nearly pulling the regulator from my mouth. Suzanne immediately started re-clamping the band, but the shortened hose prevented me from looking around, limiting my field of vision even further. I’m sure it only lasted a few seconds, but I must admit to a few anxious moments there!  Suzanne had the problem corrected in no time, however, and soon both the bubbles and the sharks had disappeared.

In spite of being very close to lots of sharks, the plankton-rich water made for lousy photo conditions. In the majority of my pictures, the sharks appear only as indistinct, fuzzy silhouettes. For a few fleeting moments, however, one or two did approach within a few feet, allowing me to capture several precious frames on film.  It was only our first day, and we already had some usable underwater images… things had gone better than we had any reason to expect.

We eventually spent a total of six weeks in Cordova during two consecutive summers, yet never matched the success of that first day in the water. In fact, between consistently gray skies, dismal visibility, and the animals’ fickle behavior, we never even saw another Salmon Shark underwater. Still, it was a great experience from start to finish, but we now understand why there aren’t many underwater photos of Salmon Sharks—it’s just not that easy!



Sidebar about Natural History:

In spite of their striking appearance and intriguing nature, Salmon Sharks have been largely overlooked by the scientific community, and are almost unknown to the general public. While averaging about 6 feet in length, they can reach a maximum of at least 10, and are thought to live 25 years or more. Inhabiting both sides of the north Pacific, Salmon Sharks in Asia are found in the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, and the Bering Sea. In North America, they are occasionally seen as far south as California, but the largest concentration seems to be in Alaska. Officially classified as Lamna ditropis, they are close relatives of the Mako, Porbeagle, and Great White. Collectively known as mackerel sharks, these animals are all active, agile predators that hunt primarily by sight. While Salmon Sharks’ diet may include sedentary bottom fish, they typically feed on salmon, herring, mackerel, squid and other fast moving prey. This affinity for “fast food” probably accounts for one of their most unusual characteristics: Salmon Sharks are actually warm blooded! Like other mackerel sharks, they are endothermic—able to maintain a body temperature that is significantly higher than the surrounding seawater. In fact, studies have shown that Salmon Sharks may have the highest body temperature of any shark—up to 20 o F. higher than their environment. This elevated body temperature allows for better muscle efficiency, resulting in greater swimming speed and endurance—a perfect adaptation for animals that live in cold water but depend on catching fast-moving prey.

Relatively little is known about the reproductive biology of Salmon Sharks, making it difficult to determine sustainable catch limits and other management issues. We do know that they are ovoviviparous--their young are born alive. Litter size and length at birth are undetermined for eastern Pacific populations, but those in the western Pacific have up to 5 pups per litter, with a ratio of 2.2 males for every female. Newborns average about 2 feet (60-65 cm) in length, growing to a little over 3 feet (1 m) in their first year. Like most sharks, this species is slow to mature, with a very low fecundity, making them extremely vulnerable to overfishing. For the time being, however, Salmon Sharks are still fairly abundant in the eastern Pacific—an encouraging note in an age when many shark species are severely threatened.

special thanks to Suzanne Forman, Nancy Ebert and Gordon Lipscomb for making it all possible