Close Encounter: Swimming with the Sharks

[Editor's Note: Have you had a close encounter with nature? In this ongoing blog series, Nature Conservancy staff and friends are sharing their thrilling and unexpected encounters with nature. Read our stories – and then share your own!]

By Matt Jenkins, Nature Conservancy magazine Senior Editor

Twenty four hours after touching down on Palmyra Atolla profoundly remote spot 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, where the skies are rarely marred by even the contrail of a passing airliner — photographer Tim Calver and I were aboard the research boat Zenobia. That morning, a team of researchers had been catching gray reef sharks and implanting tracking tags in them; now it was time for lunch. As Kydd Pollock steered the boat back to the research station, something in the distance caught his eye — a frothy eruption on the ocean’s surface, with a scrum of seabirds wheeling overhead.

Kydd changed course to give us all a better look. As we drew near the commotion, the water boiled with sparkling baitfish that leapt into the air as they were corralled into a “bait ball” by a school of yellowfin tool. Researcher Jenn Caselle watched from the bow and marveled: “This is ridiculous.”

Tim and marine biologist Yannis Papastamatiou quickly donned snorkel gear and slipped into the water to get photographs. No sooner had they dipped their heads underwater, however, than Caselle realized that the tuna weren’t the only fish looking for a meal: The water was full of sharks.

Time suddenly began moving very quickly. As we yelled for Tim and Yannis to get back onboard, Pollock hastily threw Zenobia’s engine into reverse and positioned the boat between them and the tangle of sharks. As soon as the pair had clambered back onto the boat, Yannis ripped his mask and snorkel off.

“I turned around and there was just a ball of sharks,” he said. “It just erupted.”

It was a sobering introduction to the wild waters for which Palmyra is famed — and to the surprisingly fast pace of life on the atoll. For the next two weeks, Tim and I would trail researchers through an exhausting daily routine geared to take maximum advantage of every hour of available daylight. Time at a remote field station like Palmyra is extremely precious, and scientists spend long days on, and in, the water, converging at the mess hall for a quick dinner before heading off to long evenings in the lab.

On the day before our flight home, Tim and I accompanied several researchers to Barren Island, on the opposite side of the atoll from where our trip began. A passing squall had given the sea the look of jagged coral, and the closest land seaward lay nearly 6,000 miles away on the coast of Colombia.

As the ebb tide ran out over the reef crest, we lay on our stomachs in water so shallow it came only to our foreheads. Clinging to the shattered coral in the surf zone, we held ourselves fast against the tide as a passing knot of rain turned the surface of the water to hammered silver. As the water swept past, 10 baby blacktip sharks — just 10 inches long and only several weeks old — materialized.

Full of curiosity, the juvenile sharks hovered eyeball-to-eyeball with us. For an hour, we silently appraised each other inside a 40-million-year-old caldera in the middle of 10,000 miles of open ocean. Finally, the outgoing tide forced us back to the research station: If we stayed any longer, we would have been stranded on the edge of the atoll for the night. On the boat ride back to camp, the sky was wild with birds streaming in from feeding out at sea. Everyone was lost in silence.

[Image: Blacktip sharks. Image source: Tim Calver]

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