Thursday, October 21, 2010

Osprey Reef

Grey Reef Sharks

The boat has been pitching all night, my berth at the front of the twin hulled dive boat Spoilsport rising and slamming back down as it crests a wave with a thunderous boom against each hull. One second I'm pressed into my bunk, a second later a microsecond of freefall and then the room shakes with the noise of the impact. I'm not sleeping well. My bunk mate is snoring gently. We'd been told the crossing would be a rough one or that we'd not even make it and have to turn back. At this point it's three in the morning and we are still steaming onwards towards one of the furthest outlier reefs of the Coral Sea, out past the calm and protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Osprey Reef is a submerged coral atoll some 25km long and  around 100km off the coast of Queensland, just south of the 14th parallel and is only visited by dive boats, the Australian Navy and the odd meteorologist and so, it is probably one of the best spots in Eastern Australia to see sharks. A whole bunch of sharks. In it's 30m deep water lagoon dive boats, for better or worse, have been feeding sharks for years and so they congregate here in the relative shallows when they hear engines on the surface. White Tipped Reef Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, Black Tips, Silver Tips, Hammerheads and Silkies swarm through the water waiting to get fed.

Swimming with sharks is something special. Anyone who dives falls in love with them. The special delicately poised moment when you see your first shark underwater, usually a lone white tipped reef shark less than a meter long is to start a life long connection to the one of the most maligned animals on earth and unfortunately some of the most endangered.

Grey Reef with feed bin visible. The bin contains tuna heads
This feed is something new to me. I've only ever seen sharks in the water that were there of their own volition. I've seen Oceanic White Tips tracking dive boats in the Red Sea, circling them at night for scraps but never intentionally jumped in after the fish heads. Not that it's particularly courageous. Overweight gentlemen covered in neoprene breathing masses of bubbles into the water are not high on the average sharks repertoire of prey items. They will basically be ignoring me. Ignoring me in ways I've never imagined, sharks acute electro-sense zeroing in on the magnetic fields surrounding my body , down to my very heartbeat and marking me for shark social death.

Mike from New York is in full swing over breakfast. "Oh My God. I was thrown out of my bunk, onto the floor, can you fucking believe that, I'm getting off this ship, checking into a hotel. This shit is crazy." Mike's not been on a live-aboard before only having dived in more benign waters in the Bahamas, "...out of my bunk, onto the floor, I didn't sleep, not one minute", he explains. A couple from Austin, Texas, he taciturn and dry and she a Southern Belle though and through, watch Mike's kvetching with no small measure of amusement. That's the beauty of a dive boat, the sudden intimacy it thrusts upon you and a group of strangers. Diving is not very glamorous. It's heavy lifting, smelly neoprene and surfacing covered in snot. That and more often than not your relying on each other to cover your back if something goes wrong. And, at my end of the market, it means sharing very small cabins with someone you don't know. It's a delicate balance that can be tipped very badly if even one person doesn't mix well with the others. Twelve or fifteen people in close proximity basically trapped with each other for a week or ten days can be like being in the Big Brother house apart from the fact that no one's watching.

Sharks frenzy once the lid of the bin is released
The first animals to appear are a gang of white tip reef sharks, they hustle and bustle over the reef like boisterous teenagers. The first "proper" sharks, Grey Reefs, look more purposeful, more of a threat, more like the caricature of a shark, their lines thicker and more powerful than the serpentine white tips. Soon the water above me is a swirl of fins, black tipped, silver tipped and the huge bulk of a potato cod, bigger than a great many of the sharks. They group together and break, cruise for a while and then turn. Occasionally some imperceptible rule of the game is broken and you see pectoral fins dip in aggression and a brief chase ensues. A metal trash can is hauled down onto a rock outcrop by one of the dive leaders wearing chainmail gloves in case of misplaced attention. The sharks begin swirling in great arcs, the scent of tuna heads inside the can focusing their attention. The heads are attached to a chain with a buoy on top and once the lid is released the chain unfurls and the animals begin to frenzy, pulling at the heads with trashing twists of their bodies. One becomes entangled in the chain briefly but refuses to let go of the bait and eventually spins itself free tearing a chunk of meat with it. The display lasts less than a minute and the heads are all torn free, the sharks and accompanying remoras and pilot fish mopping up the scraps and then as if by some agreed upon signal they slowly disperse cruising in ever greater circles until they vanish into the blue leaving a few glittering scales and a scatter of teeth on the rocky reef outcrop.

1 comment: said...

I'm very jealous. Keep writing this stuff. I enjoy living vicariously through you!