Doc Anes broke to the surface, the afternoon sun glinting off his stainless steel shark suit, and yelled to the divers snoozing on the boat, “Get in, I’ve got two Mako’s!” Six divers and $20,000 worth of camera gear poured into the water. Soon we were all hanging to the outside of the submerged shark cage and snapping pictures as the sharks flew up the chum line and bolted past the assembled spectators. This was California blue water diving at its finest, and for the next two hours we were treated to close encounters with the world’s fastest sharks.
California is home to the Short Fin Mako, known to science as Isurus oxyrinchus. These are sharp nosed, streamlined, pelagic missiles that specialize in hunting in the vast expanses of the temperate seas. These finely tuned hunters are capable of killing the ocean’s fastest residents. They are even known to feed on Broadbill Swordfish, which they incapacitate by chasing them down and biting off their tails so they can feed at their leisure. Think of Makos as smaller cousins of White Sharks with a bad case of hyperactivity. Makos and Great Whites are members of the mackerel shark family and possess the ability to elevate their core body temperature, greatly increasing muscle power. Makos can jump 15-20 feet from the water!
While the ones we attracted this day were 4-6 feet long, specimens up to 13 feet and 1,000 pounds are not uncommon, which is why a safety cage is a necessity when diving with bait in the water. Unlike Blue Sharks, a relatively tame glider that is the mainstay of the shark diving business, Makos enjoy a well-deserved reputation for trouble and unpredictability. You never know when, and if, a Mako will show up. Doc stresses in his pre-dive briefing that if there is one Mako you are overmatched, and if there are two you are outnumbered. My personal experiences have found this to be sage advice. Despite the drama, hundreds of divers have been entertained and amazed by Doc and his crew and an enviable safety record attests to the well thought out procedures and the safety diver’s care.
To cage. . . or not to cage? Good question! For most divers seeking an encounter with the ocean’s apex predators on a close and personal basis I would recommend staying in the cage. Blue Sharks can be lured right up to the viewing ports and posed almost at will. Just tell Doc what you are looking for and he will provide it. Diving outside the cage requires previous experience and a limited number of sharks in the water. Once the shark count goes up the cage appears a better option unless you have eyes in the back of your head or happen to have one of those very expensive steel shark suits. Because they are so fast and wary if you want good pictures of a Mako, you will have to leave the cage and meet Mr. Mako on his terms. Pelagic sharks are counter-shaded, light on the bottom and dark on top. They can disappear in the background quickly, even in clear water, and have a disturbing habit of appearing right next to you when least expected, so stay alert.
To photograph sharks I prefer to use a Nikonos camera with a 15 or 20mm lens and two strobes and the shutter locked on 1/90th second. This setup allows me to get right up on the shark and allows the strobes to throw some light on the back of the shark to break them out of the background color of the sea. Inside the cage, even a single strobe is somewhat of a liability because of the crowded conditions and limited viewport space. Be prepared to turn off the strobes and shoot ambient light as well. Strobes are very good at highlighting particles in the water, and chumming for sharks puts a lot of material in the water column. A wide lens also allows me to point and shoot or to simply put the camera right up to the shark while keeping a close lookout. If you do not have an ultra-wide lens, a 28mm lens is a good option that will allow you to fill the frame with an average shark at about six feet. Air bubbles stick to your lens and will ruin your photos, so make sure to keep sweeping the bubbles away. Most of all remember the mantra. . . Get low, get close, shoot up!
Strobes also have a disturbing side effect; they generate quite a lot of noise as they recharge and give off a strong electromagnetic field to which sharks are extremely sensitive. On my last trip I was panning a shot and following a Mako in the camera viewfinder. As the shark passed three feet in front of me I fired off a shot and saw the flash of the strobes bounce off its highly reflective skin. With no warning, and virtually no delay, the Mako turned and bit my strobe and then my strobe arm. I found myself face-to-belly with an agitated Mako and used my free hand and my camera system to push the shark away. Excitement? Yes! But as I point to a handsome portrait of Mr. Mako on my wall, my wife continues to point out the deep scratches on my strobe housing and makes sure my life insurance is paid up.
Blue water diving with Blue and Mako sharks offer divers the chance to feel the adrenaline and meet the apex predators of our oceans in an up-close-and-personal way while enjoying the spectacle from a position of relative safety. There is another, and better reason to venture into the food chain in search of sharks. Quite simply put, Blue and Mako sharks are two of the most beautiful creatures that swim in our seas. Possessing a grace and beauty unto themselves, they provide the California diver with yet another reason to revel in the vast and beautiful playground that adjoins our home state.