We were willing to try just about anything, including rally caps, talisman and shark dances—anything to catch a shark. We scoured the horizon for bird activity. We searched seamounts and steep drop-offs. We drifted with our chum slicks into the deep blue. We hung multiple fresh, whole yellowfin tuna from our buoys, shaking our heads in disbelief when after four hours, the fish were brought onboard unscathed. We changed the bait, the location and split our crew to fish in shifts. Surely if we just fished longer, harder, we’d catch them, we thought. We chummed some days from 4am-11pm. We fixated our ambition on the sea with increasing intensity, and some would say, insanity. But despite our superstition and backbreaking efforts, for the first six days of the expedition, we caught none.
Just when inactivity threatened the team’s morale, the high-pitched scream of the reel fueled us with bursts of adrenaline. We caught yellowfin tuna, wahoo and mahi mahi like it was our job—but it wasn’t. Our job was to study sharks. We intended to help local communities, fisheries managers and scientists to understand shark ecology and movement patterns in Fiji by placing GoPro video cameras on the reef, and pop-up satellite archival tags (PSAT) on the sharks.
On the fifth day, we nearly struck gold. We had just caught a mahi mahi. It’s thrashing sent hypnotic bursts of blue and green into the air, signaling an exciting end to an otherwise lackluster day. We decided to fish for fresh bait on our way back to the main boat, since we were saving the mahi mahi for dinner. With two reels trolling and a chum slick more than a mile long, we saw it. “Shark! Shark!” yelled the team. The struggling mahi mahi must have drawn it closer. The snout of the Mako shark, known for its speed and jumping ability, was indistinguishable. We had spotted a number of reef sharks throughout the week, but this was the first pelagic shark we saw. We were targeting the pelagic sharks for satellite tagging because those are the sharks targeted by the commercial fishery. And those are the sharks that need some level of protection. The shark’s black eye observed us as it slowly rounded the port side of our boat, dorsal fin out of the water. It seemed like only seconds had passed, but before we could get a buoy and heavier line in the water to hook the nearly 8ft long shark, we heard it. The familiar scream of the reel. The shark was not supposed to take the trolling line and we had no choice now except to try to reel it in. Two people turned around to grab gear and I turned to get the harness for Joe Lepore, Waitt Institute’s operational lead. A keen fisherman, he had already begun to reel in the shark. A moment later, the crew erupted into a cheer that rivaled a world cup goal. The shark launched itself 15-20ft in the air, snapping the line. And I had missed it.
That night, we had to say goodbye to three of our team members, including our chief scientist Dr. Demian Chapman, due to prior obligations back at home. But despite our decrease in hands, the Mako shark greatly increased our morale. We felt certain that we would deploy all of our satellite tags before the close of our expedition.
The second week, we continued to fish long and hard, deploying both our trusted and more eclectic techniques. We had some success with silver tip sharks, but had not yet deployed all of our tags. Nor had we tagged a pelagic shark over 6ft long. Nearing the end, our target eluded us. To catch the sharks we were willing to do just about anything. Anything except give up.
*Trailer to Fiji Sharks documentary filmed and directed by Andy Mann of 3 Strings Productions available now. Full film to be released mid-August! Stay tuned for updates.