What a view! The sun is shining and we are sitting on the upper deck for our crossing. To the right and left of us are the wooded cliffs of the Alberni Inlet. Just about two hours we can enjoy the view of this inlet at the Barclay Sound on Vancouver Island. Then we reach our destination: The Rendezvous, a beautifully situated dive resort run by Peter Mieras and Kathy Johnson.
For the next five days we want to find extraordinary fish. Most shark species have five gills. Here, however, there should be a peculiarity of evolution: the 6-gill shark. In South Africa I already had the opportunity to dive with 7 gill sharks and photograph them. For a photographer, it doesn’t sound particularly exciting to know whether an animal has a slit more or less on its sides that allows it to filter oxygen out of the water. Of course, the marine biologically interested diver in me can get some enthusiasm. But will there be more to it than simply documenting the encounter with a fish, which unfortunately has become very rare?
We are part of the Shark Survey Week, which organizes the Rendezvous annually together with the Pacific-Rim National Park Administration. Marine biologist Jennifer Yakimishyn accompanies us and provides us with scientific information about the sharks found in British Columbia. It is always good to know about the habitat and behaviour of your subjects. This makes it easier to meet and interact with them.
In Search of the Sixth Gill
The next few days we will dive at various spots where a shark has been seen in recent years. However, our expectations are not too high. Jennifer had told us the sad story of shark hunting in Canada. Like everywhere else in the world, they have fallen victim to deep-rooted primeval fears, sporting ambition and economic interests. Even catch bonuses have been offered in recent decades.
Once upon a time, the Barkley Sound was also home to the Basikn Sharks. However, as they allegedly hindered commercial shipping, they were actively decimated: Sword-like giant blades were mounted under the bow of the harbour ships and the plankton-eaters, which were up to seven meters long, were cut in two when passing over. Since then, the area around Vancouver Island has been largely free of sharks.
I can hardly get the insanity of human activity out of my thoughts as I float through the emerald water. There are plenty of fish, as well as marvellous anemones, nudibranches and impressive jellyfish. However, we will leave these out of our hands for the time being. We want to dive a little deeper over a free boulder area. This is supposed to be a good place, Peter told us. He proudly showed us his video recordings of the encounter with two 6-gill sharks. We’ll stay as long as the no-deco time and air consumption allow it.
Then we head back to the colorfully overgrown rocks of our dive site. I have my 24 mm wide-angle lens with me and take the opportunity to capture the green magic of the Emerald Sea. The white and orange anemones offer a perfect colour contrast to the deep green of the water. I am especially happy to have my wide-angle snoot for my flash. With a bit of luck I can selectively illuminate my motif and it is completely surrounded by green – without losing its colourfulness.
Back on the boat, the quest for the 6-gill sharks is the immediate theme:”Have you seen a exemplar?””No, you?””No, we haven’t.” At least I didn’t overlook the animals when I was busy with the anemones. They were simply not there. There are still a few days left. Nobody gives up hope.
We sit on the upper deck again and are deeply impressed by the surrounding nature. Metre-high cliffs with partly very old trees, in addition to the sea, which opens up a lot of times and is then again narrowly bordered by the fjords like a river. In between we discover Canadian weekend houses that nestle on the coast. Some of them also swim in the water. It also seems that every inhabitant of Vancouver Island has his own boat.
Peter brings us back to the here and now. The next dive is coming up. We jump into the water and swim to the anchor chain. We need them for orientation, because the surface water is so cloudy that we can hardly see three meters away. But further down it clears up. The light is weak and diffuse, the mood becomes mystical. We still hope that a 6-gill shark will come around the next corner. But he is still not showing up. I’m starting to think we’re chasing a ghost. Do you think the sharks still exist?
Slowly we get our very own routine: First we look for our sharks, then we dedicate ourselves to the other photo motives. This time we discover a Lion Mane Jellyfish that has fallen into the clutches of an anemone. Since she can’t free her tentacles, we have plenty of time for some shots. Even if it doesn’t look like that to us humans at first glance, we are witnessing the eternal game of nature of eating and being eaten. Two animals that look like creatures from another world are fighting for survival here. And we enjoy their very own aesthetics. How differently we would react if a big, teeth-armed sea fish would attack a fleecy seal baby.
Surface intervals are something ingenious. There’s hot soup and cookies. Kathy is an enthusiastic cook who never lets us dive with a hungry stomach, Peter is a thoughtful captain who drives us into calm waters so that we can enjoy hot coffee and cocoa. It’s an excellent place to stay cared for.
When warmed up and well nourished, it goes back into the water. Our plans are the same again: get at least one 6-gill shark in front of the lens. Again we dive into the open water and let our eyes wander. But from a cartilaginous fish several meters in size, nothing can be seen. Instead, we see something else scurrying past near the bottom: a 30 centimetre long fish with long, almost transparent fins. His eyes are unusually large. His “nose” is rounded at the front. The scales are slightly brownish with white-silver spots.
A ghost they also call dragons or rats
It’s a chimera. This prehistoric fish, together with sharks and rays, forms the class of cartilaginous fish. This relationship gave him the name Ghost Shark. However, this may also be due to the transparency of its fins, or to the fact that it usually occurs in Atlantic waters only at very great depths. Their other names are not exactly flattering either: ratfish, sea cat or sea dragon. I am fascinated by these creatures that have been populating our planet for so long. What a great fortune that I can meet them here in their natural home.
I have to rethink quickly. How do I take pictures now? My wide-angle fits halfway. The chimera doesn’t let me get too close. With my lightning speed, I have to be careful now. The surface of the dandruff is highly reflective. So I have to find the right amount of light, so that the subject doesn’t seem very overexposed. Nevertheless, it should be enough for the light to penetrate through the extremities. A fish that you can almost see through, I’d like to see in my photos.
Full of enthusiasm I tell about the encounter with the ghost sharks on the boat. Peter, who knows the area like the back of his hand, is hardly surprised. Chimeras are not uncommon here. For me as a European, this is surprising. In the Atlantic they live mainly in the deep sea. Only in some Norwegian fjords they are carried along by the deep current into the shallow area. There you can discover them with a bit of luck during night dives. But it is not easy.
The day ends on the terrace of the rendezvous. Somehow it was like a ghost hunt,”says one of the travelers:” You’re looking for something that isn’t there. You lose sight of the fact that you are travelling in the ancient castles and palaces with all their beauty. I lean back and remember that I have found my spirits, not the expected ones, but others, no less interesting. My gaze wanders over the Barclay sound. The sun warms me up and I have the same feeling as on arrival: Which one is a view!