Searching for Sharks

The captain killed the motor and the catamaran floated quietly a few miles off the coast of Dana Point.  Passengers were intensely focused on the surrounding seas with binocular and squinty eyes; the calm water makes it easier to spot ‘em, explained Eric Austin Yee, a naturalist with Dana Wharf Whale Watching. But it wasn’t cetaceans these early Saturday morning sea-lovers were eager to spot.  They were after  the fish that doesn’t swim away from any other creature:  sharks.

SHARK HAPPY -- guests of all sizes.
SHARK HAPPY — One guest was all ready to greet a great white.

With warming waters enticing sharks into and off of the SoCal coastline – and with almost weekly reports of shark sightings on Orange County beaches this summer – the traditional whale watching enterprise decided to experiment with a new type of cruise that would get passengers up close and personal with the great white, mako, thresher, blue and hammerhead sharks.

Slated to run until the end of September, Shark Search Saturdays hit a high mark on its first outing with a spotting of a hammerhead shark; the second weekend, a pelagic stingray was discovered. (Unlike their kin that keep to the seafloor, these rays live in open water. And yes, they are a close relative to the shark.)

What will this third outing uncover? Passengers were scanning the waters for a tall narrow dorsal or caudal fin that would just jut out of the waters.  A chum bucket had been placed hours ago attached to a buoy so any nearby sharks with a working nose would be enticed to investigate. More eyes on the small waves. Over there? How about there? Where are the sharks?

Whale watching outfits often share leviathan sightings and locations with each other out of courtesy to the trade. Shark sightings, however, are unpredictable and mysterious. Sharks are smaller and move more erratically than whales which are easier to find especially when they blow. Finding a much-smaller shark fin in the open waters is the proverbial needle in a haystack.

“We’re really on our own out here,” says Yee as he searches the slate gray waters. “This is nature after all.”

ON THE LOOKOUT -- Eric Yee (right) is on the shark search.
ON THE LOOKOUT — Eric Yee (right) kept the mood upbeat and lively on Saturday’s shark search.

Earlier in the cruise, the captain took a short side trip to follow a small band of common dolphins that were frolicking in the waves.  Passengers were delighted as the mammals  jumped, dove underneath the boast and resurfaced with a blowing spout.  The dolphin, however, left everyone hungry for the main course – a shark sighting. The boat lurched onward to see what, if anything, was lured by the chum bucket.

So the waiting. And more waiting. No fins breaking the surface. Not here. Or here. Or there. Nothing. Finally, time won this waiting game and the captain had the mate hoist in the bucket and headed back to land.

One passenger had been on the previous two expeditions, and ecstatically described seeing  the hammerhead and the pelagic ray. She wasn’t disappointed with this shark-less trip. “A day on the water is a good day, I say,” she exclaimed. Her attitude was reflected the other passengers who, while eagerly accepting the discount coupons to take another trip, were all smiles with wind-blown hair and slightly chapped lips. Complaints? None.  Good memories, yes.  Ready for another Shark Search? Sign us up.

— Brenda Rees, Editor

PACIFIC OCEAN DAY -- Time on the water is a great day.
PACIFIC OCEAN DAY — Time spent on the water is always a great day.