Written by Paul Spielvogel
Photos by Paul Spielvogel
There’s no better way to feed my shark-junky addiction than to pursue Bull Sharks at the Bat Islands, Costa Rica, during the warm summer month of July. But, having only recently taken time away from the office to acquaint myself with various species of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, including Scalloped Hammerheads and Black Tips, it became overwhelmingly clear to me that my wife and children may not be too receptive to another solo “assignment” for Shark Diver Magazine. After weeks of agonizing over how to get away again without mutiny at work or rebellion at home, the answer came to me in a moment of desperation: airline miles and “FAMILY VACATION”! My wife was thrilled thinking of our being together in this romantic destination while my kids were excited planning excursions such as the crocodile river boat tour, white water rafting, zip line canapé tour through the jungle and of course SCUBA diving. All I knew was that while I was a hero to my loved ones I would be fulfilling my personal agenda to photograph those notorious and elusive Bull Sharks.
Rumors of “parading Bull sharks” reaching lengths up to fourteen feet and the promise of being one of only a relatively few photographers in the world to have an opportunity to capture heart-stopping images of these mythical Bulls, gave me the incentive (and the courage) to keep the “family vacation” illusion alive. As our departure date drew near and my research intensified, I began receiving conflicting reports of what I could expect to encounter on this journey. The more reliable sources projected that I had just committed to an eight day $15,000.00 family vacation that could very well result in a shark photographer’s worst nightmare…no subject, and that’s NO BULL.
My first mistake was planning this trip during the wrong time of year to have any reasonable expectation of Bull shark activity. My second mistake was to rely upon the hype and representations found on the Internet when I should have just contacted a local dive operator in that geographic region for required information. The locals know the “season” for these Bull sharks is February to April. Resort Divers confirmed this information and also provided me with disturbing reports that commercial fishing nets and abandoned fishing line were found draped over the volcanic rock-beds in the area where the Bull sharks are known to congregate. The devastation and over-fishing to this once unspoiled area is an indication that these magnificent Bulls may no longer inhabit these waters as previously reported. Glad to be with the family but with a heavy heart caused by the warning of no Bull Shark activity, we set out to discover just what exactly this part of Costa Rica had to offer a shark-junky like me.
Entering the chilled Pacific water in the Golfo De Papagayo wearing my Pinnacle 3 mil suit, (wishing I had the foresight to pack my 7 mil) and with my Aquatica housing in hand, my first dive was to circumnavigate a volcanic-rock island located twenty-five minutes offshore from our resort. Marine life appeared abundant, healthy and thriving in the murky, colorless but nutrient-rich water. My son, Adam, quickly got my attention pointing to a five-foot White Tip reef shark (“Triaenodon obesus”) cruising in the distance. My quest for Bull Sharks was temporarily abated and I now focused on this fast swimming White Tip. Chasing that solitary shark in strong current was no easy task, but we eventually found him resting next to a noticeably pregnant female. Though my air supply and the kids’ patience were all running low, I stalled my ascent to observe and document their movements hoping to snap a few print-worthy images for the Magazine. However, poor visibility, overcast skies, sweeping currents, and lack of surrounding color proved my task insurmountable that morning.
These particular sharks enjoy a ferocious reputation as perfect reef hunters at night. In daylight, such reputation diminishes as these fierce predators become reclusive, standoffish and unwilling to pose. While we stilled ourselves, the sharks circled a few times and eventually returned to their same resting spot, as if to have surveyed and assessed their risk of our intrusion and finding us to be no threat. Encroaching ever-so-slowly upon their “landing zone” but keeping a respectful distance, I sensed the subjects were becoming agitated and insecure. Effortlessly they rested, while I was exhausting myself just trying to stay near. The longer I struggled to stay in place, the more surveillance laps occurred. My air was now below 500 PSI and my family of divers had long lost their patience with me. It was clear that my incurable obsession for the unique would not be satisfied this go-round; but, as is typical of most of my photo sessions, I was on a quest for “the elusive cover shot”.
Diving the neighboring sites of Virador, Los Meros, Baja Tiburon and Punta Gorda provided me with numerous chances to photograph the local population of White Tip sharks. Experience has increased my comfort and awareness of the underwater environment, which has permitted me to get closer to the sharks and to better predict their patterns and habits. That aside, a review of my images left me with the impression that I might as well have shot these sharks in black and white due to the lack of sunlight, over-cast skies, murky conditions, and the grey subject matter. I assumed I was doing something wrong, or that with more experience I could get clearer pictures. In part that may be true, but maybe the lure of shark photography to me is that the ocean and its creatures are not predictable, they do not accommodate, and they have no respect for me, so the challenge will live on, forever.
Day three of our four-day dive package provided the most satisfying experience of the trip. I happened upon an underwater canyon twenty-five feet below the surface that led to a slim cave opening. Through the crevice I could see movement but had to maneuver closer to see what was lurking inside. The thin opening revealed at least a dozen juvenile White Tip sharks varying in lengths from two to three feet. This discovery came late in the day and the dive master was signaling our return to the boat. Surfacing with less than 200 PSI of air I shared my excitement about this coup with Pony, our dive-master. He assured me that he had never before seen anything like I described so he named my find “La Cueva De Paul” meaning “Paul’s cave”. We all agreed to return to this same location the following day; me, to get my “shot” and the kids, well, ok, so it was really all about ME, but the kids were good sports about it. That night all I could think about was the image I wanted to capture. I planned the approach, the angle, the settings, everything. Etched in my brain was the exact shot I wanted and nothing, not even Mother Nature, was going to deprive me of my shot.
Our final day confronted us with grey skies, choppy seas, and cold murky water, but I was on a natural high and overlooked these seemingly minor obstacles. My body tensed, heart rate increased and air usage doubled as we meandered our way to the cave. Nearing the entrance, we were plagued by hundreds of jellyfish, causing misery for my kids. My daughter, Jessie, relentlessly tugged on my fins to urge me to evacuate the area but I was too “in the zone” to fully appreciate the severity of our circumstances. Overlooking the consequences I would face by ignoring the jellies, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the strong currents, powerful surges and the tugging on my fins. Determined to overcome these impediments, camera settings were adjusted, strobes set to fire and my eye pressed firmly against the viewfinder ready to snap images as I approached the chamber securing the White Tips. Though the turbulent water made it extremely difficult to steady myself, I was on a mission. I would have sucked bubbles from the surf if I had run out of air, just to capture that one dream shot.
Fearing that obsession would overrule my common sense, Adam stayed with me as the others decided to abort. I struggled in the constant surge causing my camera housing to smash repeatedly against the solid rock wall. Failing countless times to get my housing and strobes adequately positioned in the cave, I realized that this task was proving itself to be impossible and my photo frustrations lived on. In desperation, I blindly snapped away hoping that one, just one shot, would make for a print-worthy image. I tried every angle, every direction and every position to hone in on my subject but my efforts were thwarted with each attempt. I guess Mother Nature dictates her own terms! I envisioned the sharks laughing at me from inside their protective grotto as I was forced to admit defeat, this time. Retreating, I noticed Adam calmly approaching the cave entrance with arms extended, thrusting his Olympus Stylus 740 point-and-shoot camera into the narrow gap TAKING PICTURES OF MY SHARKS! I was both envious and elated and ready to move on.
Though I did not get a dream shot or my cover shot this trip, my time in the water, and time spent with family was invaluable. Reviewing my images of the White Tip sharks reminded me of what it takes to be an accomplished underwater photographer. Shark photography requires and demands patience, high energy, an eye and respect for the surroundings and the ability to get up close and personal to the subject, even when the subject is unexpected; and that’s NO BULL!