Feeding Basking Shark


The articles below were taken from the Saint John Times Globe Sept 3/99
Photographs below were taken by Mike Hawkins

The fin of a basking shark
The Fin of a basking shark breaks the water's surface in the bay of Fundy near Deer Island

Times Globe staff writer

On Their Tails
Divers, researchers and videographer head out into
the Bay of Fundy to find, swim with and document basking sharks

Dr. Turnbull and Dr. Mike Wilkie record the data   Alain deGrasse is in deep water several kilometres off the coast of Back Bay and he knows this is shark territory.
   Just seconds after getting in the water, he realizes he's got a problem with his diving gear.
    His water-tight "dry suit" turned out to be a bad choice as it limited how fast he could move.
   Then, a menacing, black, triangular fin of a shark appears just metres away, leaving a wake as it slices through the water.
    The shark was barreling down on him as he frantically kicked his legs to get out of its path.
   It was too late.
   The 30-foot, seven-tonne shark had its mouth open and its mind on a meal.
   Mr. DeGrasse froze for a second and braced himself.
    The head of the shark went right under him but its huge dorsal fin caught him in the right rib cage, lifting him up, then depositing him back in the water, only to be hit again on the right leg by the massive tail fin.
    "My God he hit me hard. I can't believe how hard he hit me. I tried to get out of the way but it just moved too fast," Mr. deGrasse would later recount back in the boat, his side and legs covered with a layer of slime from the shark's skin.
    Actually, this moment of suspense was not as dangerous as it might seem. It was indeed a shark that he had this encounter with but it was nothing like the Great Whites of horror movie fame.
   This was a basking shark and the meal it had on its mind was plankton, not people. The shark was moving along just under the surface of the water at about two knots, its mouth wide open filtering huge amounts of water as it collects its microscopic meal.
    Mr. deGrasse meant to swim alongside the gentle giant when it suddenly changed course and unknowingly tossed him like a rag doll.
   "I'll have a few bruises but that's okay. It's pretty cool to get hit by a shark," Mr. deGrasse said.
   His battle scars are all in the name of science.
   The divers swim on top of a basking shark as it gracefully passes by their inflatable boat.Mr. deGrasse was one of several divers in search of basking sharks in the Bay of Fundy this week as part of an expedition on the Mary-0, a research boat owned by the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.
   The divers were made up of a research team as well as a pair of American videographers hoping to do a documentary on the sharks.
    Each time a shark was spotted, the men positioned themselves in front of it and dove in, hoping to view it, touch it and film it.
   Dr. Steve Turnbull, a professor in the biology department at UNBSJ, organized the expedition to do research on the massive and mysterious basking shark.
    Surprisingly little is known about basking sharks. Research has in the past been prohibitively expensive as the animals' whereabouts have not accurately been mapped and no one really knows where to go to find them.
    The Bay of Fundy, however, is one of few places the sharks return to with any predictability. The sharks have been spotted for many years in these waters usually in August or September.
    "But we have no idea where they came from or where they go when they leave," Prof. Turnbull said.
   During the three-day expedition, Prof. Turnbull, an experienced diver himself, intended to tag the shark's fins in hopes of tracking their movements.
   Unfortunately, the big fish were a little too quick to be tagged during the first day of their expedition.
    "They were too skittish. As soon as you got up to them they would just dive," Prof. Turnbull said.
   So on this day, other missions of this expedition would take priority.
   Along with Mr. deGrasse and Prof. Turnbull was Dr. Mike Wilkie, a professor in the biology department of Mount Allison University in Sackville.
    Prof. Wilkie is doing research on lower invertebrates, such as the eel like lamprey.
   The lamprey is a small parasitic fish that feeds by attaching latching its jaws onto other sea creatures and recently has been discovered feeding off of basking sharks.
    Prof. Wilkie jumped at the chance to come along on the expedition in hopes of nabbing a lamprey off a shark's back.
    After several attempts by the divers, it would be one of the American videographers that would finally snatch a lamprey off the back of one of the huge fish.
   Nearing the end of day one of their mission, a basking shark was spotted near the Deer Island. After the Mary 0 was placed in what the researchers guessed was the shark's probable path, videographer Jonathan Bird of Oceanic Research Group near Boston, Massachusetts, suited up with just a snorkel and jumped in front of the shark.
    As the other divers watched anxiously from the boat, the shark dipped down and moved just under the small zodiac tied to the Mary O.
   Mr. Bird followed the shark down and moments later emerged.
   "I GOT A LAMPREY!!" he exclaimed, gasping for air.
   Mr. Wilkie retrieved the lamprey from Mr. Bird and placed it in a specially designed holding tank to be examined and tested.
    Meanwhile, videographer Tim Greers, who's a partner with Mr. Bird, got the whole thing on video tape.
   Overall, the researchers and documentary team felt they had good luck, having been within an arm's reach of about half a dozen of the exotic creatures.
   For Mr. deGrasse, a diving enthusiast who works at NBTel by day, it produced not only bumps and bruises, but an experience he'll probably be telling his grandchildren about some day. " I had to take an extra day off work to do this but I just told myself, you've got to do it because you'll never forget it."