For the last few months we have been seeing a small Caribbean reef shark between the Winch Hole and Logan's Run on Molasses Reef. I'm sure many of you have seen this shark, maybe five feet long at the most. This is a beautiful animal. He's cruising around Molasses Reef, seemingly unfettered by visitors to his backyard.
I tried to get close enough to get some good shots several times, but he always stayed a bit beyond the range of my strobes, so getting enough light on him was not possible.
We went there again on my birthday. Funny how things happen when you least expect anything out of the ordinary. In fact, we moved to a shallow dive site because a squall had moved in, and we did not want to sit in the rain and wind waiting to dive deep again.
We jumped in the water and went to the coral head where some snook and groupers hang out. There is also a cleaning station on a brain coral about the size of an oil drum about 30 feet from the snook/grouper spot. It's a great place to start and end the dive. No matter what you see in between, there is always something going on at these two spots.
We saw some folks from one of the dive boats near the cleaning station, so we took a path further out from the ledge than we normally take. This is the same area, in about 40 to 45 feet of water, that we saw the giant barrel sponge spawning event earlier this year.
This is a great area, and I cannot recall ever seeing anyone out there when we have been there, even on days when there are a good number of boats and divers on the north end of the reef. It is similar to going to the pillar coral patch from Permit Ledge. You just don't see anyone there because it's a bit of a kick to get there. But when you arrive, you know it's well worth the effort.
What a day! Neptune smiled, and sent the reef shark to hang out with us. We spent about 30 minutes with this curious critter. He would come in, take a look, then circle at the edge of visibility and cruise by again. The first few passes he stayed about 15 feet away, then started getting closer and closer. An encounter like this is a true gift! I even had some shots that were out of focus because he was too close to the camera.
You may recall me writing about whale sharks in the Philippines last fall, when we visited Oslob, where some juveniles hang out. Theses are fed by the local fishermen, so it was more like reality TV, and not a true encounter in the wild. It was an event I'll never forget, and I'm glad I went. But this dive with the reef shark, unstaged, unencumbered and unfed, was every bit as exhilarating as the whale shark dives. Yes, I am easily entertained, no question about it.
Out of curiosity, I poked around a bit to find out more about reef sharks in our waters.
According to Reef Environmental Education Foundation data, reef shark sightings occur on less than 2 percent of dives Keys-wide. I looked at data from 1995 to 2012. The highest sighting frequencies were around Looe Key, but sightings fell from over 12 percent ('95-'05) to about 4 percent of dives since 2005. Marathon also showed a slight decline. The Dry Tortugas and Key West had slight increases, while the Upper Keys stayed nearly the same <\#209> but still all under 2 percent.
There is also Florida Fish and Wildlife data available on shark landings, but their information is not species-specific. Since 1995, an average of 366,211 pounds of shark have been commercially landed annually in Monroe County. This peaked in 2006 at nearly 700,000 pounds, and since then the average landings have been around 220,000 pounds.
To put this in a frame of reference, that's about three times the landed weight of mutton snapper, and about 15 percent of the yellowtail catch weight. It is a significant fishery. On top of that, shark fins for the same period tip the scales at about 9,500 pounds per year. The numbers are here: http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/fishstats/commercial-fisheries/landings-in-florida/
In a recent study by The Pew Charitable Trusts in Palau, they found the value of living sharks to be far more than the market value of exploited sharks. By their estimates, the value of each shark at the five most frequently visited sites, after considering the travel and tax expenditures of visitors, was $179,000. From a lifetime value view, each shark is worth about $1.9 million to their tourism industry. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0iZvCjWEhM
By contrast, catching and/or finning one of these sharks had a commercial value of $108. That's 1,650 times more value alive for tourism than dead for the international market. Folks travel to see charismatic fauna and spend exponentially more money in the local economy on food, lodging and excursions than the value of the animal in a bowl of soup.
There are new studies surfacing on the economic value of nature to a locality. There is far more value to local economies, both directly and indirectly, by observing and recreating than exploiting charismatic mega fauna. It's all a balancing act, as I've said before, and the decision matrix all reef-dependent economies face is the proper balance between preservation and exploitation. All economic sectors are important and must be respected <\#209> and put into perspective.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his web site atwww.timgimages.com.