WAFTING ITS WINGS GENTLY, the angel glided past me, a vision appearing out of a cloud of sand. It hovered above the bottom before softly sinking and, with a slight flap of its wings, disappeared from sight only a few metres away.
Looking more closely, I could see two round eyes, with vertical pupils staring back at me. Was I in heaven
I almost felt I was, even though I was in 18°C waters just off Puerto Del Carmen in Lanzarote.
From more years ago than I care to think about, I have vague memories as a small girl of a holiday in Cornwall. The most memorable part was my father taking my brother fishing at the end of a pier and my brother catching two fish – a weever, with poisonous spines, and a small angel shark.
I remember being scared of the weever but fascinated by the angel shark. I wanted to know why it was called an angel – could it fly, did it come from heaven Before my questions were answered, both fish were swiftly unhooked from the line and thrown back into the ocean.
Fast forward several decades, and this long-forgotten memory came zooming back to me as I carefully fanned the sand away with my hand several inches above the head of this angel.
As we looked at each other, the shark with total indifference and me in wonder, I realised how lucky I was.
Angel sharks, the squatiniformes order, are on the “Critically Endangered” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Before the 1970s, and around the time my brother caught his fish, they were fairly common, often a useless by-catch of commercial fishermen using gill-nets. The fishermen would use them as bait for crustaceans.
Annual takes off the Californian coast in the mid-1970s were found to be only around 145kg.
Fish-processors and commercial fishermen then, unfortunately, developed a market for angel sharks. A staggering 450 metric tons or some 90,000 sharks were taken in 1985 – in California alone!
The species became devastated worldwide. Once abundant in both the Atlantic and Pacific, they had been fished almost to extinction.

ANGEL SHARKS ARE, to me, beautiful. They have unusually flat bodies, with large, broad, horizontal pectoral fins, used for balancing and braking and set behind the five gill-slits on either side of a large flat head.
Two dorsal fins, also horizontal, sit on their back. Flattened when camouflaged under the sand, these rise vertically when the shark is swimming.
Adult angel sharks are greenish-brown, with white and black spots patterned in a marble-like effect. Young angels are more distinct, with white net-like markings and large dark blotches. The dorsal fins of both have a black leading edge and a pale trailing edge.
The large head is similar in shape to that of a wobbegong or nurse shark. Simple whisker-shaped protrusions near the nostrils, called nasal barbels, are used to taste and smell.
Although not aggressive towards divers, when provoked angel sharks will, like most animals, bite. The have strong jaws and needle-sharp teeth that can impart painful lacerations.
The large eyes provide good all-round vision, making these sharks efficient ambush predators. Buried in the sand, they are extremely well camouflaged, and well equipped to catch their prey.
Atlantic angel sharks grow to around 1.5m, whereas Pacific ones, most notably Japanese angel sharks, can grow to 2.5m.
Where Atlantic specimens are found in shallower temperate waters and estuaries down to 150m, the Pacific angel shark inhabits more tropical deep waters down to 1300m. They are solitary by nature.
They are ovoviviparous, which means their young develop in eggs remaining inside the body for 8-10 months. Females bear 7-25 live young 24-30cm long. They can live for up to 13 years.
Atlantic angel sharks were traditionally distributed between Norway, Mauritania (North Africa to the Mediterranean coast), the Canary Islands and the Black Sea, but they have now vanished from some of these areas and are extremely rare in the rest.
Among their last strongholds are the Canary Islands, especially Lanzarote.
They migrate to the shallow protected bays in the south and east of the island from early November through to April on their way to Norway, where they spend the summer months.

IT’S IN NOVEMBER that female angel sharks give birth. It’s difficult enough to see an adult angel shark normally, as they bury themselves in the sand, so seeing a miniature version is almost impossible.
Divers often swim over small mounds in the sand unaware that an angel shark is hidden below.
The best way to find one is to look for either a large pear-shaped mound in the sand or a large indentation that might indicate that a shark had been hidden there. Have a close look around the vicinity and you could well spot it, as they don’t tend to swim too far.
The Zoological Society of London has been working with the Canary Islands’ sport-fishing community as part of its Angel Shark Conservation Project.
It is designing a best-practice guide to catch and release, to encourage sports-fishermen to conserve the species and recruit and train them to tag the sharks.
ZSL recently obtained funding from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund for this project. Canary Islanders are also being encouraged to collect and report sightings of the sharks to identify important habitats for the species.

VERY SOON, the shark got fed up with me studying it and, with a quick flick of its powerful tail – unusual in itself, because it doesn’t have an anal fin like most other sharks – it quickly disappeared.
Over the course of the week I spent in Lanzarote in November, diving with Native Diving of Costa Teguise, I saw one other shark swimming away in the distance. Unfortunately for me, I had my macro lens on, because I was shooting seahorses.
I returned in March, and Cruz of Native Diving took us to the far south and Playa Flamingo, near Playa Blanca. Surface-swimming from the shore along the sea-wall, we descended at the mouth of the bay to a sandy bottom at around 10m.
All around us were large indentations, clear signs that sharks were about. We searched and studied all the angel shark-shaped mounds of sand, but without luck.
Then, as we swam back to the entrance of the bay to begin our descent, a large adult male approached from the blue. Swimming between the four of us, it settled on the bottom close by.
Seeing the shark up close, I could really study its strange-looking fins. It resembled a sting ray from the front, but from the back it was most definitely a shark.
And by the way it swam (or flew), it was definitely an angel.
It flicked its fins and was soon camouflaged under the sand. We left it in peace to complete our dive, feeling privileged and happy.