Sharks assemble in the Med
“BEFORE EXCELLENCE the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it.” Of all things, it’s the tiresome voice of my history teacher that lingers in my mind as the beach finally comes into sight.
After a sweaty 500m walk in full gear with extra weights, large tank and camera rig, however, the water doesn’t provide the relief we had hoped for.
Generally, temperatures in the area max at around 19°C in February, but here outside the coastal town of Hadera pipelines discharge coolant sea water for the turbines of the local Orot Rabin powerplant at 25°.
This makes for a cosy Jacuzzi powered by two giant water-jets, and it isn’t only divers that come to enjoy the experience.
However, our first look beneath the surface is just as sobering as the site’s proximity to the Hadera river estuary might suggest. The brackish pea soup means that buddy-pairs need to stay within arm’s length, and at the foot of the 4m-deep sandy canyon carved out by the pressure of water from the powerplant, it’s difficult to catch sight of the surface even with the sun shining.
For the next 10 minutes we sit on this quasi-riverbed littered with fish-hooks and lines, staring into the green. Then, suddenly, a burst of current raises a sandstorm, and I find myself looking bewildered through the sand on my dome-port at a huge glimpsed caudal fin waving goodbye, inches from my mask.
Where had that come from? My eyes follow the silhouette for a split-second.
Mistake. Had I turned round I would have seen the second shark, but instead I get run over by a 3m behemoth before I have the chance to flinch.
Holy Jaws! Again, the moment lasts only four or five seconds, and it would be one of my only two instances of sharks approaching me head-on in nine hours spent at this raw diamond of a dive-site, if that’s what you want to call it.
After years of experience, Udi Levi of the dive-shop Out of the Blu flies by the seat of his pants, stops and motions me to sink my sandhook into the current-swept bottom, or move on to the next waypoint between the rubble or the sandy shallows, where fishermen on the rocks try to catch the odd amberjack or bream.
These fish serve as a reminder that the big sharks that might hover in and out of sight at any moment are denizens of the Mediterranean Sea, and have always been rare by any standards.
Between 1928 and 2002, the IUCN listed no more than 20 specimens in the whole Mediterranean, and even among fishery observers records are scarce and scattered.
At up to 4m and 350kg, dusky sharks are among the largest of requiem shark species, surpassing the vital statistics of oceanic whitetips and resembling bull sharks in their impressive bulky beauty.
Great whites might remain a step above them in the Med’s food-chain, as do the orcas in the Straits, but for all the indifference they display towards divers within a stone’s throw of Hadera's beach, these are top predators that demand respect, protection – and research.
AS IT HAPPENS, we bump into some guys sending up a drone once we’re out of the water. “So you’re that German journo who’s interviewing me later today?” says Eyal Bigal, looking at my camera and catching me off-guard.
The 32-year-old ex-army diver is halfway through his PhD on “Biomass of Apex Predatory Megafauna in the Pelagic Habitat of the Easternmost Mediterranean Sea”, and is also manager of the Marine Top Predator Laboratory at the Morris Kahn Marine Research Station.
“We’re doing an aerial survey to record the numbers of sharks today,” he says, pointing at the sharks’ shadows on the remote’s display, “but we also observe their behaviour towards divers.”
Later at the field station, an impressive facility of Haifa University dedicated to the country’s marine megafauna, its array of research tools leaves me speechless (and sorry for European field stations).
There are acoustic, satellite and spaghetti tags, acoustic receivers, syringes to take blood and DNA samples, devices to implant chips on the animals and latest-generation drones developed in collaboration with the marine-technology department.
All these are means of tackling major questions about the aggregation of dozens of specimens of a shark species that is cursed with the Mediterranean conservation status “Data Deficient”.
Where do these sharks come from in early December, and where do they leave for in late March? And why exactly are they coming?
It could be the high water temperature helping the sharks through the winter months, the stream serving as a kind of stimulant sending plentiful oxygen from their gills straight to their bloodstream, or the availability of food. At this stage, everything is still possible and open to debate.
“We have a lot of questions and not many answers, but our tagging campaigns will hopefully bring results,” Bigal tells me. In 2017 up to mid-February this year six sandbar sharks up to 1.8m and 25 female dusky sharks up to 4m were tagged. So the sharks are essentially females, but whether they’re gestating or not remains unclear, and as yet there is no indication of a dusky shark nursery in Israeli waters.
“That’s just one of the open questions, but there are even more basic ones, such as how an environment so poor in nutrition and food sources can sustain pretty good numbers of apex predators,” says Bigal.
His colleague Adi Barash from Haifa University was the first scientist to undertake research on these sharks, and from interviews with local fishermen she found that shark and ray populations were rising, while numbers of bony fishes were decreasing.
Thirty years ago, fishermen hardly observed any sharks in the area around the powerplant, but these days divers and spearfishers are reporting more sightings there and elsewhere in the country.
Sandbar sharks used to dominate the waters around the Hadera powerplant until two years ago, when the larger dusky sharks took over. Unlike the hammerheads that used to be observed there but now seem to be mostly gone, the sandbars stayed even though they were no longer the dominant species.
Barash’s curiosity revealed a real sensation: comparisons of DNA structures of local dusky sharks with their Atlantic and Indo-Pacific cousins suggests that there must have been cross-breeding between their Mediterranean ancestors and immigrants from the Red Sea, leading to an extended gene pool.
Back in 2016, Barash was co-developing a management plan to further the protection of sharks and rays through stricter law enforcement, improved legislation and habitat protection.
“People used to come with trucks to catch them and sell them in Gaza, but even hundreds of sharks caught could not destabilise the stocks, so our little reserve could keep the species from disappearing in the Mediterranean,” she told me.
She has started a Facebook group called Sharks in Israel. “We yell shark, shark, shark until people get bored and ignore it!” the 40-year-old student says, and bursts out laughing.
THESE DAYS, HADERA faces new challenges: the site has become something of an attraction, with snorkellers, kayakers and families trying to catch a glimpse of the sharks at the weekends.
And, of course, divers. Shira Salingré from the Nature & Parks Authority provides a link between dive-shops, researchers and the government.
As project manager in the marine departments, she advocates collaboration between the different parties to discuss what’s best for the animals: “The place is freely accessible and we want people to see sharks – it’s a great thing, but we want it to happen in the right way, and see about setting up a platform and stopping fishing activities,” she tells me.
She and colleagues are working on a code of conduct with the diving community, and she says that the international NGO Sharkproject has signalled its support.
I take my new-found knowledge down to the beach for my next effort at shark encounters, even with the prospect of optimum conditions, with only a mild east wind.
This time blue water engulfs us and visibility borders on 5m or more. Now we can see the mysterious duskies patrolling the trench from the shallows.
Suddenly we’re right among five of them, and while there is no direct interaction between men and fish, the better visibility allows me a second or two to grab some shots before they vanish.
With less of a gloomy atmosphere down there, and by now accustomed to the challenges – quicksand below, spontaneous sandstorms and little traps on the seabed – we slowly follow the sharks to where they’re supposed to concentrate. That’s right in the middle of the stream from the pipeline, which stretches about 90m along the shoreline.
I can see the current. The seabed here consists of pebbles rather than sand, and particles fly by along with our air bubbles.
The water might be clear, but sharks on the fly-by are something of an acquired taste when the vis is constantly shifting between zero and 2m, and these big round snouts emerge out of nowhere.
Photography is impossible in these conditions, which also take their toll on air consumption, but we do get glimpses of the smaller, more docile sandbar sharks.
So we spend the second half of the dive relaxing in the shallows and hoping for more sharks, but before the first dusky shows up we stumble on a honeycomb sting ray, a big Red Sea migrant that has established itself a bit too well here.
HALF-AN-HOUR LATER, several sharks have come from left and right, circling the canyon with the current like stacked planes awaiting permission to land. It’s about patience and enthusiasm, very different from baited shark experiences. Shark addicts wanting such interactions would be better off investing in a cheaper, more rewarding liveaboard trip to Egypt’s offshore reefs in season.
Udi Levi and Ran Golan of Out of the Blu are the first to admit that diving conditions are tricky, when we sit down in their daytime HQ on Hadera's parking lot. “In season, we can dive here every fifth day,” says Levi. “That’s why we do modular packages with coastal dives, offshore fish-farms, culture and sightseeing and even the Sea of Galilee – this allows us to pick the right day or days for Hadera.”
Hadera is a place for environmentally conscious divers who have seen sharks before and both appreciate and respect the animals.
It’s a little taste of what once was – of the Mediterranean in the days of Hass and Cousteau, before big coastal sharks became more or less functionally extinct in Europe’s half of the Mare Nostrum.
My thanks to the Diving Authority of the Israeli Ministry of Culture & Sports for facilitating this research trip.