The Dusky Whaler swam past about ten metres away, its’ blurred outline indistinct in the murky water. It was just over a metre in length, and as I peered into the gloom another five sharks swam past at the edge of my vision. The experience was repeated again and again over the next twenty minutes, the juvenile Dusky Whalers that were swimming circuits of Cabbage Tree Bay keeping a wary distance.
Each summer sees the arrival of Dusky Whalers in the Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve at Manly. The bay acts as a nursery for the young sharks, most around a metre long with a few nudging 1.2 metres. The sheltered, shallow bay offers a refuge for the youngsters from predation by other sharks and anglers. Dusky Whalers leave Sydney over winter, migrating north with warmer waters.
There are a few sites along the Sydney coast where juvenile Dusky whalers appear on a regular basis, including around the appropriately named Shark Island near Cronulla and the mouth of the Minnamurra River. None produce the numbers or consistency of the nursery at Cabbage Tree Bay.
The Dusky’s wariness can be a bit frustrating. The young sharks are scale models of the adult. Camera autofocus systems rely upon contrast, and while the sharks are visible to the human eye they totally defeat the camera’s ability to grab focus. My only option was to get closer. I started by drifting away from the other divers, moving into an open patch of sand. One diver is far less intimidating than a group, and sure enough the next time they swung past by several came within five metres or so. Close enough for the camera to focus, but still too far away for a crisp image.
It’s funny how you can get distracted from even the most amazing spectacle. A school of Lyre Tailed Gobies was hovering a metre above the sand, then as I swam closer darted down to bury out of sight under the sand. After a couple of minutes trying to figure out where they were buried I looked up to find a curious shark only a metre away. I couldn’t get the camera up quickly enough for a shot, but felt reassured that the curiosity of the sharks would bring them within range if I could avoid spooking them.
The fact that the sharks were keeping their distance when they knew I was watching suggested that there wasn’t much point staying out in the open, at least unless I was prepared to spin on the spot. I swam over to a patch of reef that rose out of the sand. It had a dense covering of kelp, and even better there was a person sized crack in the rock. Dropping into the crack I was invisible from the side with an uninterrupted view over the sand. Sure enough, a few moments later the Dusky Whalers swam past, the closest within touching distance.
Many photos later, including front on shots of the investigating whalers, I noticed disturbances at the surface five metres above. Competitors in an open water race passed overhead. The sharks seemed totally unperturbed by the swimmers, continuing to circle a metre or two above the sand and reef.
I’ve been trying for an image of a shark with a swimmer above for years without success. I slowed my breathing to minimise the noisy bubbles from my regulated, hunched down in my crack in the reed and waited. It was tricky keeping an eye on both sharks and swimmers and several promising passes came to nothing. Then a group of Dusky Whalers swam straight towards me at the same time a swimmer passed overhead. The first shark was a bit too far ahead, so. I pushed out of my hiding spot and towards the shark to improve the angle. The shark gave a start and flicked up and to one side, perfectly framing the shark and swimmer together.
It was only after taking ‘the shot’ that I finally took a moment to look around and think about what was happening in the bay. Sharing the same small patch of ocean were a dozen divers, twice that many people with masks and snorkles and perhaps a hundred swimmers. Weaving their way through all of that soggy humanity were at least twenty Dusky Whalers. A large proportion of the people were aware of the sharks, and many were there specifically to see the young predators. Without a doubt all of the sharks were aware of us.
Much as I might have been fixated on that shot of shark and swimmer the truly remarkable thing about Cabbage Tree Bay is how relaxed everyone is about the presence of the sharks. Yes they’re only babies, but babies that have all the appearance and attitude of the very serious peak predator they will grow into. I suspect there would be plenty of fuss if a pride of young lions set up a territory in the Sydney Botanic Gardens, yet here I was watching sharks at one of the most popular places I’ve ever dived or swum.
When you consider the hysteria associated with sharks in the media, whatever the species and large or small, that little bay is such wonderful demonstration that we can be mature in our relationship with wildlife.
I’m reluctant to end this blog on a sour note but it would be disingenuous to ignore the dark side of this amazing spectacle. No missing fingers or toes, but certainly evidence of trauma. The fact is that I’ve yet to visit the Dusky Whalers without seeing at least one trailing fishing tackle. This time it was a chain of ganged hooks locked into the corner of a mouth. The sharks leave the aquatic reserve to hunt at night, so it may have picked up the hooks beyond the protected zone, but whether or not it is heartbreaking to think about the consequences for the youngster. Even worse, the impact isn’t just about that one shark, but potentially the survival of a species that is slow growing, late maturing and produces few young of the course of its life. It’s more than a bit ironic that the true threat in that shared bay is the predatory tendencies of humans.
Odds and sods