One crazy night dive – Schooling Sharks!!

Having dove the Puget Sound and Hood Canal (both in Washington) on and off year round as both a recreational diver and as a dive instructor for the past 15+ years, I have seen and experienced many incredible things. In that time I rarely have to remind myself to avoid complacency, because I never truly know what I’ll encounter or experience as soon as I slip under the water. My night dive this past Saturday (9/22/2007), for example, did not disappoint…

After completing several long enjoyable dives at in the Hood Canal out from of Sunrise Motel in Hoodsport, WA, we waited for night to fall and geared up for our final dive of the day, our night dive. On the dive was another instructor, Jon of Northwest Underwater (on the right), Andy a Washington State Fish and Wildlife Department Biologist (in the middle), and myself (on the left). Not 5 minutes into our dive and at about 20 fsw we excitedly encountered a Spiny Dogfish shark!

Now some of you might dismiss Spiny Dogfish sharks as unimpressive. But of the few common shark species in our local waters, these little guys are more common to encounter while diving. They are definitely all shark, it’s just that they are smaller. Spiny Dogfish sharks, belonging to the order Squalidae which contains more than seventy species collectively referred to as dogfish sharks, typical range from 1-3′ in length with the largest topping out at 5′, but even then they remain slender sharks. Interestingly Spiny Dogfish have the longest gestation period (pregnancy) of any vertebrate in the world – up to two years, and they can have up to 20 pups but usually brood around 6. Like other squaloids, they are ovoviviparous, meaning that their young develop inside thin egg cases within the mother’s uterus. Once the embryonic sharks are fully developed, the egg cases are discarded and shortly afterwards the foot long dogfish are released into the ocean!!

[Photo courtesy of ScienceBugz]

Although Spiny dogfish are the most common shark in the sea (at least for now), they are almost never encountered by warm water divers, so encountering them diving is a treat to us cold waters divers. Sometimes you may see only 1 and the encounter is often a quick one where the shark checks the diver out in a “play chicken” style of dart and veer. And then sometimes, a diver encounters more than 1…many more than 1 as in schools in the thousands as the Spiny Dogfish are social animals by nature. But I had only heard and read about these encounters of divers having to divert these little pint sized predators with their lights.

That is until this past Saturday…

So back to the night dive. We encountered a Spiny Dogfish shark. It darted past our lights and then it was gone, but then not seconds later it came back for a second pass! Yeah! How cool is that?? Then it darted off again. So we started to move along again when it darted back into our light paths only this time it was moving erratically quit revved up and without warning it turned and shot right at Andy without diverting!! So Andy held up his light and *bonk*!! Whoa!! We starting a round of cool signs underwater and moved along onto our dive again only to encounter the shark again…only was it the same shark? Now is when we start noticing there are more than just 1.

Coming upon a wreck at about 25 fsw, we were moving to view an octopus den Jon had seen earlier in the day when he turns sharply onto his right side in a distressed manner. He rights himself almost immediately and gives us the OK sign. At this point we note 5 very large Copper Rockfish, a large Lingcod, and from beneath Jon darts another Spiny Dogfish shark. What we hadn’t been able to see and learned later topside from Jon was that a second Spiny Dogfish shark had come from behind under his arm and snagged Jon’s right glove in its mouth thus pulling Jon sharply!!! Holy houndstooth!

We decided to move away from the wreck into an open area thinking the Spiny Dogfish sharks must be feeding. Only a minute later did we think, hmm maybe that wasn’t the best idea as we were quickly coming to the realization we were surrounded by multiple Spiny Dogfish sharks, numbers now in the double digits. Perhaps it was the similar Charlie’s Angels pose we were striking with each of us exhibiting the underwater dive sign for shark yet each facing in a different direction that gave it away!

For then next 20 minutes, we not only lost count of the number of sharks, but we were repeatedly harassed by dive bombing juveniles. Jon and Andy were deflecting the sharks raids with their light cannons. I on the other hand did NOT have a light cannon. I dive with a light canister with a small light head that is strapped to sit on the back side of my hand. And as many of you know I often dive gloveless! I have NO light to place between me and the oncoming sharks!!! So, I would quickly fold my arms to deflect with my elbows and turn to offer them my fins.

Finally it was time to start our ascent, so we made our way to our safety stop depth of 15-20 fsw. Before we had started our dive, we had discussed covering our lights at our safety stop to observe the bioluminescence. Jon gives us the “cover your lights” signal and I respond with the SHARK sign and pointed up, down, left, right. Andy simply nodded in agreement toward me. Jon gave the “cover your lights” again to which we finally gave in so as not to look like wussies. Now it is pitch black, and Jon began flailing his hands wildly (directly in front of Andy’s face) to stir up the bioluminescence, which is similar to watching fire flies light off…or to sharks a possible neon “Eat at Joe’s” road sign.

There being no takers, we surfaced slightly off course as I believe we may have been crowded like cattle being herded and nipped at by dingos. At the surface we just looked at each other exclaiming “What the!!??” It was then that Andy said something to the effect of, “Um hey guys is it just me, or did it seem like I was getting singled out down there?” To which we responded with a resounding “YES YOU WERE, YOU TOTALLY WERE!” and then there was some finger pointing and laughter. He and his yum yum yellow light cannon, now affectionately renamed the “Shark Hammer,” certainly took the brunt of bonks. All you kindred SciFi geek souls out there will understand when I paint his experience in this manner: Andy was the new guy in the landing party wearing the red shirt with no last name.

And to memorialize and reinact his experience, I give you…

[Photo courtesy of Andy aka Shark Bait]

All I can say is it was one heck of a dive experience to have had and I am very glad to have a last name to have not been wearing a red shirt….:) [EDITOR’S NOTE: Andy made me edit this to say that his last name is Harwood, so he may have a last name from here forward…nice try Andy, I am putting catfood in your BC pocket next dive…]

So who’s up for a dive!?

(Side note for all of those divers who read this and think Creepy! No way! I don’t ever want to experience that!! Please note that between the other dive instructor and myself, we have collectively 25+ years of diving in the Pacific Northwest and that was the best experience of its kind for the either of us. Also, Andy is a biologist with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department. Spiny Dogfish sharks, while annoying when schooling, are rarely if ever known to be dangerous to divers. They have very small grinder teeth unlikely to penetrate neoprene or drysuits. The concern that Jon had was more for his latex drysuit seal that personal injury. I equate the experience to being swarmed by a pack of Chihuahuas who are also very cute in their own way too.)

One Comment

  1. So THAT'S how he got the name. We just dove together last week – and not one single shark – so maybe he's not so attractive to them after all? Trying to remember if he kept his Yum Yum Yellow Shark Hammer light in his drysuit pocket or not…

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