Divers remove a hook from the mouth of a shark in the Bahamas, after local fishermen agree to go easy on fish attracted to a big naval buoy.
By Lawson Wood
When Stuart Cove told me that he and his cousin Graham were going out to a United States naval buoy off New Providence Island, in the Bahamas, to capture silky sharks by hand and remove fish hooks from their mouths, I had to be there.
Eight miles south-west of Dive South Ocean, Stuart's diving operation on the island, we reached the massive buoy, which is used to track US Navy submarines. Some 6m in diameter, it has formed its own open-ocean ecosystem, its under surface covered in a film of algae which attracts small fish. Other species such as jacks and triggerfish seek shelter under the buoy to prey on them, in turn attracting the larger and more efficient predators - the sharks.
Stuart had seen the potential for an exhilarating diving experience. His first dive under the buoy so captured his imagination that he returned time after time, growing despondent as he saw the resident shark population being depleted almost daily. The area had been discovered by sport and commercial fishermen, who would catch the sharks, remove their fins and jaws and cast the carcasses into the depths.
"The sharks were drastically reducing in number and at one point had been completely fished out," says Stuart.
After many discussions with local fishing organisations, sport fishermen, shark experts and conservation groups, agreement was reached that there would be no long-line fishing around the buoy and that any sharks caught by sport fishermen would be set free. But the silky sharks now had hooks and lures protruding from their jaws, obviously uncomfortable and in some cases a real hindrance to feeding.
Many barbs had broken off when the sharks had been briefly hooked by the fishermen; others had lines and lures attached where they had been cut free. Some of the hooks were rusty, and several sharks were in danger of dying.
Stuart had learned of a safe way to render sharks docile. It requires a diver to grab hold of the tip of the tail and bend it over. The shark immediately becomes dull, unresponsive, almost catatonic for 30-90 seconds. It is in a state known as tonic immobility. This, Stuart was told, would give enough time to detach the hooks from their mouths and let them free, with relatively little danger to the catcher.
How do you catch the shark? Easy: just bait the water, attract the sharks to feed in front of you and when one gets close enough - grab its tail!
Surprisingly, the scheme worked. I watched as Stuart and Graham baited the silky sharks, bringing them closer and closer until finally, a mere hand's length away, they were able to induce tonic immobility.
Stuart would hold the shark by the tail and support the rest of its body while Graham moved in to remove the offending hook. The shark was immediately set free and swam off with no apparent ill effects from this unusual treatment.