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Megamouth

Male Megamouth Shark caught in Dana Point, California

October 21, 1990
Article by Tom Haight


Like so many people, as a teenager I became fascinated by the oceans after reading a book called "The Silent World" written by the late Jacques Cousteau. I knew that I had to explore the oceans and enjoy the peace and serenity it offers to those who try to capture the untold beauty it represents.

If you are like me, I am sure that you dream of doing something that has never been done before. If you are lucky you will never stop the dreaming, because sometimes those dreams do come true.

On October 22, 1990 my dream became reality. I shot underwater photographs and video of a living megamouth shark.

The summer of 1990 in Southern California was one full of surprises brought on by ocean temperatures that were warmer than usual. Some of the unexpected treats were large schools of yellowtail, dorado, trigger fish and a few sea turtles. Naturally the biggest surprise of all was the living megamouth shark.

Megamouths are so rare that they were not known to exist until the first one was discovered off the coast of Hawaii in 1976. Four more specimens were discovered off the coasts of California, Australia and Japan prior to the Dana Point megamouth, but none had lived long enough to be studied or photographed alive.

I was at my Capistrano Beach home editing slides of baby Garibaldi, a local fish, when a friend called to tell me that a live megamouth had been accidentally captured in a local fisherman's drift net. This would be the sixth megamouth seen by man. When he hauled up the net, the fisherman knew that he had something unusual and he towed it seven miles by the tail, back to Dana Point Harbor. It was there in the harbor that it was finally identified as the rare megamouth shark. Dr. Don Nelson, a shark behavior expert at California State University in Long Beach, was summoned to come down. He planned the radio tagging, study and release of the shark.

"That thrill of a lifetime" came at 1:30 P.M. when I slipped over the side of my boat and finally saw the shark. The shark was approximately 15 feet long and weighed about 2,000 pounds. The mouth was about 3 feet wide, big enough for a small diver with gear to swim into. This megamouth, like the previous five, was a male, which was evident by the claspers on the underside of the shark. These gentle giants of the deep feed on krill and plankton so even though they have many vestigial teeth they are not considered a threat to larger animals.

As we approached, the shark seemed to welcome our attention and showed no apparent signs of nervousness, which is more than I can say for the divers in the water, including myself.

I spent nearly four hours in the water with the shark, and I was lucky enough to not only capture the event with still photos and video footage, but also to assist in the studying, tagging and releasing of a creature that is hardly ever seen by man.

During that time we used a length of rope with equally spaced knots to measure the length and circumference of the shark.

Naturally we had to take some tissue samples of the shark in order for the marine biologists to try to determine if it was healthy.

Two transmitters were attached to the shark - one to track it vertically in the water column and the second one to track it horizontally.

We were constantly touching this strange visitor who was usually at a depth of about 450 feet during daylight hours. He did not seem to mind our prodding, but rather tolerated us as if we were just a part of his daily routine.

After all the measurements and tissue samples were taken and the transmitters were attached, the rope that restrained the shark by the tail was finally severed. It was exhilarating to see him swim slowly and calmly away from us to the safety of the deep.

The radio transmitters that allowed him to be monitored for the following three days revealed a vertical migration pattern. From dawn to sunset he swam slowly at 450 to 500 feet into the prevailing current, apparently feeding on krill that were at that depth during the daytime. From sunset to sunrise he ascended to 39 to 46 feet below the surface to feed on the krill as they also ascended. The extreme daylight depth could explain why the megamouth shark is so rarely spotted. Dr. Nelson stated that the tracking of the vertical migration was one of the most significant shark research events in modern history.

Since the Dana Point megamouth in 1990, eleven more have been seen, but none photographed alive underwater. For me, this once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a rare visitor from inner space was definitely the high point of my 40 years of diving. So please, keep on dreaming. Your dream could be the next one to come true.