Note: In the 1970’s and early 1980’s the Gordo Bank
was one of the best locations in the world to see giant whale sharks.
I remember diving there once when there were so many whale sharks
that two actually collided with each other as I watched. Back then,
it was also thought that whale sharks may lay eggs. Now it is understood
that whale sharks give birth to live pups.
The Gordo Bank rises to within 110 feet of the surface about eight miles off the tip of the Baja Peninsula. The summit of the bank is a dark maze of canyons and rocky spires covered with a dense forest of small gorgonian corals. The charts show a shallow spot at sixty feet. But that's a deception. Somebody probably sounded a school of fish over the summit. The nautical charts all show a diver’s paradise of shallow seamounts near southern Baja that don't actually exist. These are all the result of false reading by depth sounders that mistook enormous schools of fish for seamounts. There is a spot on the Gordo where your dive computer will record ninety feet when you touch it to the top of a tall gorgonian, but if you swim six strokes in any direction, you're in 110 feet of water.
On a warm May morning in 1984 I swam through one of these canyons looking for a whale shark nest. I wasn't at all sure what the nest would look like, but I knew something about the eggs. I once saw a picture of one in a book. Whale shark eggs are about the same size, color and shape as a football. One was dredged up by a shrimp trawler in the Gulf of Mexico in 1953. And, as far as I know, that single egg remains the only whale shark egg anyone has ever seen. I didn't figure my chances of finding a second whale shark egg were very good, and hoping to find an entire nest (in the unlikely event that whale sharks leave their eggs in nests) was perhaps optimistic. But wouldn't it be marvelous if I did?
Whale sharks are sometimes found in great number on the Gordo Bank. In the spring of 1983, Marty Snyderman and I took a small fisherman's skiff out to the Bank, photographed whale sharks with all the still film and 16mm movie film we had, and were back in Cabo San Lucas for a late breakfast!
After relating that experience to the executives at ABC, I managed to land a contract to make a film about whale sharks for American Sportsman. Stan Waterman and I would film Dr. Eugenie Clark and novelist, Peter Benchley, swimming among schools of these magnificent leviathans. We chartered the Baja Expeditions vessel, Don Jose, for a two week expedition. Unfortunately, in the spring of 1984, the whale sharks had decided to be numerous somewhere else. After ten days, we had yet to see our first shark.
The fact that our spotter plane had failed to sight a single whale shark in nearly two weeks almost certainly decreased my chances of finding a whale shark nest. But I didn't care. It was a great excuse to make a dive and escape the increasingly hopeless search for whale sharks underway aboard the Don Jose.
The canyon I was exploring broke out on a large rocky plateau at 130 feet. In the distance I saw what looked like a large translucent curtain hanging in suspension. I hesitated for a moment and felt the familiar rush of adrenaline which often accompanies seeing an unexpected visual phenomenon underwater. But when I got closer, I saw what it was - a ghost net.
A ghost net is a gill net that has been lost or abandoned by its owner. Inevitably, many nets are lost each year and, though no longer operated by a fisherman, they continue to function as designed for years, even decades, killing away indiscriminately.
As I approached the net, I could see it was anchored to the bottom with a heavy lead line. The top of the net rose twenty feet off the bottom and was suspended by a row of plastic non-compressible floats. Skeletons of large fish were hanging from the web. The bottom at the base of the net was littered with skeletons and scattered bones.
I checked my decompression computer and air pressure and decided to swim the length of the net until I was forced to surface. As I swam along, I saw many more skeletons, but it was impossible to tell what kind of animals they belonged to. Since sharks have cartilaginous skeletons which would decompose, most of the dead animals I was seeing must have been large bony fish, probably amber jacks, jewfish, and grouper. The only skeleton I did recognize was the unmistakable carapace of a sea turtle. I knelt on the bottom near the turtle and looked up at the row of floats that kept the net upright in fishing position. An idea popped into my head.
I checked my depth and saw that I was at 135 feet. Then I ascended to get a bearing to the Don Jose which was anchored nearby. I wanted to be able to find this spot again.
It had become obvious that our whale shark film was going to be somewhat lean on whale shark footage. My ideas was that perhaps we could flesh out the show with a sequence of Eugenie and Peter cutting the floats off the ghost net and dropping it to the bottom, where it would become a much less effective trap. I swam back to the Don Jose and told Stan my idea.
Stan and the rest of the crew were immediately eager to escape the funereal atmosphere aboard the Don Jose and make a dive on the net. But because of the depth, all agreed that the task could only be accomplished with meticulous planning. After an hour or so of discussion, a foolproof plan was developed.
Stan and I would be the first ones down with our 16mm movie cameras. Marty Snyderman would follow carrying the 110 volt, cable supplied movie lights. Once we were in position, Eugenie would descend riding a sea scooter and would be followed by Peter who would bring a sharp knife. Both Stan and I would film their descent to the net. Then Stan would capture scenes of Eugenie traversing the net and inspecting its catch while I would concentrate on Peter cutting away the floats. After reviewing the plan several times, it began to sound simple enough, even considering that at 135 feet we would all be operating with about two thirds our normal IQ.
We planned the dive for the following morning since I had already used up my bottom time for that afternoon. This gave Stan time to make a dive with Eugenie and film close-ups of the skeletons.
When Stan got back from his dive, he
said he had found the net but
that it was laying flat on the bottom.
"What depth were you at," I asked.
"135 feet", Stan replied.
"What?” Doug Kessling asked suddenly. Doug had come along as Stan's assistant and had accompanied Stan and Eugenie on their dive.
"135 feet," Stan repeated.
"It was 185 feet!" Doug exclaimed. "That's why I was pointing at my computer and got the hell outta there!"
Stan had a little magnifier in his dive mask that helped him see his gauges. But in deep, dark water or when the magnifier fogged up a bit, threes and eights looked the same on his depth gauge. Stan has since acquired a depth gauge with larger numerals.
The next morning we began our day as planned. Stan, Marty and I dropped in on the spot where I had located the net. Marty waved the lights at the surface signaling that we were in position and ready for Peter and Eugenie to descend. The first thirty seconds of the dive went very well.
Eugenie rode her scooter past the top of the net in a rapid, power assisted descent. But instead of stopping in front of our cameras as planned, she continued right on past and out of sight. A moment later she returned and began to zoom around us in erratic circles. Peter had inexplicably stopped at the top of the net and was hanging there waving his arms dramatically. I shut my camera off sensing the very familiar onset of nitrogen narcosis enhanced chaos.
Stan, Marty, and I watched in awe as Eugenie zoomed and boomed around us in Chuck Yeager fashion. Then she seemed to stall a turn and placed the scooter in an irrecoverable vertical dive. A moment later Dr. Eugenie Clark augured into The Gordo Bank.
It soon became evident that Eugenie was completely pissed off at the scooter which was firmly planted between the rocks. She held onto it with one hand while delivering a series of karate chops and clench-fisted, hammer-like blows with the other. The scooter responded by sending a jet blast of sand and algae into her face. Suddenly I recognized the problem. The power switch was stuck in the "on" position. It was a problem I knew immediately how to fix. Since I design my own movie camera housings and underwater lighting systems, I have an experienced grasp of how things work and how to repair malfunctions. I dropped my camera, swam over to the scooter and kicked it as hard as I could. The scooter died. Eugenie gave me an exaggerated gesture of thanks.
Meanwhile, Marty had determined the meaning of Peter's exaggerated arm waving and his reluctance to descend further. His tank valve was tangled in the net. Marty dropped the lights and effected an efficient and appreciated rescue. By then, however, our bottom time had nearly expired. Peter's fervent arm waving and Eugenie's boxing match with the scooter had largely depleted their air supplies anyway. So we all ascended having failed to shoot a single usable frame.
Two good things happened in the three days we had remaining to our charter. The day following our futile attempt to incapacitate the ghost net on the Gordo Bank, we managed to repeat the dive as planned. Peter and Eugenie cut the floats off the net and it fell to the bottom, where it would kill only a fraction of the marine life it had killed before. Stan and I filmed the exercise and it produced a nice segment for our film about whale sharks. That leads to the second good thing that happened. Almost as a signal of thanks, a lone whale shark, the largest I had ever seen, surfaced near the Don Jose and allowed Stan and I to acquire just enough footage to make the film work.
Eugenie Clark swimming with that single leviathan, and Peter Benchley and Eugenie collapsing the net at Gordo Bank provided just enough footage to save the film. But, looking back, it's nice to remember that, this time, we managed to save something more than just a TV show.