It can be said that once you become an NSRI volunteer, rescue becomes second nature, whether it’s in the interests of saving a human being or an animal. We spoke to Mossel Bay’s JC Roos about his unexpected adventure saving a great white shark during Discovery Shark Week.
When Station 15 (Mossel Bay) volunteer JC Roos was asked to provide medical support for the film crew onboard Discovery’s White Shark Africa vessel Blue Pointer, he accepted without hesitation. The crew would be out and about filming sharks for Discovery Shark Week (from 11 to 18 July), an annual event that studies and films the ocean’s most fascinating predators.
What JC didn’t know was that the ‘medical attention’ he would end up providing would be in a different form and not to a human; he’d be rendering assistance to a great white shark that had a plastic strip wrapped around its body in the vicinity of its gills. The crew onboard Blue Pointer could see that the plastic had already caused grooves in the shark’s skin and concluded it had probably been swimming around like that for quite some time. Leaving the creature in this condition would result in a slow and certain death.
‘We decided we needed to at least try and get the plastic off the shark,’ JC says. But how?
‘Getting into the water with all the shark activity around Seal Island offshore of Mossel Bay was not an option. And getting the vessel close enough to this particular shark seemed like an almost impossible task.’ The crew agreed that luring the shark to the vessel with bait could work. Now, they just needed to source the necessary cutting equipment.
‘Some years ago, I was involved in a successful whale disentanglement operation, so I decided to contact my station commander, André Fraser, and asked him if he could organise the whale disentanglement kit for us to use. He agreed without hesitation. We would now be using it for a shark rescue operation.’ It was quite late in the afternoon, so arrangements were made for the kit to be delivered to Blue Pointer the following day.
Taking the bait
Inspecting the equipment, JC realised that they’d have to improvise as the pole usually used for whale and dolphin disentanglements wouldn’t work from their vessel. They’d have to devise some kind of mechanism that would allow some distance between their vessel and the shark. ‘We rigged up a system using a normal boat hook and pole, a disentanglement knife (the specialised knife from the disentanglement kit), shackles, rope and some floating buoys. I felt confident that the system would work if we could hook the plastic strip on the shark.’
The challenge, however, was that the plastic was wrapped quite tightly around the shark’s body. ‘We would have to try and get underneath it – possibly cutting into the shark’s body. The knife blade is quite short, so we decided that the risk of possibly injuring the shark was worth it in order to save its life. We all agreed that should the shark show itself, we would try everything in our power to try and save it.’ JC explains.
They sighted the great white mid-morning and dropped everything to try to lure the animal as close as possible to the boat. ‘The shark took the bait, a tuna head on a piece of rope, but keeping it in one place was a different story. All hell broke loose as soon as the shark came near the boat. It was thrashing wildly, and there was white water and fins everywhere, not to mention me being an arm’s length from its sharp end. I tried getting a positive hook-up on the plastic but in all the chaos, we unfortunately didn’t get as far as that,’ JC continues.
Obviously disappointed, the crew discussed other strategies, should a second opportunity arise to help the animal. ‘I suppose this first try was part of the learning curve,’ JC says.
‘About an hour later, we got another chance. We followed the same process; the shark took the bait and was quite close to the boat. Through the chaos, it felt like I had managed to get a positive hook-up and we saw the piece of plastic but not its total length. Our second attempt was unsuccessful, but we were getting closer, and felt more positive, and again, discussed how we were going to pull this off.’
The crew realised, they needed to get the shark alongside the boat. They waited and waited. They were about to pull up anchor, when the shark was spotted. ‘This was it!’ JC says. ‘Our week in Mossel Bay was coming to an end, and we probably wouldn’t get another chance to save it.’
Third time lucky
This time, the crew managed to get the shark alongside the boat, and JC tried yet again to get a hook-up on the plastic. ‘It was not an easy task with all the thrashing and chaos, and I couldn’t hold onto the pole. I knew I had a positive hook-up but wasn’t sure where due to all the thrashing. The shark took off with immense force, the rope that was attached to the pole went slack. Then it was tense again, and then it went slack. Something gave… The rope and pole were retrieved onto the boat and we could see the plastic floating to the surface. We did it! We managed to get the plastic off the great white!
‘Everybody on the boat celebrated. What a feat this was. The plastic was retrieved onto the boat and we returned to Mossel Bay Harbour, everyone positive and feeling good!’
Even though JC was crewing with the Discovery team on a different kind of mission, for him, it felt like another successful rescue operation. The shark disentanglement was a first for him, the station he represents, and the NSRI as a whole. ‘What a privilege it is to be part of such an organisation!’ he says.
The plastic originates from the packets of bait that are used by fisherman and unfortunately discarded overboard. This plastic poses a great threat to the sharks, as can be seen in the photographs and video. Another shark was entangled off the Mossel Bay coast. That one was not so lucky.
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