Bruce Watkins: Diving with California Sharks

  • Bruce Watkins presenting/Assembly Bill 376

By Gayle Hudson

In October, author and underwater photographer Bruce Watkins entertained us with photos he’s taken of all types of sharks along the California coast. As we saw his beautiful photography, he told us stories of over-fishing in the Channel Islands that destroyed one fishery after another; first the Swordfish, then mako sharks and finally angel sharks, which are not even a good food fish. Legislation to protect the sharks came late, only after the populations collapsed, and the angel shark population struggles to revive in numbers. A close-up of a parasite on an angel shark showed a rare and typically freshwater marine leech, which is sucked into the gills and then crawls back out and lives on the fish for the rest of the parasite’s life.

Bruce showed us photos of swell sharks with cleaner shrimps and said the swell shark is an egg layer, the ‘mermaid purses’ of which can be found off Breakwater at a site called Shale Island. However, he’s never spotted the actual sharks in this area. Other sharks included the egg-laying horn shark and the four-foot leopard shark (which harbor seals chase away when pupping).

Bruce also had a photo of the very primitive and seldom seen broadnose sevengill shark; most modern sharks have five slits. Over-fishing and pollution have made spotting these sharks difficult.

The odd-looking basking shark is one seldom seen by divers. About 1990 my husband and I spotted one, about 17’ long, feeding on the surface in Carmel Bay; it looked like a very long, brown log. Bruce said he spent a day free-diving with 100 basking sharks in Santa Cruz about 20 years ago. Monterey Bay used to host thousands of them but they were fished out for their oil, used in the aircraft industry, and they were also used as agricultural fertilizer for the Salinas Valley.

Some good news about the blue shark is the population is starting to recover. They were heavily fished out using longlines which is now outlawed (a method also used on swordfish and billfish). Bill said sharks four to six-foot in length used to be common, sometimes 20 to 40 a day would be spotted by divers. Their sixth sense is an electrical field where they use their head almost like a metal detector and almost entirely rely on that electrical sense to move about.

In showing photos of Monterey, Bruce said purse seine nets used to be used by fishermen and sharks were often the by-catch; the fishermen used to discard them off Wharf II.

We also saw photos of sharks off the Farallon Islands Farallon Islands, where only researchers with permits, law enforcement, and a lucky few photographers are allowed to visit. Bruce’s presentation ended with a great white shark outside their shark cage and he explained how the shark’s eye membrane travels up to cover and protect the eye when it hits the shark cage.

September through November is shark season so Bruce will be busy this fall, taking more great shark photos. Assembly Bill 376 prohibits shark finning in California and Bruce hopes this legislation spreads throughout the states.

Bruce also brought copies of his book, A Divers Guide to Monterey County, California, and autographed them for members who bought copies. He is also the author of California Abalone Diving. We thank Bruce for an excellent presentation!