The Devolution of a Diver (aka, what happens when a sixgill shark shows up as a complete surprise)

One of the countless interesting factoids about diving is this: Every dive, no matter what, contains stories. Some might only be interesting to the one or two who experienced the dive, and some stories gain worldwide attention. Even an uneventful dive’s story might be how “there was no life to be seen, which is crazy. Normally…” and, bam, there’s a story from nothing, but borne from a dive.

And I’d venture to say that most divers have a pack of special stories that they’ve told many times over. Tales of awe, wonder, and amazement. Tales of beauty. Tales of near-disaster. For me, two of my favorite stories both center around the same fish: the sixgill shark.

One of these stories happened on July 5 of this year. I’d been wanting to get back to Sund Rock since last year to see if the red brotula are still there. Bob Bailey had more than once mentioned the cloud sponges and all the decorated warbonnets in them deep off the South Wall. So we made a dive date. And what follows is a very wordy account of those dives. Normally I’d intersperse my tale with lots of photos from the dives, and I do have lots of photos, but in this instance they would only distract from the story. And so.

Because of the depth (around 110 fsw), Bob suggested getting 30 percent enriched air. Our first dive was such a pleasure. So many squat lobsters sitting out in the open – the only place I have seen this behavior. And on these dives, baby sea whips lined the bottom everywhere – by the thousands. I have done the South Wall at Sund Rock a couple times, but I’d never really enjoyed it much – luck of the draw. On this day, the place was teeming with life. We only found one warbonnet in the cloud sponges, but that was enough for me. Upslope from the sponges are dozens of full-sized sea whips and a scattering of sea pens. On this day, we encountered several species of sea star, several species of nudibranch. All this in addition to the normal wolf eels (and octopus, though I didn’t see any on the first dive because we were deep for so long we didn’t spend much time on the wall). Towards the end of the dive, there were hundreds of Hermissenda crassicornis laying eggs all over the kelp. And nearly at the surface – massive clouds of larval fish of who-knows-what species. In short, it was a great dive.

So rather than do our second dive on the North Wall, we decided on a repeat. And after spending quite a bit of time at the cloud sponges, I was off to the side taking a photo of a vermillion star while Bob was wrapping up by the sponges when I noticed his light going absolutely bonkers nuts. Normally he is very concise in his light signals, so I knew this was going to be good. And I didn’t have to wonder for very long. As soon as I lifted my head, this massive beauty swam right in front of me: a sleek, long, perfect sixgill shark. (Yes, left to my own devices, it would have swam right over the top of me while I took amazing photos of a sea star. Some of you have witnessed this behavior in me. Ahem. Anyway.)

I had told Bob before the dive a quirky fact about myself: that if I get excited about an animal underwater, my SAC rate doubles, maybe even triples. Well, to be more specific, it’s not just seeing a cool animal – it is when I see a cool animal I want to take a photo of yet am keenly aware it may move or leave at any second. Instantly, my heart starts pounding so hard I can feel it beating against my chest. And naturally, my breathing rate increases. As we were going deep on this dive, I wanted to conserve air, so I told Bob I’d to my best not to get too excited about anything.

So when this incredible animal appeared directly in front of me, mere inches away from my face, and he was maybe 8 feet long but my camera was set to take photos of little bitty warbonnets, I said to myself (no kidding, I was actually talking to myself), I said to myself in a voice you might use on someone who just stepped on a piece of unexploded ordnance that you’re trying to keep calm “Jen, very calmly change your camera settings…” my voice a quiet whisper in my mind: “Very calmly go from macro to wide… stay calm… breathe….calmly…” I could have used this voice on a meditation CD and put the shark to sleep. Point is, I remained calm. The shark swam past me, and I got the settings changed and started to swim alongside it.

Even when they look like they are barely moving, large marine animals can still move faster than most people swim (calmly!) on scuba gear. So I snapped just a couple shots of the shark’s profile, before it was ahead of me and heading downslope. I could not go deeper at that point without going into deco, so I resigned to my likely poor (yet calmly taken) photos. Bob followed it, swimming alongside it and just below it, and I followed them both from above.

Then I noticed that the topography ahead of them sloped upwards, and with Bob below the shark, I thought it would probably swim up to my level again. Then it did something even better: it stopped and sat on the bottom.

Can you hear the sirens now? Brrreee breeee breeee!!!!  Spaceship will self destruct in… zero. point. zero seven minutes. Warning, warning… breeeee breeeee breeeee!!!!…. Best photo op ever!!! Heart – pounding so hard out of my chest I worried it would punch a hole in my drysuit. Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod

This time I spoke firmly and directly to my heart: CALM DOWN!!!!!!!

Bob positioned himself in front of the shark downslope, and I got into position in front of it upslope. I framed perfect images: his beautiful face in the foreground, head-on, and his fall body falling away in the background. I took a few photos like this between my rapid-fire breaths, and a slight current actually pushed me right towards the shark. I popped up and swam over it so I wouldn’t head-butt him. I looped back around to try to take more, and this time I plummeted down and landed hard on the bottom in my insane excitement, and a cloud of silt billowed up. In that moment it was official: I had completely devolved into a diver with the buoyancy skills of an absolute beginner. I was, in fact, a total spaz. And probably a narced one at that. The only saving face, er I mean saving grace about that silt cloud was it was time for us to head up anyway. We left the shark sitting on the bottom.

Leaving, I got all calm again, like, hey man, that’s cool, what we just saw, no big thang.


After swimming up a meter or two I turned around to face Bob, and he did an underwater happy dance. I could hear him whooping and hollering in joy in his reg. We high-fived, and I did a hand signal to him of my heart pounding out of my chest.

And then what? Nudibranchs? Seriously? Like, who really cares about nudibranchs after seeing an elasmobranch like that?? Nobody, that’s who. That’s like: oh goodie, sea cucumbers.

I had only ever seen one other sixgill shark ever. The first time was in 2003 on a circumnav trip around Vancouver Island. We were docked at the tiny town of Tahsis for the express reason of seeing sixgill sharks. They were known to come up really shallow there because of all the fish heads and fish guts the fishermen threw over the side. It was a trip with aquarists from the Vancouver Aquarium, and the five of them plus me all dropped in on a night dive together, our lights pointing out in every direction, we moved down like a space alien from the X-Files. We descended, and in no time a sixgill shark appeared. It swam directly towards me, me with my little Sea&Sea film camera. It swam right at me and I shot one photo as it passed right over head. In my mind, this photo would be worthy of National Geographic it was so awesome. The shark so very close. Remember those days of film cameras? You didn’t actually know the results until you got home and had the film developed. So when I did, well, you can see my National Geo shot below.

Tahsis sixgill shark

(What is even stranger is I don’t remember any divers in front of me. But there is a dive light clearly in front of me. I thought everyone was behind me. What exactly happens in the presence of a sixgill? Does my brain capacity reduce to only just above its reptilian counterpart?)

So after this dive at Sund Rock where I could see what I was shooting – I could frame the shark, and the shark sat there patiently (probably wondering who the hell the total spaz was) while I fired frame after frame – but still, I am kind of superstitious – no, I’m just generally afraid to see my photos – I exalted in the experience for the rest of the day and did not venture to look at the photos until the next morning.

For good reason. There were exactly two photos that were in focus: one of the initial profile view, which was completely blasted with backscatter, and the one I took as I passed over the shark’s head when the current had pushed me too close. All the other photos, the masterpieces I was hoping for? Every one of them a blurry disaster. Photos taken in complete nitrogen narcosis la-la land, in total devolved-diver spaz-mode. It would seem I framed the photos just fine but forgot to let the camera focus before I snapped. All of them. I keep getting the image of Bill the Cat in my mind.

narc'd beauty

I would love to be able to end this story by saying I went back the following weekend and did a bang-up job finding and calmly photographing another shark. We did go back, but the sharks kept to themselves that day. It could easily be another 12 or 15 years or ever before I see another sixgill. For now, I have to live with my story and my highly doctored profile shot:

sixgill in profile

I never did tell the whole story of my first sixgill sighting up in Tahsis… Let’s just say it also involved a great white shark and defying the laws of physics. I’ll tell that story another day…


About Jen Vanderhoof

I'm Jen Vanderhoof. I’m an ecologist with a wildlife background, and I spend a lot of time outdoors near water looking for signs of beavers and, when I'm lucky, photographing beavers. I am also a birder, scuba diver, and accordingly bird, nature, and underwater photographer. I write and draw, and I also enjoy carving beaver-chewed wood. I hope to spread the understanding, acceptance, and love of the most incredible animal species I know, the beaver.
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