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The Story of Strappy

by Jennifer Taylor

 

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On the 19th September 2010, a great white shark, around 2.5m long visited our expedition vessel Princess II at North Neptune Islands, South Australia. From the surface it could be seen this shark had a distinct white band over his gray back, was rather shy, slow swimming and by his marks it became rather obvious something was very wrong with him.

On closer inspection, we could see that this band was a deep white cut that showed so vividly against his gray skin and that the wound encircled his entire torso. There was much speculation trying to establish what could have caused this.

Also aboard was Patrice Heraud, pro photographer and founder of French conservation group SOS Grand Blanc. Using his photos taken during our dives, we eventually established that this was not a rope or fishing line, but plastic packaging strapping, the type used for flat- pack furniture, discarded from the cardboard cartons. This strapping was slowly embedding its way deeper and deeper into his flesh. It was quite apparent that this shark would die a slow, painful death if we could not remove it.

We fondly nicknamed this shark ‘Strappy’ and confirmed him as a male, most likely around 4 or 5 years old, based on his length.

Surprisingly, he was still able to swim quite well, albeit a little slower than most other sharks, however the use of his left pectoral fin was extremely limited due to the strapping, and to turn, he had adapted a very strange struggling movement with the use of his head.

The next step was to work out how we were going to remove this strap.

Strappy was not very visible topside or even from the surface cages, so Andrew Fox and the crew of Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions took our ocean floor cage down repeatedly to 20m. Armed with an assortment of knives, we were hoping that he would swim close enough to allow the strap to be removed.

On the first couple of dives, Strappy would not come close enough to our cage to allow this to happen. Eventually, he started swimming as close as a couple of metres away, still too far to relieve him from his predicament, but it did allow a closer view of just how much damage this strap had created.


The strap had embedded itself into his back, and very deep into his gills, with his 3rd gill plate completely destroyed.


Underneath, Strappys right side showed a gaping wound at least 2 inches across. With the strap embedded so deeply, this was not going to be easy.

One of our other regular winter season sharks ‘Carlos’, a large 4m powerful male, then dominated our cages, making it harder to get out to Strappy and also his presence seemed to keep Strappy away from us as he circled only at the edge of our vision.

Several dives later, darkness demanded that we surface for the last time, and to our disappointment, we had not seen Strappy on this final dive at all.
We ended our 3 day expedition, leaving for port feeling frustrated, unhappy and extremely uneasy not knowing Strappys fate nor even if we would see him again.

Our next liveaboard expedition was not for over a week, and many of the large male sharks with acoustic tags were pinging off on our receiver stations in the bay. It was great knowing the sharks were there, but would Strappy hang around with these larger and far more powerful sharks, that could easily intimidate a smaller shark, let alone one with injuries and impaired movements?

Mid morning on the 28th we arrived back at the North Neptune Islands, and, anchoring in our favourite spot in the bay, we started our berley trail.

Within half an hour, unbelievably, Strappy arrived! We had been given another chance to try and save him, this time we were determined to make it work.

Andrew Fox, changed the days’ dive plan to attempt a strap-cutting operation at the surface where Strappy was swimming. The plan was to lure Strappy in close enough to the duckboard with a chunk of tuna to keep the pointy end interested, while Andrew cut the strap off him. Andrew has done this several times previously with sharks caught up in fishing long-lines.

 

It was as though Strappy wanted to be freed, he hung around while Andrew with Fox crew Craig and Jeff quickly worked to put the plan into action.

Volunteer decky Craig, slowly attracted Strappy closer and closer to the platform with the tuna head, and after about 20 minutes he finally came close enough to take hold of the bait.

Jeff, our cook and first mate, grabbed his tail and held on tight, trying to keep him in a position close to the platform. Craig kept the bait in his mouth and Andrew reached down underwater to try and cut the strap but it was too tough. Strappy stayed deep, struggling to free himself from us, and with amazing power for his condition, succeeded and swam off.

Attempt failed….

And now understandably, Strappy was understandably suspicious of us and not coming anywhere near the boat.

If Strappy wouldn’t come to us, then we’d have to go to him. Bring on Plan B.

Andrew, along with 3 other passengers in our unique ocean floor cage, slowly descended beneath the gentle waves in the bay. The rest of us left onboard were very doubtful that they would even get a glimpse of Strappy, this was going to be a long wait.

As we paced the deck above, 22m below Andrew Fox along with Matthias Dorsch, Director of MARES Australia and Mark Mooney, MARES Sales Manager SA/WA, were eagerly on the look out for the distinctive shark with the white band. Luck! After only a couple of minutes Strappy appeared to them!

10 minutes later, he was circling the cage more closely, could this be our chance? Andrew waited, knowing that sudden movements could scare him away. Strappy continued to circle anti-clockwise with his left side to the cage and eventually drew close enough for an attempt. At full reach out of the cage, Andrew, with one thrust of the knife in a downwards slicing motion managed to hook the strap with the line cutter and slice it through as Strappy glided past.

Although the strap was cut, Andrew could clearly see the strap still flapping from his body, as it was still wrapped around him, deeply embedded into his flesh and gills. Perhaps this shark knew that this was his best chance of survival and amazingly, Strappy circled close again once more, enabling Andrew to lean out, grab one end of the strapping and as the shark swam off, the entire strap pulled through and came free of his body.

As if to say thank you, Strappy then hung around the cage for the remainder of the dive. On the top deck, the rest of us onboard were in blissful ignorance of the activity over 20m below, but soon heard the ecstatic cries of the divers as they broke the surface on their return.

 

Click here to see the video


With his distinctive scar and his other identifiable markings, we have now profiled Strappy in our Fox Shark Research Foundation ID catalogue. With more sightings in the months or years to come, you can keep up to date with Strappy’s progress here and on facebook at Rodney Fox Great White Shark Expeditions.

 

Mares provided the line cutter knife that Andrew used to cut the strap and have since purchased an elite/acoustic tag adoption for Strappy. This adoption gives naming rights to the shark and Mares have kindly kept Strappy as Strappy!  If you’d like to sponsor Strappy and receive a picture and bio of him, then please sponsor Strappy with all proceeds going to the work of the Fox Shark Research Foundation.

 

Fox Shark Research Foundation sponsorships and shark adoptions are very important to enable us to keep on with our research programs. Please consider them for gift ideas.

 

Thank you to Matthias and Mark from Mares for your support.