Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Hunting of the Snark

Shadows or sharks? During autumn in Malibu there's a good chance it's sharks. All photos @ 2014 S. Guldimann

"We have sailed many months, we have sailed many weeks,
   (Four weeks to the month you may mark),
But never as yet ('tis your Captain who speaks)
   Have we caught the least glimpse of a Snark!

"We have sailed many weeks, we have sailed many days,
   (Seven days to the week I allow),
But a Snark, on the which we might lovingly gaze,
   We have never beheld till now!

—Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

I was looking for sharks, not Snarks, and pursuing them with cameras and snorkels, but my high-tech hunting aids were of no more use to me than thimbles and forks were to Carroll's unlucky Bellman and his Snark hunting crew.

One morning a little more than a week ago, the shallow water at Point Dume was full of leopard sharks, sleek, swift, dappled shadows, weaving amongst the swimmers' ankles. They were joined by their smaller cousins the smooth-hound sharks and by the aptly, if inelegantly, named shovel-nosed guitar fish, and there were dozens of them. 

It's a sure sign that autumn has arrived when the small sharks and rays begin to aggregate in the shallow warm water, but you only get a good look at them when conditions are calm and the water is clear. Conditions were perfect last week, as clear as glass and as warm as bathwater.

 I wrote about the phenomenon for the Malibu Surfside News, but the sharks proved elusive and, while I prowled the shallows every day for a week, GoPro camera in hand, I couldn't get a good photo for the article. The sharks remained as elusive as, well, Snarks.

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cries repeatedly in Carroll's Hunting of the Snark. It was, too. For sharks, if not Snarks. Or it would have been if there were any sharks to see. Leopard sharks congregate in warm, shallow water like this Point Dume cove in autumn, where they give birth to their young and feast on sand crabs. Although leopard sharks looks every inch a shark and can grow to more than five feet in length, they are harmless to humans, and eat primarily crabs, worms, clams and small fish like anchovies and grunion. 

I started my search in the shallow water near the reefs, traveling along the sandbars and around the new trenches of rocks revealed by the recent series of big waves. Those waves have removed large amounts of sand and completely changed the underwater landscape, but the big outcroppings of volcanic breccia—a tough, erosion-resistant stone, form fairly permanent landmarks. Between these reefs are areas that can shift swiftly between sand and cobble, depending on conditions.

 I saw plenty of sculpin, despite the fact that the sculpin's goal in life is not to be seen. This is a tiny tidepool sculpin, Oligocottus maculosus.

I also saw sea anemones, which have already begun to colonize the barren stretches of rocks and cobbles revealed by the recent wave action.

Here's a small secretive shrimp, hiding in the spiral skeleton of a sea shell. But still no sign of leopard sharks.

Like the Bellman and his crew, I hunted early and late. A little too late on this occasion. Once the sun moves behind the cliffs the water suddenly turns dark and mysterious. It's like swimming in ink. There could be all kinds of things down there, and you would never see them until it was too late...

A shark! Is that a shark?

It's not a shark. It's a California corbina, Menticirrhus undulatus—a large surf fish that belongs to the croaker family. Just like the leopard sharks, corbina like to eat sand crabs. They often congregate among the sharks and seem entirely unconcerned by their presence. They appeared to have the sand crabs all to themselves on this particular day. There wasn't a shark in sight...

A shark! (or at least the tail of a shark). 

And then a couple of sleek, spotted leopard sharks, slithy as Carroll's celebrated slithy toves, slide swiftly by. Alas, that was about as close as I got to documenting the quarry of my Snark hunt...

"There is Thingumbob shouting!" the Bellman said,
   "He is shouting like mad, only hark!
He is waving his hands, he is wagging his head,
   He has certainly found a Snark!"

They gazed in delight, while the Butcher exclaimed
   "He was always a desperate wag!"
They beheld him—their Baker—their hero unnamed—
   On the top of a neighbouring crag,

Erect and sublime, for one moment of time,
   In the next, that wild figure they saw
(As if stung by a spasm) plunge into a chasm,
   While they waited and listened in awe.

"It's a Snark!" was the sound that first came to their ears,
   And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
   Then the ominous words "It's a Boo—"

Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
   A weary and wandering sigh
That sounded like "-jum!" but the others declare
   It was only a breeze that went by.

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
   Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
   Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
   In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Suzanne Guldimann
9 October 2014

It was a Boojum...

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