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March/April 2004 issue


Underwater quest
After a decade of searching, two intrepid divers encounter Greenland sharks in the St. Lawrence River. That’s right. Sharks! In the St. Lawrence!
Excerpt of story by Wayne Grady

CG In-depth:
Greenland sharks

Dive into the underwater world of Canada’s mysterious sharks
Toward the end of May last year, Jeffrey Gallant received an e-mail from Sylvain Sirois, a fellow diver from Baie-Comeau, about 350 kilometres northeast of Québec, far up the north shore of the St. Lawrence. While diving in a small inlet east of his hometown, Sirois told Gallant, he’d encountered a very big fish. Certainly bigger than he was. Was Gallant interested? Gallant e-mailed back asking for a better description. When the reply came, he was fairly certain that Sirois had been buzzed by a Greenland shark.


Shark tales
There are some 465 species of shark in the world, but only 27 live in or are seasonal migrants to Canadian waters. Atlantic Canada is visited by 19 different sharks, especially around the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Georges Bank and the Scotian Shelf. Deep-sea sharks, such as the rough sagre, Portuguese and deepsea cat, tend to be small — less than one metre — and are seen only when caught by deep-sea trawlers. Small, too, are the dogfish sharks, including the spiny, black and smooth dogfish. The spiny dogfish, which travels in groups of hundreds or thousands, is also found along the Pacific coast. In addition to the Greenland shark, some of the largest sharks reported in the Maritimes are the basking (7 to 9 metres), great white (4.6 metres), thresher (3.3 to 5.5 metres) and smooth hammerhead (3.7 to 4 metres). These are considered dangerous due to their large sizes, but attacks by them on humans are rare. One of the most aggressive sharks in the cold North Atlantic waters is the tiger shark, which measures 3 to 4 metres in length and eats anything in its path, including mammals, seabirds and garbage. The sand tiger shark is as fierce-looking as a regular tiger shark but is relatively harmless, sticking to smaller prey. Along the Pacific coast are the broadnose sevengill, bluntnose sixgill, Pacific sleeper (a relative of the Greenland shark), brown cat, soupfin and salmon shark. The first two stay in deepwater and are rarely seen. The Pacific sleeper, which has increased in number in recent years, is often spotted by halibut fishermen.

— Meagan Ellis

Gallant was more than interested. He has been a diver since his early teens, when he explored the shallow pools of Rivière Saint-François, which flows through his native Drummondville, Que. Now, at 37, he is one of the premier divers in the province, a regional director of the Shark Research Institute and more drawn than ever by the phantasmagorical universe that exists beneath the thin film of surface tension which covers 71 percent of the planet. The year before Sirois’ message, Gallant was chief diver at the Aquarium du Québec, a job he quit because although he clocked four months of overtime in the 12 months he was there, he felt he wasn’t getting enough diving time in the ocean. Tall and lean and as restless as a cruising shark himself, Gallant had trained workers to dive for diamonds in Ghana’s Volta Delta and had twice spent time in an underwater lab in Romania’s Lake Bicaz. He’d sailed with the late Jacques Cousteau’s team aboard L’Alcyone and still had dreams in which he dove with the fatherly Cousteau in the warm, blue waters of the Caribbean.

When he got Sirois’ e-mail, Gallant was planning to go back to Drummondville to teach at a community college to help finance his aquatic activities. Over the past 10 years, he had become fascinated, not to say obsessed, with anecdotal reports of Greenland sharks in the St. Lawrence River. In 1999, he’d driven to the Fjord du Saguenay, where most of the winter reports originated, to track down the people who’d made them. Then he organized two major diving expeditions there, one in January 2001 and another in February 2002 — six divers, tents on the ice, generators, half a dozen snowmobiles, equipment lent by local suppliers, money from Parks Canada and support from the provincial government and the local Musée du Fjord — trying to find Greenland sharks. Without success. The local dive community, however, was alerted. If anyone saw or heard of a Greenland shark in the St. Lawrence or the Fjord du Saguenay, they were to contact Gallant. So when the message came from Sirois, Gallant’s first reaction was one of envy: lucky Sylvain, he thought. It was probably a fluke encounter, though. By the time he could get all the way up to Baie-Comeau, he figured the big fish would be long gone.

Three days later, on June 1, he received a second message, this one from Alain Simard, another Baie-Comeau diver. While working on a dock installation in a small inlet east of Baie-Comeau, Simard had made three dives in one day, and on each, he’d been inspected by a Greenland shark — a huge female maybe two metres in length.

This time, Gallant’s hesitation evaporated. He called his friend and fellow diver Chris Harvey-Clark, a marine biologist and veterinarian at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Harvey-Clark and his girlfriend Alison Mills, also a diver, had been part of the 2001 expedition to the Saguenay, and Harvey-Clark is as keen on sharks as Gallant is. When Gallant told him about the two messages from Baie-Comeau, Harvey-Clark’s response was simple: "Why aren’t you up there?"

Twelve hours later, Gallant was.

Wayne Grady is a writer and editor based in Athens, Ont.

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