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Cameras and Conservation: Rhode Island’s Pelagic Adventures

Unforgetable experiences with Blue Sharks - Pelagic Expeditions

Article by John Tapley; photos by Pelagic Expeditions

Rhode Island: a state recognized by most as the smallest in the United States. For underwater aficionados, this distinction holds little weight, as their treasures are measured in cruising along the coast or taking deep plunges into wrecked vessels from years gone by. But there is a third treasure many have yet to opened – a living world connected and maintained by a certain mouthy marine fish. Just offshore from this small pocket of New England lives, breeds, and feeds a multitude of stunning sharks: big, yet beautiful; fragile, though vital; mighty, but misconstrued.

Bringing Rhode Island’s sharks to the global limelight is Pelagic Expeditions: a cinematography and shark snorkeling and swimming adventure company out of Point Judith, nestled west of Narragansett Bay. Aboard a six-pack boat, the crew shares shark encounters up close and personal, opting to not use a traditional cage often used in similar operations. The freedom of seeing these majestic creatures in an open environment adds to the appeal, bringing parity between man and animal.

Sharks may not automatically spring to mind when Rhode Island is mentioned, though its unique position makes it an ideal area to encounter pelagic species.

“In this area in New England, we have a lot of mixing water between the Gulf Stream pushing north and the cold Labrador current, which comes south around the cape,” explains Pelagic Expeditions co-founder and co-owner Brian Raymond. “It creates this explosion of life, and with that life comes a healthy population of sharks that migrate through our area: some feed; some give birth.”

Blue and mako sharks make up the primary pelagic animals, which meander through this oceanic junction, and in turn, play an indelible role keeping the delicate food chain in check. Both types, according to Raymond, keep the ecosystem flourishing.

“They’re like the cleanup crew,” he explains. “Makos are a high-end advanced predator, which provide the same position as a lion: culling the weak, the sick, and the old: creating a ripple effect through the food chain [by] keeping the population healthy for stronger animals. Blues scavenge dead animals, and are close, but at a certain point, large makos will feed on them, which keeps them a step down.”

For the best shark snorkeling and cinematography opportunities, Raymond and company visit an area about 20 to 30 miles offshore, which affords crew members and clientele an elevated degree of quiet and confidence.

Raymond states:

“One reason is to isolate ourselves from other boats because our area is heavy with fishing, and I prefer to not have them around when I’m trying to attract sharks. Visibility also tends to be better offshore, and there are less animals that have been previously caught by hooks. Inshore, it’s much more challenging from a dive standpoint. Because we are photography-oriented, having cleaner animals in [clear] visibility is preferred.”

Organizing an oceanic shark expedition is no small feat; and even when conditions are seemingly favorable, weather has a tendency to turn for the worse at a moment’s notice. Managing divers of different tastes and skill levels can also be challenging – especially when working with wild animals.

“We meet at the boat at 6:30 a.m. We’ll load gear, head out from there, and we’ll choose one of 10 different sites we utilize depending on tides, water temperature, and several other factors,” explains Raymond. “We’ll head out, sometimes two or more hours to get to the site, at which point we’ll set up for chumming. Sometimes the sharks are quick; sometimes we have to wait.

“We work our divers in depending on their experience level and situation: normally a lot of our clients are experienced in the water and as photographers; we send them in pairs to feel it out on their own,” he continues. “If someone is inexperienced, or they haven’t [dove] with sharks, a member of my crew will walk them through the complete experience.”

After this complete experience, Pelagic Expeditions sails back to Point Judith as crew and customers review their most treasured snapshots. There is excitement and pride in their accomplishments: some breathe a sigh of relief, having faced their fears; others thrill at showing their latest work to family and friends as soon as they get to land. But there is a pause of contemplation: a seriousness about their subjects, which underpins the journey home. In the world of man, sharks are not only fragile – they are misunderstood.

With their big teeth, sleek predatory design, and hearty appetite, sharks have received a bad rap in the eyes of pop culture, which has rippled into a collective consciousness: pelagic species both wimpy and powerful are perceived as unstoppable killers with a discerning palette for human blood. Even to this day, despite scientific evidence countering these claims, sharks are still connected to outlandish situations: whether cleaving a boat with their not-really-so-powerful jaws, or recklessly consuming everything in their path – c-list celebrities included – from within a whirling cyclone.

Through Pelagic Expeditions encounters, and the media it produces, Raymond hopes to shed light on sharks as animals that do what they can to survive: negating their synonymy with movie and TV monsters. 

“On our charter, we work with clients to dispel this fear,” says Raymond. “For most people, it’s irrational: something they’ve been taught. I can’t say how many people I’ve spoken to who are afraid of sharks [when] they have never seen one.”

He continues:

“We take people out to these close encounters without a cage so they can get in, interact with the animals, and form their own opinion. ‘Wow! We went out and did something considered so extreme, and they weren’t trying to get us.’ They’re beautiful animals, they’ll swim by you, and are aware of your presence, but there’s no aggressiveness. I let the animals transform the people, and luckily we’re able to do that in a fun environment – and we get to take a lot of great photos along the way.”

On a local level, these endeavors are wrought with difficulty, largely because of Rhode Island’s maritime culture, which has been formed and focused on fishing.

“In general, most people in the area don’t share the same affinity for these animals as we do; and they don’t appreciate what the sharks are doing,” Raymond states. “This is one of the last corners of the country where they run kill tournaments – going out, taking animals, and returning with them – and don’t realize that gross spectacle of hanging them up and taking pictures has an impact on them.”

Pelagic Expeditions and likeminded groups and individuals have campaigned for better protections for their big toothy friends, but the process is slow: mired in both politics and a hesitancy to go against the grain.

Raymond elaborates:

“I don’t think people don’t care. I think there’s a huge section of people who are unaware it’s going on, and a small section who are doing a lot of damage. If we’re able to shine some light on it, it could be helpful for all of us. This area is rooted in fishing, and when you’re going against the big boys, the fishing industry… they have a lot of power and lobbyists. You’re definitely in an uphill battle when [trying] to change the rules.”

Raymond has experienced firsthand the stark realities of the fishing industry, which inspired him to start Pelagic Expeditions with personal friend and acclaimed shark expert and cinematographer Joe Romiero. According to Raymond, their skills were a “perfect pairing”: his experience as a fisherman and animal handler, coupled with Romiero’s underwater photography and videography talents.

“I grew up on the water and have always enjoyed the adventure of being out to sea,” Raymond says. “It was a lot of discovery and excitement. I became a commercial fisherman, and it wasn’t what I remembered as a child: it was a hard job, and ugly, and not what I wanted out of it. Luckily, I was friends with Joe who had invited me out several times. It was amazing: the excitement I looked for, which I didn’t have.”

Forging this excitement into a business, Raymond and Romiero founded Pelagic Expeditions in 2010, and since then the company has made big waves in the world of cinematography. To this date, the two have produced two specials for The Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week programming lineup: one showcasing large blues and makos at night in Rhode Island with additional footage of California; the other covering a large swath of New England, including great whites off Cape Cod, and cold water species in the Gulf of Maine. A third production, scheduled to be presented in Shark Week 2018, will feature spectacular white sharks, blues, and makos off the coast of Montauk, New York.

Despite this success, and opportunities to film pelagic friends in waters neighboring and abroad, Raymond has enjoyed staying close to the aptly named Ocean State:

“We have keyed on, ever since the very beginning, our focus on photography. We work closely with our guests and on our own to produce, what I consider, to be the finest images of these particular animals in the world. There are several sites around the world, whether California, Mexico, or South Africa where you can see these animals; but it’s a combination of expertise and the beauty of our local animals and green water. It all comes together to produce these beautiful images, and market them to magazine and television shows.”

Despite their depictions in popular media, sharks have continued playing their role in ecological maintenance – a thankless job they have been performing for millions of years. Today their numbers are dwindling, and as the human world ever encroaches on their territory, their plight worsens. It is up to the world’s biggest apex predator, mankind, to safeguard these fragile creatures, and in doing so, promoting a greater understanding of the world at large, and a respect for animals that inhabit the sea.

For more information on the works of Pelagic Expeditions, visit www.pelagicexpeditions.com. And for details on conservation issues facing sharks of all stripes, go to Global Shark Conservation at www.pewtrusts.org/en/projects/global-shark-conservation.