At the south end of Fakarava Atoll, a 35-mile-prolonged rectangle of coral in French Polynesia, a narrow channel cuts via the barrier reef. Every June 1000’s of conceal groupers congregate in that channel, in an condo the dimension of two to three football fields, to spawn the next technology. Violent tidal currents funnel via every six hours, filling and emptying the lagoon. The groupers, fleshy and about two feet prolonged, are no longer alone: Tons of of gray reef sharks assemble as successfully, to stalk them. The feminine groupers, fancy other reef fish, exhaust at most just a few days within the spawning grounds. But for some cause the males, which lead solitary lives loads of the year, exhaust weeks crowded into this treacherous plan—unless lastly your complete mass of fish spawn precise now, releasing clouds of eggs and sperm into the water. The locals told us it happens at stout moon.
My team and I enjoy spent the past four years attempting to doc and model this unheard of, mysterious spectacle. For a complete of 21 weeks, we’ve dived day and night—about 3,000 diver hours in all—into the a hundred and fifteen-foot-deep channel. In our first year, 2014, marine biologists Johann Mourier and Antonin Guilbert made the first suitable-attempting counts: There had been some 17,000 groupers and 700 gray reef sharks within the channel. (The fish are protected right here by a biosphere reserve.) That year I accomplished a sincere 24-hour dive—a technical feat that required the toughen of your complete team. The level wasn’t to residing a file. The level was once to peek the fish the methodology a biologist would animals on land, uninterrupted for a the truth is very prolonged time.
At nightfall on that first night, I watched crustaceans and mollusks emerge from the bowels of the reef—and then retreat on the flash of my light. I watched the conceal groupers darken their skin and withdraw into crevices to sleep. And I watched the sharks attain alive, as within the occasion that they’d awaited this moment. By day they swim languidly—unsleeping groupers are too rapid for them. Now, after nightfall, the sharks swarmed along the seabed by the a complete lot. The water was once electric with them, and I spotted I’d underestimated their trail. Their agitation was once stressful: Owing to the gasoline combination I was once respiratory for this 24-hour dive, I couldn’t ascend to safety at any time when I needed. I had to remain at depth with the sharks.
Within the years since, I’ve gotten over my wretchedness. It has given methodology to exhilaration—the exhilaration of discovering out to carrying out, without cages or chain mail suits and even shark billies, precise into a colossal shark pack. That’s one thing we’ve figured out at Fakarava: The sharks hunt in packs, moderately fancy wolves, nevertheless much less cooperatively.
A single shark is simply too clumsy to capture even a somnolent grouper. A pack of them is likely to flush the fish from its hiding plan and encircle it. Then they shuffle it apart. Considered dwell, the assault is a frenzy that explodes earlier than us. Most fantastic later, due to a clear camera operated by Yanick Gentil that captures a thousand photos a 2d, are we in a position to look the sharks in uninteresting motion and fancy their effectivity and precision.
To the sharks, we humans are obstacles, no longer targets. After we dive at night, they methodology us continuously; the slightest shuffle or ray of sunshine attracts them. Every so incessantly they butt us onerous ample to bruise. Every so incessantly we peaceful an furious shark by grabbing its tail and flipping it on its encourage, inducing a more or much less trance. But easiest once since getting shut to them enjoy I insecure that they’re going to also bite—when I felt a surprising stinging nervousness on the encourage of my thigh. My hand figured out the shuffle in my moist swimsuit; I could perchance perchance perchance even look the blood from a hurt that later would require four stitches. Fortunately, two cameras filmed the scene: It wasn’t the shark itself nevertheless the scalpel-fancy spines of a gigantic surgeonfish that sliced my skin. The shark had the fish in its jaws and was once shaking it violently.
Gray reef sharks like a complete lot, per chance 1000’s, of groupers at some level of the weeks the fish congregate at Fakarava. They injure many more. The morning after my in a single day dive, as the groupers started to scramble, I photographed a gallery of survivors. The injuries had been grave: torn fins, gill covers ripped off. But even within the kind of sorry speak, the groupers gave the impact undeterred. The males challenged every other time and again, face-to-face, struggling hysterically for dominance—slaves to their reproductive intuition.
On our most most new expedition, final year, we lastly acquired a factual enjoy a look on the level of it all. The day of spawning, your complete ecosystem changes: The water fills with tens of 1000’s of sardinelike fusiliers, which sense something is up. Feminine groupers, bellies swollen with eggs, relaxation in conceal coloring attain or on the seabed. The faded gray males look from above. At intervals a male goes all the contrivance down to parade earlier than and jostle a female. He bites her belly, presumably to induce spawning.
Very without note it begins: pandemonium. Bands of a dozen or so groupers shoot upward at some level of us, fancy fireworks. Each band contains many males pursuing a single female. The sharks descend into the fray, largely without success; the groupers are too fleet. The particular particular person sex act lasts lower than a 2d, and we can scarcely look, great much less model, what’s going down. The fusiliers block our glimpse, speeding in to swallow clouds of grouper eggs and semen as soon as they seem. The final cells are blended randomly by the worthy tidal new because it carries them out to sea.
The complete anarchic spectacle is over lower than an hour, and we’re left wondering, what’s the exhaust? For a male grouper, what’s the exhaust of combating other males for four weeks, in chance every night of being shredded by sharks, if within the end you don’t salvage a female all to your self, and to take hang of that it’s your sperm fertilizing her eggs? It appears to be like a complete atomize of energy—which nature in most cases abhors.
Once again, Gentil is within the advantageous-attempting plan on the advantageous-attempting time. His camera captures that one-2d act in a single grouper couple. In uninteresting motion, every thing becomes obvious: The male that has earned the advantageous-attempting to be closest to the female gets to initiate breeding along with her. He presses his body to hers for as prolonged as he can. The opposite males are already converging on the couple; there’s no exclusivity. The dominant male’s onerous-won prize, after four weeks of bitter battles, is allowed to be first in line—to enjoy the precise odds of transmitting his genes.
The locals had been suitable-attempting: All of it happens on the stout moon, and authorized earlier than damage of day. On my 24-hour dive, earlier than the spawning that year, I had time to fancy the damage of day, to look the dim blue glow gradually filter from above into the inky depths, the attach I waited with the drowsing groupers. At that moment, I heard whales singing, per chance many miles away. It reminded me of church bells. I don’t know when which that you just can perchance well per chance salvage goosebumps under a thick moist swimsuit, on the opposite hand it felt fancy I did. I don’t know either for whom the whales had been tolling. But I invent know we’ll be going encourage to Fakarava this June.
Laurent Ballesta has published a stout legend of his team’s experiences at Fakarava Atoll in a two-guide residing known as
700 Sharks Into the Darkish. It’s miles
accessible on Amazon.