Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#131 An Angel of a Shark

Most of my readers would not consider any shark to be an "angel," but this weekend I encountered one in our own waters. I was diving in Avalon Bay to cover the Catalina Conservancy Divers (CCD) annual Avalon Harbor Underwater Cleanup for this paper. Due to the heavy rains this year, there was a lot of silt on the bottom and visibility dropped to zero in several areas in the Bay. In fact, I had a mooring anchor chain fall on my tank under such conditions! I couldn't see an inch in front of me.

I decided to go out deeper in hopes of getting a few good stills of cleanup divers carrying their collected debris. Of course I got distracted by a fish at about 60 feet. While I was observing it, I noticed a slight irregularity in the sand through my peripheral vision. I turned to look, and there was the tail of a 4-5 foot angel shark! The animal was covered with silt and sand, and barely recognizable even when a few feet away. It was so still that it looked dead. As I inched (centimetered?) towards it, I was able to get some good footage without disturbing the sleeping angel.

Angel sharks are flattened bottom-dwelling sharks. They superficially resemble a shovelnosed guitarfish when partially buried. However, they differ in that the pectoral fins are separate and not directly attached to the head region, they have blunt rather than pointed snouts and their mouths are at the forward end of rather than underneath the head.

These sharks are found from Alaska to Baja California and the Sea of Cortez south to Peru and Chile. Dr. Milton Love in his book Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast suggests that "depending on your philosophy," they may also be found in Heaven. Of course when I find my underwater "angel," I hope to experience heaven on Earth! Angels are a bottom-dwelling species frequenting reefs, kelp beds, and sandy or muddy bottoms (and if you believe Dr. Love, you may find them floating on clouds in the sky, possibly playing a harp). They may be seen in depths of 10 to 300 feet, and less frequently to 600 feet.

Angels often rest partially buried in the sand. Here they may ambush prey that wanders too close to the jaws, which can be extended some distance from the mouth. It is believed they are most active at night. A study conducted in Catalina waters indicated they became more active after sunset and peaked about midnight (sounds more like a vampire than an angel). They are not real speed demons unless startled, and generally roam at about 1/4 mph. In our region they eat fish like the halibut, blacksmith, young white sea bass and gobies as well as squid and sea cucumbers (hmm, perhaps for their aphrodisiac properties as discussed in one of my previous columns???).

Northern elephant seals and a few humans are known to eat them. The fishery for this species began to increase significantly after 1978 when it was realized a similar species was sold for food in Italy. They are also found in Native American kitchen middens, suggesting the previous occupants of our region ate them many years before.

The angel shark I encountered was a large one since they reach a maximum length of five feet. They are said to begin reproducing at about 3 feet. Females may produce up to a "baker's dozen" (13) young after spawning during spring. The young ones may favor deeper depths (200-300 ft.) than their parents.

I was totally unconcerned about this shark as I filmed within a foot of its body. Of course while partially covered with sand, it was difficult to get good footage of the fish itself. I panned up and down the length of the body, and did some close-ups of the exposed skin (which looked like it had a serious blemish problem!). I then repositioned myself directly in front of it to shoot the well-disguised eyes (which were open and looking at me by now) and mouth. Good thing I hadn't read more about them before filming this one. I learned in researching this article that it can thrust out its jaws a good distance from the mouth, leaving more than one fisherman with an unpleasant bite. My "angel" was not so aggressive since I was careful not to harass it, and it elected to take off abruptly instead, with me in hot pursuit... camera rolling until it disappeared in the murk.

© 2005 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Can you see the camouflaged angel shark? tail and dorsal fins; head
region with camouflaged eyes; angel shark swimming away.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia