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Catch & Release

You have to trust people in the water. I trust Armando Jenik, the underwater photographer, a true waterman. I take his word, and he backs it up with images. When I’ve been on various shoots with Armando, I have literally aimed my surfboard or windsurfer at his head, as if to clip him, but he jerked away at the last minute to take the ultimate shot. Armando trusts his chosen subjects, and he trusts sharks.

According to Armando, the first sport fishers were encouraged by the Rockefellers to make the St Thomas harbour area a location for sport fishing tournaments. When Armando arrived in St Thomas in the early seventies, he was employed by marlin-hunting sport fishermen posing with their dead trophies. Armando was environmentally conscious and determined to win the hearts of the fishermen and persuade them not kill the marlin. Many sports fishermen eventually switched to the “more humane” catch and release fishing.

Armando recalls an event that changed his life forever. Shooting for ABC’s The American Sportsman with Larry Hagman catching marlin, he jumped in the water to take photos and was amazed at the amount of sharks tracking the boat. The marlin was ravaged off the hook.
On another occasion, after watching acclaimed shark biographers Ron and Valerie Taylor’s 1971 movie Blue Water, White Death, Armando and his buddies were inspired. They noticed a Coke machine housed in a shark cage outside the cinema as part of the publicity for the film. Observing that the Coke machine was not in danger of being attacked by sharks, he and his friends borrowed it, leaving a note that said the cage was being borrowed for scientific purposes and the benefit of the ocean.

 

All photos by Armando Jenik.

After the shoot with Larry Hagman, Armando’s concern over the plight of the marlin began to consume him. His interest was noticed, and he was flown to Australia to gather footage on the black marlin. His benefactor had bought him his first underwater camera at a value of $20,000, but on arrival at the airport, Armando was informed that his mentor had other appointments with the local authorities. He completed the shoot— meeting up with other St Thomas photographers at the airport—and thus began a communication of like-minded people with the proven view that sharks were tracking sports fishing boats specifically for marlin.

In 2003, the ocean conservation foundation arrived in the Virgin Islands with their vessel Holokai to create a documentary on their findings. Armed with scientists, cameramen, National Geographic representatives and Armando, the footage was revolutionary and has yet to be aired. The sport fishers aboard followed the code of reviving the marlin by holding its bill and dragging it with the boat to give it oxygen for it to swim away. They also placed a wet towel over the eye to calm the fish. The combination of these things is deemed enough to be sufficient for the fish’s recovery and release.

The scientists placed a VX 2000 creature-cam on the marlin to record its movements for up to an hour after release. As backup, Armando was in the water with two safety divers armed with repelling poles in case of shark attacks, something Armando has become accustomed to over the years.

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The findings were revolutionary to everyone on board, and on replay of the footage, the proof is completely mind-blowing. As the marlin leaves the vessel, presumably in a healthy state, it begins to sink upside down, spiralling to the depths of the ocean. On two occasions, Armando has to place it horizontal to give it a chance to reorientate itself and go on its way. As he does this, he receives a huge push on his tank. He said he thought it was one of his safety divers aiding him, but when he spins sideways, he comes face to face with a 12-foot bull shark and seconds later is passed by a tiger shark. Nearby, Randy Kiel, his safety diver, is prodding the shark with a pole. Armando leaves the water for safety and his camera loses the view of the descending marlin. He speculated that the marlin would then make its escape.

The creature-cam that rose to the surface from the marlin's back revealed another story. To the astonishment of the crew, they watched as the marlin began to swim deeper to the ocean depths, twelve sharks crossed the marlin. The future of the marlin was clearly in doubt. What is clear is that the marlin's power had been sapped, and it was left vulnerable by cause of its being fished. The combination of the boat's propeller and the marlin's senses creating distress in a frequented fishing zone left little doubt to the territorial bull and tiger sharks that a marlin meal was waiting. Armando deduced their own shark attacks were due to the fact that the sharks must have thought they were the marlin.

The confused crew debated, and Armando and his friends remained calm, yet slightly sad. The marlin are given to the other predators, and the assumption that the revival techniques may be enough, remains to his conscience, at least, unacceptable. If anything, Armando’s initial efforts of curbing the cull of marlin has come a long way. The reality, however, for the marlin, one of the sea’s most graceful predators, is still in question. 

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