Lower St. Lawrence River giant sharks dine on


Mar 11, 2001
Reaction score
Experts hunt Quebec's caribou-eating shark

Canadian Press


Quebec — The giant shark goes by the name Sleeper but kills large caribou after lying in wait -- crocodile-style -- at the mouth of Canada's northern rivers.

Canadian researchers are now trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding the great northern Greenland shark after at least four of them were discovered in the St. Lawrence River near Baie-Comeau, Que.

"We've got so many things through these dives and this footage that we didn't have a clue about before," said Jeffrey Gallant, a shark researcher who went diving in June with at least four Greenland sharks.

"We've been working on this shark for years and it's extremely exciting to be learning so much."

While researchers knew the Greenland shark ventured along the St. Lawrence, a diving team led by Gallant and co-researcher Chris Harvey-Clark took what is believed to be the first known video of the fish swimming freely in a natural environment.

The footage and close-up observation are debunking several myths about the shark, starting with the theory that the animal is dopey and docile.

When Gallant and his researchers swam near the sharks, the fish assumed a defensive stance with its pectoral fins pointing downwards, similar to the pose of Caribbean reef sharks when they feel threatened.

On one dive, a shark stalked the divers as they surfaced, likely to check them out as potential prey. While the shark was previously thought to be nearly blind, the behaviour showed it could see the divers.

"That was the only time anyone felt threatened," said Gallant, regional director of Canada's Shark Research Institute. "The shark came up and saw that the divers were not seals and left them alone. The rest of the time, we tried to give it as much leeway as possible."

Along with better-than-expected vision, the animals demonstrated they were curious.

"I jumped off a dock where they said they'd seen one and within two minutes I was diving with a 10-foot (three-metre) shark," Gallant said. "They were coming to us."

Some amateur divers have expressed concern that the Lower St. Lawrence may not be safe with the presence of a shark that can be more than six metres long and weigh up to 1,000 kilograms.

Gallant said sharks, including the Greenland, rarely present a threat to people in Canada. Among other factors, cold water slows the shark and it tries to expend as little energy as possible.

However, Gallant warned that rogue thrill-seeking divers should give the shark a wide berth.

"If you jump in and try to grab it by the tail and go for a ride, you're going to get nipped," Gallant said. "Yes, this is something people actually do."

Sylvain Sirois, a diver from Baie-Comeau, 420 kilometres northeast of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence, stumbled across the shark in May while completing a dive at about 20 metres below the surface. He said he was never worried about the giant shark.

"It was shocking to see it but it really filled me with a feeling of wonder," Sirois said. "It's the first word that came to mind and it's the only word that works. Wonder."

Sirois, 33, believes he saw a Greenland shark on a previous dive a few years ago. "But it was just a shadow," he said.

"We haven't seen them in a while, so we think they were just passing through," said Sirois, an instructor who also runs a diving shop.

"Of course we want people to come here to dive, but we're really not putting the accent on the Greenland shark. People have been diving here for 35 years and this is the first confirmed sighting, so the chances are extremely slim."

The shark was thought to spend most of its time in the deep cold water of the Arctic, but Gallant's team has found evidence that some Greenland sharks may spend more time outside the Arctic Circle.

Nearly 98 per cent of Greenland sharks that spend most of their time in the Arctic carry a visible parasite on their eyes. Gallant's team found no evidence of the parasite on the Quebec sharks.

In the past, other researchers have photographed the shark in the water after it had been left on the ice for several hours by fishermen. On other occasions, researchers have photographed the shark by tying a rope to its tail and trailing it.

"When a shark is tied by the tail, it's not going to do what it normally does," Gallant said. "The pictures and video we have were all natural."

Like many sharks, the Greenland is legendary for its toughness. Beluga whale fishermen in the Saguenay region used to gut the whales on shore, allowing blood and entrails to flow into the water. The Greenlands would be drawn to shore. Caught up in a feeding frenzy, the sharks would ignore receding tides and be beached.

The fishers would cut out the sharks' livers and cook them for valuable oils.

"When the tide would come up again, some sharks weren't dead and would swim out without their livers," Gallant said. "They'd eventually die, of course, but they are tough."

Other regions of Canada have seen the occasional shark. A four-metre white shark was caught near Baie-Comeau in the 1950s. Another white shark was caught on Prince Edward Island in 1982. The shark was five metres long.

Ten-metre basking sharks are also seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Maritimes.

"There are lots of sharks in Canada," Gallant said. "People just don't know about them."

Top Bottom