Julie Higgs took a deep breath. Then she sank into the salt water, toward the huge mass of fish bait below. She knew she would find something worth photographing.
Little did the spear hunter know that what she would end up shooting with her GoPro camera would be even cooler than what she would shoot with her Orion pistol.
As Higgs descended peacefully through the water column, she saw a silhouette lying on the sea floor 40 feet below. She slid deeper than ever, and realized she was looking at a marine animal so rare that it is considered an endangered species.
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For the first time in her life, Higgs was face to face with a sawfish.
Higgs, 31, of Port St. Lucie, enjoys diving and spearfishing on her days off from work at the St. Lucy County Rescue Center. She prefers free diving, which is diving without the use of scuba gear, and has trained herself to catch fish in one breath of air.
On May 4, she accepted an invitation to Spearfish with Jean-Jacques Rousseau of Montreal. They planned to dive the ruins into 65 feet of water off Martin County.
“The current was too strong to sink,” said Higgs, “so we worked our way closer to shore, thinking the current would be lighter.”
They stop at Bull Shark Barge, a well-known spot 2.5 miles southeast of St. Lucy Inlet, but one you’ve never dived into. Since there were no boats to fish there, I fell on the side of Rosso’s outboard inflatable hard boat.
The first thing Higgs saw was a huge mass of small fish bait. She estimated that the school was probably 50 feet in diameter and 5 feet thick. The fish kept huddled tightly to the bottom and were so thick they couldn’t see through or under them. She believes it was herring, a bait commonly called “greens” by marine fishermen along most of the Florida coast.
“I knew there were big fish in and under the bait ball – like sharks and giant grouper – so I was reluctant to go swimming inside the school,” she said.
But then she spied on the sawfish.
She appeared to take another breath and tell Rousseau what she had seen. Then I slowly and carefully went down to get a good video of the 9ft fish. Her Hammerhead mask was equipped with a special camera mount, so all she had to do was mount her head and watch.
Then the sawfish did something unexpected: it slowly began swimming in the school of bait. The video of Higgs shows him turning up and then apparently licking the thick school of bait, as if he was stunning some fish. This is how sawfish feed.
However, this sawfish does not appear to come into contact with any bait. Then Higgs saw another sawfish nearby. Both of them can be seen in her videos, moving slowly and calmly.
Is it a saw shark or a ray?
Sawfish are sometimes called saw sharks, but they are really not sharks at all. They are actually part of the Ray family. They can remain motionless on the ocean floor or estuary and still breathe. Most shark species must swim to move the water over their gills to breathe.
Sawfish feed on small fish, crabs, and other crustaceans. Their mouths are on the underside of their large, flat bodies. Instead of bones, they have softer cartilage for their skeleton.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the biggest threat to their existence is fishing in fishing gear.
Five species of sawfish are found throughout the world, but the small-toothed sawfish can only be found in the waters of the United States. A century ago, sawfish were found in coastal waters from Texas to North Carolina.
However, nets and habitat degradation have decimated sawfish populations. In 2003, they were the first marine fish to be named on the endangered species list. Now the best place to see is southwest Florida, including Everglades National Park.
Rare video on YouTube and Instagram
Higgs was thrilled about her first encounter with such a rare and unusual creature.
“I’ve been diving all my life, and almost every time I dive, I see something beautiful,” said Higgs, who regularly posts her adventures on her Instagram page and YouTube channel. “It’s always great to see something you haven’t seen before. It’s even more exciting when you record it. Seeing the saw fishing was really unbelievable.”
Higgs grew up in Martin County and had her first scuba diving experiences with her father and sister, often during trips to the Bahamas. She is skilled in spearfishing, setting women’s world records in cobia and winning national championship titles.
She recently returned from Lake Powell in Arizona after earning top honors among the female and mixed teams by shooting invasive carp and striped bass. I shot fast-moving fish like yellowfin tuna and dolphin fish and stoned a lot of snapper and grouper.
On the day she saw the sawfish, she shot Spanish mackerel and bluefish. But the saw was the highlight.
“You don’t realize the animal’s size until you get close to it,” she said. “I knew I had to get fairly close in order to clearly depict him in the video, but I tried to be respectful and not bother him either.” “Seeing an animal that you know is in danger is always special and encouraging. You hope to see more of them in the future.”
Follow the rules of the saw, report the views
- All sawfish caught in US waters must be released unharmed immediately or fishermen face federal charges.
- Keep your sawfish in the water at all times.
- If it can be done safely, untangle the line if it’s wrapped around the saw (called a platform) and remove as much of the line as possible.
- Cut the line as close to the hook as possible.
- Do not remove the platform.
- Report sawfish sightings at floridamuseum.ufl.edu/sawfish/report-encounter; By calling the sawfish hotline at 844-4SAWFISH; Or by sending an email to [email protected]
For more information about ongoing sawfish research and recovery efforts in Florida, visit the FWC Sawfish and the Sawfish Recovery web page at sawfishrecovery.org.
Ed Killer is TCPalm Outdoor Writer. Subscribe to his newsletters and other weekly bulletins at profile.tcpalm.com/newsletters/manage. Friend Ed on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter Tweet embed Or email him at[email protected].