Diving with the Great Whites

Fear factor: Dive trips can bring the brave face to face with great whites
The Sacramento Bee, October 19, 2003

Nature doesn’t operate on anyone’s schedule. Even at $775 a day.

That was the subject under discussion one recent weekday afternoon as a small boat with eight people bobbed lazily in the unusually calm waters around the Farallon Islands.

We – six customers and two crew members/guides, Fred Savedra and captain Dave Fernandes of Great White Adventures – had gotten up at 5 a.m., boarded the 32-foot boat and headed out in search of one of the world’s most elusive and terrifying animals: the great white shark.

Great whites come to the Farallon Islands, a small group of guano-encrusted rocks 26 miles outside of San Francisco Bay, because of who else goes there: sea mammals. Specifically, elephant seals, which are mobile repositories of fat big enough to give Jenny Craig nightmares.

Just a couple of these floating calorie pods, which can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, will keep a great white shark moving around its enormous domain for months.

Such a sight – dryly referred to by Savedra as “a feeding event” – is said to be spectacular.

Douglas Long, who studies great whites at the Farallons as part of his work as a zoologist and biologist with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, describes it this way:

“I’ve seen (great whites) take apart a 400-pound elephant seal in three bites. I’ve seen them attack 1,200-pound elephant seals. I’ve also seen them attack and just snap the head right off – instant decapitation is a really efficient way to immobilize the prey.”

Uh, yeah.

Which is why the six of us had decided to go out to the great whites’ feeding area and don wet suits (complete with hoods, gloves and boots) to go down inside an 8-foot-by-5 foot aluminum cage. There, we hoped to see the great whites up close.

Sure, we’d all seen the video of great whites “playing” with 1,000-pound seals as though they were beach balls – tasty beach balls – balancing them on their noses like, well, circus seals.

And they say nature has no sense of humor.

Anyway, we not only wanted to see this in person, we apparently wanted to be able to smell the blood. And not to forget the fat: Savedra said that after a feeding event, the surface of the water will be covered with seal blood and an oil slick that would impress Exxon.

Perhaps this is why Great White Adventures’ pretrip release form, in addition to listing all manner of physical mishaps and damage we might suffer (and were thus indemnifying the operator against), listed this: “emotional injury.”

So, before our departure, let’s just say that there were quite a few mental images created in the heads of the passengers, one of whom, David Rowson, 41, had flown in from Coventry, England, just to see the sharks.

“I expected to see, you know, a lot of feeding going on,” Rowson said.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly,” said Kathi Koontz, a 28-year-old amateur sea-mammal enthusiast from Sunnyvale, who was among the first to get into the cage.

“I was expecting a feeding frenzy, but I guess I didn’t know what that entailed,” she said.

Indeed, the sea was calm, and “frenzy” didn’t describe the placid Farallons environment on this unusually hot, sunny day.

Rowson had seen a shark nearly as soon as he got into the cage, which was good, because he’d gone out several days before – at another $775 – and not seen a thing.

This time out, Rowson saw the shark cruise past the cage. Not a talkative man, he nevertheless seemed pleased with having visually “bagged” a shark.

Koontz, the next down in the cage, didn’t sound entirely convinced. “I think I saw it. … I mean, it happened so quickly. I saw what looked like an eye, and a flash of white.”

Guide Savedra, who went down with participants on each one’s first time in the cage, was claiming visibility of 25 feet, but that was hard to judge. After all, gazing through a diving mask, through bubbles, through the cage and lots of sea debris, it was hard to tell just how far away anything was.

Likewise, just as Savedra and Fernandes would casually estimate that a shark that appeared for a second or less was a “14-footer” or “maybe 18 feet,” no one was holding a tape measure. We had to take their word for it.

And watch. And wait.

The man who makes this experience available – and apparently available only through his company, at least on the coast of California – is Lawrence Groth, 39, an amateur oceanographic enthusiast and professional diver who started Great White Adventures in 1998.

During our trip out to the Farallons, Groth was in Baja, where he runs five-day trips out to Isla de Guadalupe to see the younger, but apparently much more accessible, great whites that feed there.

Speaking later by phone, Groth said that seeing sharks in the wild is not like watching edited footage on TV.

“When you’re going out to see a natural thing, you’re at nature’s beck and call,” he says. “We spend a lot of time waiting. The Discovery Channel … edits out all the waiting, which gives people an unrealistic expectation of what they’re going to see on a day trip.

“When you do it the natural way, you just have to be in the right place, and sometimes they (the sharks) cooperate and sometimes they don’t,” Groth says.

And so we took turns in the cage, a little jealous of those who had glimpsed these elusive monsters.

Perhaps, someone suggested to Savedra, “They don’t know we’re here.”

Savedra smiled slyly, and quickly responded, “Oh, they know. This is their feeding ground. They know we’re here. They’re just watching us.”

We took his word for it as we clambered down into the cage, which was loosely tethered to the back of the boat. But more than being scary – particularly because, in about 40 minutes over two trips in the cage, I saw nothing but green water – it was just bloody uncomfortable. Even for someone who’s been scuba diving, getting used to a 7-millimeter wet suit – necessary to protect one from the 58-degree water – isn’t easy. The suit presses on one’s chest, making breathing through a respirator uncomfortable, and the cage itself, with its barred top a few inches above the water’s surface, feels claustrophobic.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of one’s hands, which seem to drift outside the bars, making them potential shark food. Never mind that, as much as we wanted a shark to come near the cage, we hadn’t seen one all day.

So, back on deck, waiting for someone else to come out of the cage and give us another turn, we started thinking that all we could hope for was a fleeting glimpse of these elegant and …


Suddenly, as two people were climbing out of the cage, a shark rose out of the water and just about scared the snacks out of everyone on board.

It was gone as quickly as it came, but those of us looking in its general direction – including Bee photographer Erhardt Krause, who caught it just as it came out of the water – saw something unlike anything we’d seen before.

It was apparently attacking one of the two decoys that GWA lets drift out behind the boat – boogie boards painted to look like seals – and even though it aborted its attack, we saw its huge, open jaws and its enormous back as it breached the surface and headed back down. The sheer power of its thrust could be felt on deck.

That moment was shared by nearly the whole group. As brief as it had been, it largely satisfied our desire to experience something powerful and dangerous – but safely distant.

And it demonstrated how quickly such an experience could come and go. Turn your head for a second, and you miss seeing one of the grandest sights in the natural world.

This is one of the risks, but Groth says that by early October, nine out of 12 GWA trips to the Farallons had had shark sightings. But, he adds, he doesn’t want to do anything to change those odds. Contrary to a lot of our expectations, Savedra and Fernandes do not “chum,” or throw fish parts into the water to attract sharks.

For one thing, Groth says, great whites want seals, and Groth and his crew couldn’t toss protected mammals – live or dead – into the water, even if they wanted to.

Besides, says Groth, “We don’t want the sharks to do what they’re not meant to do. We don’t want to change them; we just want to see them.”

But human impact, and questions about it, swirl around even Groth’s relatively benign expeditions. Any human interaction with great whites is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Fishermen – a dozen boatloads were in the vicinity of the Farallons while we were there – are in the business of disturbing wildlife. But scientists, of whom there are several in weeks-long shifts on the Farallons, are fastidious in their concern that their presence not change the activities of what they are observing.

Douglas Long of the California Academy of Sciences says that scientists’ opinions of such tours as Great White Adventures vary.

“It’s debatable whether it has an impact,” Long said by phone. “I know that the people on the Farallons don’t like it.”

Surfers also have their concerns. As people sitting on surfboards in the great whites’ territory, they aren’t wild about the idea of boogie boards painted like seals being used to attract sharks.

Matt McClain is director of marketing and communications for the Surfrider Foundation USA. Though not explicitly critical of Great White Adventures, he’s hesitant to endorse any practice that might change sharks’ behavior.

“Great whites are one of the great mysteries, even to scientists,” he says by phone from San Clemente. “The crux is that we don’t know much about these creatures, so we don’t know how any of our behaviors, especially trying to engage them, may have unintended consequences.”

As the day wears on, barely a breeze stirring the minimal waves, no one else in the group spots a great white from the cage. But a moment after someone else has climbed out of the cage, I caught another view of a great white, less dramatic than the first but in some ways spookier.

As I was gazing out the back at nothing in particular, captain Dave called out, “Shark!” and I just happened to be looking in the same direction as he.

And there it was: Dave figured it to be “smallish,” only 14 or 15 feet – that is, 2 1/2 times as long as I am tall, and the girth of a sports car. It was rolling sideways to look up at the boat, having figured out that the decoys weren’t edible. But even though it barely broke the surface of the water, it seemed to be getting a good look at … me.

It turns out the sharks are well aware of where, and what, we are.

Savedra adds later that people in the ocean, notably surfers, aren’t fooling sharks into thinking that they aren’t there. The sharks just don’t care.

“If you’re a surfer here on the Pacific Ocean, you can be sure you’ve been cruised by a great white,” he says.

Our saving grace, of course, is that we’re not seals. Attacks that occur on the coast are almost entirely mistakes made by sharks who are looking for those big butterballs. Humans are too bony and low-fat – yes, even Americans – to be of much use to great whites.

The Academy of Sciences’ Long says that for this reason, nearly all shark attacks off the coast are one-strike deals.

“We did have our first fatal attack in nine or 10 years this year,” he concedes, but he adds that that “just proved the rule that they rarely kill humans.”

At one point in the still afternoon, Savedra and Dave spotted what they guessed was a “feeding event” in the distance. But when we arrived at the spot, there was no sign. Our disappointment turned to wonder, however, when we spotted something else moving through the water.

“Look!” someone shouted, and as we turned, we saw a humpback whale’s tail rise above the surface and quickly disappear. Then another. And another.

Soon, we were surrounded by humpback whales, three pairs of them, cruising through the vast calm. We could hear their blowholes and, with binoculars, see the barnacles on their tails.

We watched them for a half an hour, and as we headed back to the Farallons, another humpback breached the surface 20 feet off our bow.

Along with the seals we’d seen on the Farallons, and the dolphins that had danced around the boat, and the eerie moonfish and jellyfish floating past, and sunfish … and the sunrise through the Golden Gate, and the dazzling fog through which we returned to our Alameda dock … the sharks we saw, however briefly, were a bonus.

And by not putting on a show – no feeding frenzy, no seal volleyball demonstrations – they only enhanced their enormous mystery and majesty.

Gripping facts about great whites

Many aspects of the lives of great white sharks remain mysterious, but we know a few things about these enormous creatures.

* Great whites have to keep moving to survive. They swim and glide, apparently alternating every five miles. For this reason, they cannot be kept in captivity, where they can only swim and never glide, and thus swim themselves to death.

* Great whites have sophisticated electrical sensors that allow them to “read” the electrical fields of other animals, down to as little as five-billionths of a volt. This electrical sensing allows them to find prey even in conditions of low visibility, and also to navigate according to the planet’s magnetic fields.

* Great whites are the most feared predators in the sea, but even they have a natural enemy: the orca, or “killer whale,” which can attack and kill a great white in short order. This has been documented only twice, both times near the Farallon Islands.

* Great white sharks in the Farallons are full-grown, up to 24 feet in length, and eat mainly elephant seals and other marine mammals. Juvenile great whites, of about 12-16 feet, predominate near Isla de Guadalupe, off the coast of Baja California, where they eat large fish such as tuna.

* Great white sharks are a protected species in California, and their populations are growing. By contrast, between 1986 and 2000, the great white population in the North Atlantic declined by 79 percent.

* Shark attacks are rare – sharks don’t eat bony, relatively low-fat humans – and fatal attacks by great whites are almost unheard of. According to the Surfrider Foundation, there is only one shark attack per 1 million surfing days.

Sources: Lawrence Groth, Great White Adventures; Douglas Long, California Academy of Sciences; Surfrider Foundation; Dalhousie University.


Image Copyright Rodney Fox Shark Diving – Single Man Cage

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