Real Big Fish
We lived by the beach and naturally wanted to know what was lurking in that endless blue. So for hours we stared at every photo of Creatures – all but one: a great white shark with its opened toothy maw. We would look at that page with one eye closed, then slam the book shut before the great white could leap out and devour us.
So it’s no surprise to have that image popping into my head now that I’m 23 miles out to sea near the Farallon Islands, about to descend into a steel cage where the largest white sharks in the world – reaching 20-feet long and 5,000 pounds – are known to hunt.
“So what about this huge gap?” I ask Mick, the captain of the Superfish , a 56-footer that has hauled seven other divers and me out to these barren islands in hopes of communing with sharks. By “the gap,” I mean the two-foot hole between the cage’s steel bars, one smack at head level that you could easily swim through. Mick, who looks every bit the shark-boat captain part, says, “Oh that – yeah, the shark couldn’t fit its tooth through that.”
Let me explain how I ended up out here. Though that Creatures of the Deep picture terrified me, I’ve become enamored with sharks over the years. I live on Ocean Beach where I surf just about every day. Ocean Beach is inside the infamous Red Triangle, an area that holds one of the densest populations of great whites in the world.
Statistically, fear of sharks is silly – even if you surf and swim in San Francisco. About one person dies in the US every year from a shark attack, and in San Francisco the last fatal attack by a great white was in 1959. You are more likely to be crushed by a random fall of a vending machine, and far more likely to die from a lightning strike than to be killed by a shark.
I’ve never seen a great white, and honestly I’m more concerned for sharks than scared of them. Somewhere near 100 million sharks are killed annually, largely due to the demand for shark fin soup. Luckily, Farallon Islands scientists got legislation passed in 1994, making it illegal to kill whites in California waters. The problem is sharks migrate thousands of miles per year into international waters and are hunted down.
Despite their ferocious look, great whites are generally timid animals, scavengers who pick off the weak, and if you encounter one in the wild, it’s unlikely it would bite you unprovoked. If it did, it would be a case of mistaken identity for a seal and would quickly tear at your scrawny limbs.
At least that’s what the scientists say. I’ve decided it’s time to see for myself: time to get up close and personal with a white.
James, our fearless leader who has dived numerous times outside of the cage with great whites, straps dive weights around my ankles and waist and says, “Good luck.” I assume that means “hope you see a shark,” but it also sounds like the other kind of “good luck.”
The water is icy and I’m breathing through a hose that makes me sound like Darth Vader. This doesn’t help my nerves. All around me is nothing but dark blue water. I have the contradictory feeling of really, really wanting to see a great white and really, really not wanting to see a great white. If I see one, will my biologically prepared fear go ballistic? Will I become one of those people who can’t go near the ocean without hearing the Jaws theme song?
But the longer I’m down, the more my breath grows steady, and as if on cue, a nickel-sized jellyfish that looks like one of those Tree of Souls dandelion puffs from Avatar hovers daintily into the cage and seems to be saying, “It’s ok.” Puff puff. Flit flit.
No shark sighting on my first round in the cage, but I think I’m truly ready to be in the water with one now. The only problem is, there aren’t any. We’ve been on board the Superfish since 6 a.m. It’s now 2 p.m., and though we’ve seen probably a dozen gray whales and lots of sea lions, the sharks seem to have missed the memo that we dropped a paycheck to see them ($775 for cage divers, $375 for just looking from the boat).
We’re all getting restless. Well, the two men who have been puking over the edge for eight hours seem closer to dead than restless. But the rest of us are getting restless. The truth is, we’re not going to see a shark. We have only an hour before we have to turn back and…
“We got something over here – blood!”
Anthony, the youngest of the crew, has spotted a blotch of red on the horizon and a flock of gulls, which are known to congregate over shark attacks to pick off bits of intestine and such. The engine growls. We’re off.
Mick shuts off the motor and begins drifting toward the gulls. “If any of you want to get in the cage,” he says, “this is the time.” You can almost hear our collective gulp.
James and Anthony are tossing out rubber seal decoys. And then… is that a whale? A huge gray body emerges underneath the boat. It’s – it’s the size of a Volvo station wagon, but sleek like some biological Ferrari.
“Shaaark!” someone finally yells and it has to be the biggest white they’ve ever witnessed at the Farallons. It’s bigger than big, wider than wide. It’s…
“It’s a baby one,” says Anthony. Baby one? “I’d say he’s about 14 feet.”
Whatever. This is unbelievable. The girth – the mass.
“This is the best honeymoon ever!” screams the woman whose new husband has been puking for hours.
The shark circles. We are running to the various sides of the boat, trying to get a better glimpse. It’s beautiful, not the least bit scary. And then James says, “We’ve got 15 minutes left if anyone wants to get in the cage.” Suddenly it’s scary. Do I want to get in the water with that thing? Not really – but this is the chance of a lifetime. I said I was ready. Man up Yogis.
I suit up, not even bothering with my booties and gloves. Weights, mask, breathing apparatus, and before I know it, I’m down.
Four of us are packed into the cage, the waves tossing us at steep angles, all of us doing our best to keep our limbs inside. The shark could come from any direction. I’m turning my head in circles trying to spot any movement, and everything is playing tricks on me. The flicker of sun becomes the whip of a tail; the shadow of the boat hull becomes distinctly shark-shaped.
Minutes pass and nothing. I should’ve guessed. The shark realized that the rubber seals are just a bunch of decoys. You don’t survive 400 million years by wasting your energy on entertaining tourists.
Fifteen minutes pass and I’m considering going up when out of the bottom left of the cage, there’s an unmistakable movement in the darkness.
Probably 30 meters away and just barely visible. I tap one of the other divers and start pointing and flailing as if Jesus is swimming by in a Speedo. And then it happens: the shark circles back and drifts slowly past the front of our cage. He is staring at us, inquisitive and prehistoric. He is gorgeous. He is three times the size of our cage. He’s all scars and sleek beauty. This might be the coolest moment of my life. He is, he is – gone.
I’m buzzed for days, telling everyone I’ve seen a great white shark – yeah, like a real one. I have passed some psychological barrier, embraced my childhood terror. “Well, you were in a steel cage,” a friend reminds me when I tell him I wasn’t scared. Fine. It’s true. I wasn’t exactly ready to do a synchronized swimming routine with my great white friend, but seeing him was more of a holy experience than a frightening one. If everyone could see these animals in the wild, I really believe “Save the Sharks” would blitz that old “Save the Whales” campaign.
Of course, the real test will be getting back in the water. I’m a tad concerned that my fear might have been unconsciously awakened by seeing a shark in the wild. The next day, however, I’m back surfing Ocean Beach, and I’m happy to report, feeling more confident than ever that vending machines and lightning strikes are still bigger concerns than great whites.
Want to see a great white? Good luck from the beach. They’ve been spotted coming into the San Francisco Bay and Ocean Beach, but some surfers and swimmers have spent nearly everyday of their lives in San Francisco waters and never spotted one. Taking Superfish to the Farallons in October and November is your best bet ($375 for topside viewing, $775 for cage diving).
Your next best chance would be surfing or diving in places like the mouth of the Russian River, Salmon Creek, and Point Reyes in the fall. Careful. If you’re lucky enough to see one, you might have already been mistaken for a seal.