Like any good fishing trip, the day started before the sun came up. Our boat, the New Superfish out of the Berkeley Marina, had been specially outfitted with a shark cage and hot-tub, what they called the “TRU” or “Thermal Recovery Unit.” The under-caffeinated passengers stowed their gear, the crew cast off and we began our trek to the Farallon Islands in hopes of encountering great white sharks.
We would cross under the Golden Gate Bridge just as the sun was rising over the East Bay Hills– a beautiful sight on a clear crisp morning. From there it was fairly smooth sailing out to the Farallones. We had been trying to make this trip for years. Weather and rough seas always seemed to keep us cooling our heels on land. Even on a good day this is generally not a trip for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. But now we were finally on our way.
Like many people, I’m fascinated with sharks. I can’t remember a time when they did not interest me. Growing up we had a collection of National Geographic magazines that my brother and I would page through. The one that I’d return to again and again was a well worn copy from 1968. On the cover was a shark and inside there was an article titled “Sharks: Wolves of the Sea.” I was equal parts frightened and captivated and it sparked my curiosity to check out every book I could find about sharks at the library. Then when I was in 4th grade, I did an incredibly in-depth presentation on Great White Sharks. I considered myself the class expert. This was a couple years before a famous movie came out that made the great white an infamous villain. I think Jaws was the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I don’t know if it was the result of one of my friend’s parents being lax or if my buddies and I managed to sneak in, regardless, I saw that movie at a far too young and impressionable age. And it permanently colored my perceptions of being in the ocean. That was when my interest in sharks tipped from mainly curiosity to just being terrified.
I think most surfers in California always have the thought of white sharks somewhere in the back of their minds. But when I surfed it was always in the front and center of my thoughts, “I am bait.” As great a day on the waves might have been, it was always partnered with my ever-present fear, irrational as I knew it was…makes for a fun time. I was looking forward to meeting the bully of my imagination head on and hopefully getting past this.
Prior to our trip I had the great honor of meeting one of my all-time heroes, Dr. John McCosker at the California Academy of Sciences, to talk sharks. Dr. McCosker is one of the world’s foremost experts on the great white shark. It’s not hyperbole to say his work has set the foundation of nearly all white shark research over the last 30 years. He has also been particularly instrumental in of our understanding of why white sharks occasionally attack humans. Since 1950 there have been around 100 shark attacks that have occurred along the entire California Coast. Most of these were not fatal. Needless to say, I know the numbers but always thought, “But with my luck…” When I expressed my goofed up fears, Dr. McCosker put it into perspective for me. “What’s so remarkable that if the numerator is 99, (Amount of shark attacks) the denominator is in the billions. How many human beings or human being-hours have been spent in the water over the past 60 years? The sharks are clearly not hunting us. So why are we so afraid? I guess because we are terrestrial animals that are accustomed to things on land that we understand, and when we put our foot in the ocean, we are out of our element and no longer in charge. So we’re afraid of white sharks because of the exaggeration and what we’ve created with our own imaginations. And there’s no reason we should be. We should be more afraid of the disappearance of white sharks, because an ocean without white sharks is a very unsafe place for every human being.”
I also asked Dr. McCosker what the chances were that we’d see white sharks at the Farallones. He said that no doubt the sharks would be there but he couldn’t place odds on us seeing them. Shark dive operators in the Marine Sanctuary are not allowed to bait or chum around the Farallones. The sharks know that the boats don’t have much to offer in the way of food or sport. But Dr. McCosker then said, “You might not see them but no doubt they’ll know you’re there.”
We reached the Farallon Islands and the cage was dropped into the bitter cold water. Divers pulled on their wetsuits and fitted their masks. I would be in the first group getting into the cage. We tested our regulators, hooked up to a hookah unit pumping air down to us from the surface, and heavy weights were strapped to our ankles. I clambered out over the rolling cage and slipped into the frigid water. From the start I had a hard time controlling my breathing and thought I might hyperventilate. Was it the burst of cold water entering my wet suit or the adrenaline hit from me thinking I’d be breaking the surface and entering the opening jaws of a great white? As I calmed down I scanned the murky green depths. The rays of sunlight draped down from the surface. Jellyfish pumped by in a leisurely fashion. The cage pitched up and down with the rolling waves and my leg slipped between the bars behind me. I immediately spun around and reeled it back in with the thought that it was about to be snapped off by a waiting monster. I frantically scanned the green shadows below and around. In a short time my breathing normalized. I was in their world but I suddenly found a peaceful calmness take over.
We did not see sharks on our dive. It was disappointing but not unexpected. But in many ways I saw much more. I saw their realm for what it really is: a fragile and beautiful place where white sharks are the masters but not monsters. In order to complete our story I would rely on the footage taken by white shark researchers such as Scot Anderson out at the Farallones and other footage taken by the folks at Great White Adventures during past dives in the clear blue waters of Mexico. In any case I would not trade my experience. Knowing that I was sharing the water with these amazing animals, unseen but out there, has given me something back. No more irrational fear, all wonder.