White Shark Autumn

Feared, loathed and hunted, the great white shark has long been man's worst friend. Now the object of adventure tourism, are we hounding it out of existence?

August 1-7, 2007

Life in the food chain gets boring when you’re king. We’ve got a world of lesser beings to cook for dinner, but we’re simply starved for danger and run-ins with carnivores. That’s why we like to imagine that we live in a world of monsters. We raise hype over mountain lions in the suburbs, bears in the vineyards, coyotes in the city and killer bees in the air—and it’s so thrilling to imagine that all of them want to devour us.

But the most enduring of our imagined enemies may be the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, the star of Jaws and the aggressor in nearly every serious shark-human encounter recorded in California.

White sharks have killed 10 people in the state since 1900: four in the 1950s, three in the 1980s, one in the 1990s, and two in the new millennium. Just over a hundred unprovoked attacks were reported during the 20th century along the West Coast. The conclusion? The ocean is a safe place to pass the hours. Still, the hype created when a shark attacks a person—like that of the kayaker bitten on the bow of his boat two weeks ago off the San Mateo coast—far surpasses that of all the car deaths, gun deaths and nicotine deaths that can fit into a busy California afternoon. Shark attacks awe some people and terrify others, and for some, they even fire up the urge to go swimming—in a cage, that is.

“I hate to say it, but it’s often when the first attack happens that our season starts,” says James Moskito, expedition leader with Shark Diving International, an Emeryville-based service that leads boat trips to the Farallon Islands, where clients enter the water in shark-proof cages to enjoy a close-up view of one of the most notorious predators in the world. Several companies in California operate in this small niche of “adventure” tourism. Equipped with 50- to 100-foot-long cruisers furnished for luxury, these companies take paying customers from around the world on one-day or multiday trips to various shark holes. Most notable are Isla Guadalupe, 160 miles off the coast of Baja California and accessible to the port of San Diego, and our own Farallon Islands, 26 miles west of Marin and world-famous for its high density of white sharks, which gather there to feed on California sea lions and elephant seals.

Shark Diving International leads cage-diving trips aboard the 56-foot Superfish during the autumn months, when white sharks gather most densely at the guano-covered archipelago. Chumming—dispensing blood and flesh into the water to attract sharks and other fish—was banned in California waters several years ago, largely due to the complaints of surfers, who feared that the activity could spark higher levels of aggression in sharks and incite them to attack when they otherwise wouldn’t.

The crew of the Superfish resorts to using a decoy to gain the attention of the sharks. At a slow putter, they drag a hemp-fiber bundle fashioned to resemble a sea lion behind the boat, and most days it draws one or more sharks into the vicinity of the boat. When a shark is spotted following the decoy, the motor is cut and the crew deploys several floating cages into the water. The clients, in wetsuits, hop into the open hatches while a crew member pulls the decoy still closer toward the boat, bringing the shark with it and giving customers the sight of a lifetime: an adult white shark appearing out of the blue gloom and passing just yards away, at ease in its own element. The water at the Farallons offers an average visibility of 20 feet—though it may be as clear as 50—and even those onboard the boat may get a stellar view of the big fish.

“Our hope through doing this is that people will gain an appreciation of the sharks and the lives they lead,” says Moskito. “If we educate people, then the more involved they’ll be in white shark protection. You can’t protect something if you know nothing about it.”

Shark Museum Massacre

Researchers believe with good evidence that white sharks are extremely susceptible to overfishing. One of the clearest textbook cases of overexploitation comes from 1982 at the Farallon Islands, where a commercial fisherman named Mike McHenry, gutting fish after a day’s work, found himself in the company of several large sharks. McHenry put aside his fillet knife and went promptly to work. He rigged up his hydraulic winch with a cable and a sturdy baited hook and proceeded to haul in five adult white sharks in a single evening.

“The observed number of attacks on pinnipeds at the Islands dropped off the charts,” says Burr Heneman, director of Commonweal, an organization in Bolinas dedicated to the health of humans and of wild ecosystems. Years passed before the rate of attacks on pinnipeds returned to normal levels. “That was a pretty good indication of their vulnerability.”

McHenry never sold the sharks, but instead froze them with the plan of establishing a brilliant shark “museum.” John McCosker, chair of aquatic biology with the California Academy of Sciences and a white shark researcher since 1978, visited the super-cooled facility during the filming of a BBC documentary shortly after McHenry landed the sharks.

“It was heartbreaking,” McCosker recalls. “There they were, propped up and hanging from the ceiling. It was unbelievable. I understood where he was coming from—he was a commercial fisherman—but you realize walking into a scene like that, all the ecological damage that was done; it wasn’t just a few dead fish. It trickles way down the food chain, and for years to come. It broke my heart.”

In 1993, conservationists pursued legislation to protect white sharks by law from fishermen. Surprisingly, those who statistically faced the greatest danger of being attacked by or otherwise interacting with white sharks—Northern California surfers, recreational SCUBA and breath-hold divers and commercial urchin and abalone divers—supported the measure most vehemently, while divers and water-goers in Southern California expressed on the whole far less interest in prohibiting the killing of white sharks.

“That was interesting, seeing who wanted to protect the sharks and who didn’t,” says Heneman. “Generally, people who were most likely to encounter them were the most supportive, and there was a really dramatic geographic break between Northern and Southern California.”

Crazy Like the Fox

Such data demonstrates that white sharks, for all their power, teeth and potential danger, inspire a curious camaraderie between themselves and the people who spend time in the water with them. Australian Rodney Fox survived one of the world’s most publicized and horrific shark attacks in 1963 while spearfishing off of Aldinga Beach, south of Adelaide. Today, he is an active shark conservationist and one of the great white shark’s better friends in the world. Fox was attacked from below and behind near the end of a breath-held dive. The great white bit him around the torso and dragged him underwater before releasing him and allowing the bleeding and internally wounded diver to struggle to the surface. A boat took him to shore and surgery a short while later saved his life. Doctors believe Fox’s wetsuit helped keep him in one piece during transport. The photos of the massive, bleeding underarm wound and the subsequent semicircular healed scar—with its 462 stitch marks—are among the most famous and memorable in shark-attack image galleries.

“After the attack, I decided I wanted to go have a look at the sharks and see for myself if I could go back in the water,” Fox recently recalled by phone from his home Down Under. He went snorkeling just three months after the attack. “I saw lots of glimmering, imaginary sharks coming at me from all directions.”

Obviously still shaken, Fox took to diving with an explosive-tipped spear and killed a few small sharks with the weapon. “I was keen to prove to myself that I could overcome these animals,” he says.

In 1965, Alf Dean—then a world-famous shark hunter and fisherman—and photographer Ron Taylor invited Fox and two other well-known shark-attack survivors, Henri Bource and Brian Rodger, on a fishing-filmmaking expedition. For the multiday occasion, Fox designed and built the first shark cage, and he, Bource and Rodger would use it to get a face-to-face view of the animal that had nearly killed each of them earlier that decade. In the meantime, Dean reeled in shark after shark on his heavy fishing tackle, and Fox remembers with repulsion the blood and gore that accumulated on the deck of the boat.

“We chummed up a bunch of sharks and he reeled in five between 11 and 15 feet. There was nothing to it. They didn’t jump or fight. It was like pulling in a dead cow, and I remember asking Alf, ‘Well, now what do we do with them?’ He said we could each have a jaw or some teeth, and then they were to be just dumped back in the water. I looked around and thought, ‘There’s just got to be a better way to get to know these creatures.'”

So Fox pushed the shark-cage concept and turned it into a business and a personal conquest. He went on to regain his own trust of the sea and of sharks while leading thousands of people on extraordinary shark-viewing excursions in Australia and South Africa. Fox, in fact, led the early-1990s campaign in Australia to protect great whites from hunters. He has meanwhile participated in the making of over a hundred films and documentaries about great whites, and in more ways than one, Fox would not be who he is today without the great white shark.

Tons of Fun

Sportfishing for these animals is now illegal virtually everywhere, but it was once big business in ports like Montauk, Long Island, Durban, South Africa, and many towns in Australia. The activity gained popularity in the 1950s as boat captains took paying customers to sea, spilled a few barrels of pulped whale flesh into the water, strapped their clients into fighting chairs and hooked them into the biggest fish of their lives.

In 1933, a 998-pound white shark landed in New Jersey was recorded as the largest fish ever landed on rod-and-reel. Author Zane Grey set his own record in 1936 with a 1,036-pound tiger shark caught near Sydney. The records accelerated as fishermen refined their techniques and equipment. From the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Indian Oceans, anglers targeted white sharks, bettering each other as they hit the 1,500- to 3,000-pound marks. Eventually, in 1988, the notorious captain Frank Mundus of Montauk hooked a client into a 3,427-pounder, still considered one of the largest fish ever landed with a rod and reel, though the record books discount it on a line-weight technicality. Beyond the rod and reel, the largest great white ever measured came from Cuba. It was caught in 1945 using a bait-rigged oil drum left floating at sea overnight. The big fish was 21 feet long and reportedly weighed over 7,000 pounds.

South Africa, all of Australia and much of the Eastern Seaboard now prohibit the take of white sharks both commercially and recreationally, and the impact that the era of great white sportfishing had on the global population is unknown. California’s own protective measure went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994, when great whites were granted a several-year hiatus from persecution. Three years after that initial passage, the fine print was modified to forever protect the species in state waters, which are estimated to support just several hundred great white sharks, according to Heneman. Population estimates, however, are not easily determined.

“This isn’t a schooling fish,” says the Academy of Science’s McCosker. “They don’t come up to breathe like gray whales. We unfortunately know very little about them and we have almost no idea how many are in the ocean.”

White Shark Cafe

Markings on white sharks’ dorsal fins distinguish the fish from one another in the same way that fingerprints are unique to individual people. Using close-up photos of sharks’ dorsal fins, California researchers with the nonprofit Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (TOPP) project are hoping to produce an accurate regional population estimate.

TOPP is simultaneously involved in a long-term shark-tagging program. Salvador Jorgensen, a research associate with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University, and Barbara Block of Stanford University are currently leading the endeavor. Using satellite tags implanted with a harpoon into the base of the sharks’ dorsal fins, Jorgenson and Block have tagged over 90 white sharks off the Northern California coast since 1999. The tags remain embedded in the fish for 30 to 90 days, recording each shark’s movements and activity, before breaking off and floating to the surface where they can be retrieved. The researchers have discovered that California’s great whites very predictably linger for the late summer and fall around pinniped rookeries, such as those at Año Nuevo, the Farallons and the Point Reyes National Seashore, before departing and traveling 2,000 miles southwest to a relatively featureless swath of ocean between Baja California and Hawaii. Dubbed the “white shark cafe,” this region may serve as a breeding ground or a feeding ground; researchers don’t know.

“We call it the ‘white shark cafe’ because we are still not sure if they go there to find some food or perhaps find a mate,” said Jorgensen. “A cafe is somewhere you might go to do either.”

During their cross-ocean forays, the sharks frequently make descents to more than 1,500 feet beneath the surface, though the researchers do not know why. The sharks remain at the “cafe” for several months before coming straight back to California, often returning to the exact same rookeries year after year. Studies in the southern hemisphere have observed similar migration patterns. One individual was tracked swimming between South Africa and Australia in the course of a year.

Since 1969, scientists with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) have perched on the summit of the Farallons’ Southeast Island, studying the water with binoculars. From there, they have observed annual shark-pinniped predatory interactions at a rate of a dozen to over 50 per season. The frequency of attacks increased throughout the 1970s and 1980s, possibly in response to increasing marine mammal populations, but on occasion, following the killing of a shark at the island (usually by a fisherman, though orcas killed a 12-footer in 1997), decreased attack rates have followed. Concerned that pinniped populations could rise out of control if great whites vanished from state waters, the PRBO helped lead the way toward the species’ protection.

Meanwhile, just yards away, entrepreneurs in the cage-diving business work their own gig of introducing landlubbers to the thrill of great whites. However, companies like Shark Diving International, which boasts a trip success rate of 85 percent, walk a fine line between education and entertainment, and not everyone agrees with the merits of the local cage-diving business.

“I think everyone ought to do it at some point, because it’s such a wonderful experience,” says McCosker. “But not here. Not at places like the Farallon Islands, where there’s a long-term study in progress. There’s been such an investment of time in understanding the behavior of sharks here in their natural habitat, and it’s so important not to interfere with that. If people want to dive with sharks, the best thing to do is go to Guadalupe Islands off of Mexico or to South Africa. Thank goodness chumming has been banned, but towing around different shapes behind the boat to attract sharks is likely affecting the sharks’ behavior.”

Commonweal’s Heneman agrees.

“I think it’s unfortunate that there’s this conflict among people who all love these sharks. The problem is, there’s at least 25 years of research data out there when the sharks were not being influenced by people. Now that they are being influenced by people, we still don’t necessarily know how the diving may affect the sharks.”

But Moskito sees the business as an important form of public exposure.

“We are totally pro-shark. If we knew this kind of activity hurt sharks in any way, we’d stop. Basically, we just want to take people out and together enjoy this part of nature. We hope that we’re only helping to improve the public image of sharks.

“Anyway,” he adds, “researchers use shark decoys just as much as we do.”

All parties in this fairly lighthearted dispute are, at least, friends of the shark, and no biologist will deny that cage-diving is 10 steps up in sophistication from the thrill-seeking business of white shark sportfishing.

“We know so much better now that there really is no excuse anymore for that kind of behavior,” McCosker says.

By-catch in commercial industries still impacts white sharks, and this biggest of predatory fish still winds up in shark fin soup. Many experts believe that, while possibly declining, great white populations worldwide are in better shape than in the days of rampant recreational fishing, yet a population estimate is likely a long way off as research groups continue to gather data.

“It seems that in California their numbers are increasing,” says Heneman. “We base that simply on the number of attacks observed on seals and sea lions at places like the Farallons. Otherwise, we don’t know much about them except that there aren’t a lot.”

Moskito, who suspects that great whites are very slowly disappearing, says that nearly every shark he has observed at the Farallons has been an adult of 12 to 18 feet. Only on rare occasions do small ones appear. Those rare babies are the thrill of the season.

“The big sharks are amazing things, but I get more and more excited these days about the small sharks. It’s like, ‘Wow! These guys are reproducing. They’re surviving out there!'”

For information on cage-diving expeditions with Shark Diving International, visit www.seesharks.com.

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