- Remember, it isn't the shark you see that's gonna get
you," said Doc Anes. Doc's cherubic face was in shadow under his wide-brimmed
hat, but I could sense his mischievous grin as he steadied one of the two
cages at the stern of the boat. The water was rough - a northeast wind
had been sweeping down the island for a couple of days, depriving this
bay of the shelter it normally gets from the prevailing northwesterlies
- and the cages bobbed and clanked and slammed into each other. Built like
a barrel of nails, with two Smithfield hams for forearms and a pair of
fire hydrants for legs, Doc put a foot on one cage and forced it to submit
to his will.
- He nodded to me, and I took a step towards the ladder
that led down into the cage. Looking like Shrek in a dress, I was wearing
a lovely new trilaminate drysuit (accented with zippers rugged enough for
a body bag), 40lb of lead that hung from my shoulders by chic suspenders,
a sleek black neoprene hood and a rather snazzy yellow face mask.
- The dark blue water sparkled with whitecaps, a scene
of perfect harmony, except for the smear of blood and fish guts and oil
that spread behind the boat and drifted with the tide. But somewhere out
there, cruising, agitated, tantalised by the rich scent lacing the water,
was the largest carnivorous fish in the world, one of the few predators
left on the planet that poses a genuine threat to man in an environment
in which he chooses to go. Somewhere out there - not far, probably close
by, perhaps directly under the boat - was a great white shark. At least
one, maybe more.
- I descended the ladder, and right away I was grateful
for the drysuit. The water was frigid, between 16C and 17C, but I wasn't
cold. As soon as I ducked below the surface, I located the regulator mouthpiece
and air hose that had been thoughtfully clipped at eye level to one * of
the aluminum bars of the cage. I purged the mouthpiece, popped it in, and
drew a long, easy breath while my wife Wendy also made her way into my
- The visibility was terrible, no more than 10ft; there
was no way we'd be able to see a shark, even one as big as...
- There she was, hovering perhaps 6ft away, as if she had
been waiting for us. I held my breath. She was enormous, at least as long
as a school bus. She turned and showed me her flank, and now "school
bus" wasn't adequate. Locomotive. That's how big she was, as big as
a locomotive, and...
- Hold on, I told myself, get a grip; remember that water
magnifies everything by roughly a third. I tried to do a proper measurement.
The cages were each 10ft long. From nose to tail, the shark extended the
entire length of my cage and halfway along the next, so she was 15ft long,
roughly. What rendered her gargantuan was her girth. She looked as big
around as a midsize SUV. She had to weigh two tons. Four thousand pounds.
The mother of all fishes.
- With a couple of easy sweeps of her tail, she turned
towards the cage and then turned again, moseying on by. Rays of sunlight
stippled her back with blues and greys; her belly, even in shadow, was
ghostly white. She showed us her lower jaw, studded with snaggly gripping
teeth. Her upper jaw was curled under, concealing the rows of triangular
cutting teeth and giving her the look of a toothless old codger.
- But she was no codger. This lady was in the prime of
her life. She was gorgeous, physical perfection, an animal so precisely
tuned to her environment that it had not been necessary for her kind to
evolve significantly in millions upon millions of years. She had been mistress
of her world for eons. Before her majesty, I could feel nothing but puny.
- Immediately, words from Henry Beston's celebrated memoir
The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod sprang
into my mind (if that seems preposterous, so be it; these words are engraved
on my frontal cortex, and they leap to the fore whenever I'm privileged
to be in the company of one of nature's magnificent giants): "We need
another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals... We
patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having
taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err.
For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more
complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions
of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall
never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other
nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners
of the splendour and travail of the Earth."
- The shark gazed at Wendy and me with one eye, solid black,
utterly without expression, the eye described by Peter Matthiessen in Blue
Meridian, his book about searching for great whites, as "impenetrable
and empty as the eye of God". As the shark moved on, Wendy turned
to me and made a "yes!" gesture with her fist. She was ecstatic;
this was her first genuine experience with a white shark. We had been on
scores of dive trips in our 40 years of marriage, and she'd swum with sharks
of many kinds and sizes, but never had she gone eyeball-to-eyeball with
a great white. And here, on the first dive of the first day, it had already
- As many times as I've seen great white sharks underwater,
I'm never bored or blasé. Among fish, among sharks, among predators,
they're unique, not only in appearance but in behaviour as well. They move
with a serenity born of invulnerability, with an inexorable confidence
that no predator can harm them and no prey elude them. They don't circle
tentatively like other sharks, appraising potential danger; they move straight
in and then decide if what they've approached is worth biting.
- They also feel good. As beautifully supple as they appear,
they're as hard as steel. I wanted to touch the shark's tail fin, to feel
once again that too-solid flesh. I put my arm through a camera port, a
gap in the bars of the cage, and reached with my hand for the disappearing
- Suddenly I was thrown back against the far bars of the
cage, knocked aside by a pressure wave. I saw a flash of gray and white
streak up from the gloom below, pass within inches of my outstretched arm
and lunge at one of the tuna heads that dangled from the boat as bait.
"It's not the shark you see that's gonna get you..."
- There were 16 of us, plus a crew of eight, aboard the
Horizon, a 75ft dive boat, and we had travelled some 220 miles southwest
of San Diego to an isolated rock called Isla Guadalupe. The island itself
is a Mexican seal and sea lion sanctuary, though the waters around it are
not, and it is all but uninhabited: A tiny colony of artisanal fisherfolk
live near the southern end, and they eke out a living from the migrating
pelagic fish, mostly varieties of tunas.
- Until a few years ago, nobody had bothered with Guadalupe
for anything but fishing, but then some sport fishermen wondered why most
of the big fish they were catching arrived at the back of their boats bitten
in half, and from that question a tiny tourist industry was born: great
white shark watching. Divers are a questing lot, always searching for new
places to go and new animals to see - but for a price. If lions and elephants
are among the five or six great prizes for terrestrial photographers, great
white sharks are the holy grail for underwater photographers. For decades,
however, they were out of range for all but the certifiably wealthy. Accepted
wisdom held that great whites could be photographed only in South Australia,
and a trip down and back, plus a week on a boat, could cost $7,500 (£4,000)
- With the demise of apartheid, South Africa opened up,
and great whites were discovered there along the southeast coast. (Discovered
by tourists, that is; locals, of course, had known about them forever.)
You could venture offshore in a small boat for a day and see great whites
for a very reasonable $100 (£55). Still, there was the prohibitive
- Then the word began to spread about Isla Guadalupe, a
mere 22-hour boat ride from the US west coast. For three months of the
year - September, October, and November - groups of white sharks visit
Guadalupe. (By groups, incidentally, I mean a handful, perhaps two dozen
in total. Great whites are solitary by nature and scarce worldwide in the
best of times, and these are far from the best of times.) * No one is quite
sure why they arrive on such a tight schedule or in such a regimented way.
First come the young, pre-adult males, 10ft or 12ft long, then the larger,
adult males, then the younger females and, finally, in late November, the
big mamas: adult, breeding-age females, up to 21ft long and weighing as
much as 6,000lbs.
- According to Jessie Harper, a tough and resourceful researcher
who doubles as a shark wrangler, deck hand, and all-around seaman, the
same sharks show up here every year, and one of her ongoing projects is
to develop a photo archive that lists and identifies individuals by their
scars, colour patterns and the shape and silhouette of dorsal and tail
- A curious contradiction inherent in Harper's work is
that despite the popularity of great white sharks, despite the waiting
lists of divers, scientists and photographers who are eager to join white
shark expeditions, any scrap of information Jessie or her colleagues can
gather will probably be new and may possibly be of importance. Thirty years
after the release of the movie Jaws, and despite countless studies by countless
professionals, very, very little is known about great whites.
- No one knows for certain how many there are worldwide,
how long they live, how old they are when they reach breeding age, how
many pups they can have, how far they travel. No one knows if their diet
changes during the course of their lives or if it is possible, as is now
being conjectured, that great whites learn from one another, that adults
pass information to their young - which, given an odds-on opportunity,
they would otherwise gladly eat.
- A stable population of great white sharks such as the
one at Guadalupe is, therefore, a treasure for researchers.
- For the four days we were there, Guadalupe proved to
be Fantasy Island. Never had I seen so many white sharks - 17 individuals
in all. Never had I seen sharks that were so dependable: in good weather
and bad, in clear water and lousy, the sharks were there, crisscrossing
the chum slick, charging at the tuna-head baits that trailed behind the
boat, performing magnificently for the cameras that protruded from every
gap in the bars of both cages.
- As predicted, they were all females, all big: The largest
was about 16ft long, which meant that underwater she appeared to be 20ft
long and fully capable of swallowing any one of us whole. Twice, due to
the swinging of the boat at anchor and the movement of the cages, the hanging
baits dangled directly in front of the camera ports, and twice sharks lunged
for the bait, missed, and jammed their heads inside the cage. Unable to
swim backward, panicked by the sudden imprisonment, they thrashed and rolled
and slammed the cages against the boat, and for a moment there seemed a
fair chance that one might tear a cage away from the boat and take its
four occupants out into the open, where it might... well, who knew?
- But it never happened. The crew, under Doc's supervision,
manoeuvred the cages, sharks and people with great skill. The sharks swam
free, and everyone returned from every dive unscratched, unscathed, and
untraumatised... until supper on the final evening, just before we began
the run back to San Diego.
- Someone asked, "Did you see that new one today,
the one with the big breeding scars on her gills?"
- Someone else said, "What about her?"
- "She had a hook and 6ft of wire leader sticking
out of her mouth."
- There was silence until one of the crew said, "The
other day, some of the local fishermen came by and said they'd seen a big
sportfishing boat hooked into two white sharks. They said they went up
to the boat in their panga and asked the guys to unhook, and the guys fucked
'em off. So they cut the lines. Then they took off, figuring the guys probably
had guns aboard."
- "Did they report the boat?" I asked. "Call
the Mexican coast guard?"
- "The name, home port, and numbers had been painted
over, but it wouldn't have done any good anyway."
- "Why not?"
- "Fishing for white sharks isn't illegal," he
said. "Not in Mexico. It's not popular, nobody likes it, but it's
done. A really huge jaw can bring a guy 10,000 bucks."
- With that, Fantasy Island suddenly became the island
of the doomed. These great white sharks, these exquisite examples of natural
perfection, might be wiped out within a year or two. And not just this
- Despite a few very important recent developments in conservation,
worldwide the odds remain stacked against the survival of sharks in general
and of great white sharks in particular. Having endured - indeed, triumphed
- through uncountable, unknowable cataclysms to reign unchallenged over
the oceanic food chain for scores of millions of years, these hardy apex
predators may now come to terminal grief in the greedy grip of the most
savage, random, destructive slaughterer of all: us.
- Statistics are dry, lifeless and (when applied to fish
and other animals whose populations are, or have been, vast) necessarily
approximate. Unlike dolphins and other marine mammals that come to the
surface to breathe, sharks never have to surface and thus are impossible
to count with any accuracy. Still, the current statistics about sharks
- It is estimated - and I'll say this only once because
nearly everything about sharks is estimated - that roughly 100 million
sharks are killed annually by fishermen. (By contrast, fewer than a dozen
humans are killed by sharks in an average year.) Most are killed intentionally,
but millions die as what is euphemistically known as "bycatch",
which means that they're killed while fishermen are aiming to kill something
else. In the North Atlantic alone, populations of sharks and other large
pelagic fish (including tunas and billfish) have been reduced by 90 per
cent over the past 20 years.
- Ninety per cent! When I grew up in Nantucket in the 1950s,
the sea on a calm day appeared to be carpeted by blue sharks. The dark
triangles of their dorsal fins sliced through the surface of the water,
touching ancient nerves and causing hackle-raising nightmares in all who
saw them. Nowadays you're about as likely to see a blue shark around Nantucket
as you are a unicorn.
- Long-lining and drift-netting are two of the worst, most
damaging methods used in commercial fishing. A longline is exactly what
its name implies: a line that is long, up to 80 miles long, containing
thousands upon thousands * of baited hooks that kill literally everything:
birds, turtles, seals, dolphins and sharks, in addition to the tunas, billfish,
jacks and other food fish that are their targets.
- Drift nets, too, do what the words imply, but the innocuousness
of the name disguises the carnage they wreak. Enormous nets made of strong,
thin, nearly invisible plastic filament are cast loose from fishing boats
and, buoyed by floats, set adrift with the currents to snare what they
can. They catch everything too big to pass through their small mesh. The
worst damage they do is when they are lost, when, through carelessness
or violent weather, their floats break away and the net sinks below the
surface, to drift aimlessly and kill endlessly.
- The decline in most fisheries can be attributed to a
simple fact: there are too many people in too many big, fast, efficient
boats, equipped with too much brilliantly effective new technology for
locating and catching fish, all pursuing too few fish. We're wiping out
- With sharks, however, there's an extra, odious industry
that is putting them in potentially terminal danger. It is called (again
the euphemism) finning, and its object is (how innocent) soup. No, that's
not true. Its eventual product is soup; its object is status. Shark-fin
soup has for generations been an expensive delicacy in Asia. In my opinion
it's stringy and slimy and mucusy and tasteless - but savour isn't the
point of shark-fin soup. The point of serving it, and eating it, is to
show off. In a fancy restaurant it can cost upwards of £50 a bowl,
and to serve it at a large affair, such as a wedding, is to make a loud
statement about one's wealth and success.
- Until relatively recently, shark fins were acquired the
old-fashioned way: fishermen caught sharks on hand lines, cut off the fins,
and used the rest of the sharks' carcasses for everything from oil to cosmetics,
folk medicines, abrasives and, of course, food. Sharks died, yes, but not
too many, and the entire animal was put to use. The fishery was sustainable.
- Nowadays, however, the rise of wealthy, active, mobile
middle classes in many Asian countries - especially China - has driven
the demand for such pricey items as shark-fin soup into a frenzy, and their
value has soared. No longer is it worth keeping or processing entire sharks;
the carcasses take up space that could be better filled with fins alone.
And so, huge factory ships haul in their 50 to 60-mile-long lines, cut
the sharks away from the hooks, slash every fin off every shark, and toss
the still-living animals back into the sea, there to fall helplessly to
the bottom and asphyxiate.
- Although cruelty is certainly an issue, it isn't anywhere
near as important as survival of the species. Depending on whose statistics
one consults, of the more than 350 known species of shark, roughly one
quarter of them are now, to one degree or another, endangered. A handful,
including the great white shark, may ultimately face total biological extinction,
meaning they will go the way of the dodo and vanish from the face of the
- Unfortunately, the biology of sharks is one of the species'
biggest problems. Most species are slow-growing. They breed relatively
late in life - white sharks aren't ready to breed until they're at least
12 years old - and they produce very few young. (Some species produce dozens,
but the offspring have been known to eat one another in utero.) And these
days, surviving for 12 years is an increasingly rare accomplishment for
a shark. Once depleted, shark populations take years to recover and, with
pressure on them always increasing, most simply don't. According to one
report from the Ocean Conservancy, "There is no evidence of any white
shark population recovery, even in areas where the species has been protected
for many years."
- The shark-finning industry was once limited to Asia,
but demand has caused it to spread all over the world, from Australia to
Burma and even South and Central America. I've dived in wildlife preserves
off the coasts of Mexico, Ecuador and Costa Rica and seen the bottom littered
with the corpses of finless sharks. I've seen boats full of poachers finning
sharks with no concern for who was watching, and no wonder: when we reported
them to the local authorities, we were told to mind our own business.
- Sharks have never been very high on most humans' lists
of priorities, and the reasons for this are obvious. Unlike marine mammals
such as dolphins, which chatter among themselves and nurse their young
and appear sweet and charming and very, well, human, sharks have always
had a bad rap. They look mean, and they have a reputation for killing people.
It's hard to build a constituency for an animal that may decide to eat
- On another level, popular ignorance about sharks has
been a reflection of our stupendous lack of knowledge about the ocean world
in general. More than 70 per cent of the planet is covered in water; more
than 95 per cent of all the living things on Earth live in the ocean; there
are mountains under the sea taller than Mount Everest and canyons miles
deeper than any on land. And yet we persist in ignoring the oceans in favour
of exploring the Moon and Mars. We have studied less than 5 per cent of
our water planet, and we've actually visited less than 1 per cent of that
5 per cent.
- It's no wonder we haven't found the time or the interest
to learn much about sharks. But over the past few months there have been
a couple of very positive developments. In October 2004, after years of
wrangling, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
placed great white sharks on its Appendix II list, which prohibits trade
unless a country can demonstrate that it won't be detrimental to the species.
In the case of great whites, which are valued for fins, jaws, skin and
meat, such proof is impossible. The practical effect of the listing will
be difficult to assess, but its symbolic effect is important: it demonstrates
the international community at last recognises that certain species of
shark are in danger and, more significantly, are worth saving.
- One month later, the International Commission for the
Conservation of Atlantic Tuna banned all shark finning. No one knows if
the ban will be enforceable, but at least it's now on the books.
- Certainly, the public's attitude toward sharks has changed
over the years, from hostility in the old days, to fascination during the
Jaws craze in the 1970s, to interest and, evidently, growing affection
nowadays. When a 15ft female white shark was marooned in a pond in Massachusetts
after a storm last autumn, the public was galvanised - not to harpoon her,
as would have been the cry years ago, but to save her. The drama was big
news across the country for a week, until wildlife officers finally found
a way to coax her over a shallow bar to freedom.
- And when a very young white shark, only 4ft long and
weighing just 60lbs, was saved from a California fisherman's net and taken
to the Monterey Bay Aquarium last August, attendance at the aquarium increased
by 50 per cent overnight. At first officials feared that she would refuse
to eat or would harm herself by blundering into the sides of the million-gallon
tank, but she has thrived. People have come from all over the world to
see her, and their faces and their questions express awe, rapture and affection.
- I like to think that, after thousands of years and hundreds
of generations of fearing sharks and hating them and wanting to kill them,
perhaps we're beginning to appreciate them for the magnificent animals
- As Harvard sociobiologist EO Wilson has pointed out,
whether we know it or not, we humans have a profound emotional stake in
the continued existence of sharks.
- "We don't just fear our predators," he wrote.
"We're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and to
chatter endlessly about them, because fascination breeds preparedness and
preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters."
- ©2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.