A cage dive with California’s great white sharks

Flashback (Sept. 2002)—A cold chill ran down my spine as I descended into the cold waters of the Pacific.

I may have told myself otherwise, but it had nothing to do with the 56-degree water temperature.

It was all about what lived in the water.

I was in the Farallon Islands, located off the coast of San Francisco, Ca. home of some of the largest great white sharks on the planet.

Specimens there range from 14 to 18 feet long with the occasional 20-footer making an appearance. Although in the safety of a well-crafted steel cage, I felt a sober sense of mortality while gazing into the surrounding sea.

Yes, I was frightened, but also more excited than ever.

After all, this was a dream birthed in childhood and it was now happening in real time.

Before the dive when we reached the islands after a very rough ride across the Pacific, I asked the captain if he needed any help chumming.

“Chumming?” he asked.

“Yes, putting fish oil or blood into the water to attract sharks. I do it all the time shark fishing in the Gulf of Mexico,” I replied.

“We can’t chum here. It’s illegal to chum here in the Farallons. We might start attracting sharks to people,” he said.

A bit dumbfounded, I asked, “Isn’t that the point?”

I then went into a min-lecture of how Jacques Cousteau always had a horse carcass or a huge tuna hanging overboard and that since we paid to see great whites, some chum or at least some bait would be helpful.

“Oh, we have bait. It’s in the long box at the back of the boat,” the captain said.

I quickly walked over and flung the long box open.

“There’s no bait here,” I quipped.

“There’s just a big yellow and red surfboard.”

“That’s the bait. We’re going to pull it behind the boat and the sharks will see it and think it’s a seal,” he said.

Interesting.

The first 30 minutes in the cage did nothing to change my skepticism. Other than the surfboard getting hung up on the cage while they were pulling it like a topwater plug, nothing happened so we moved and had a bite to eat while cruising over to another spot on the island.

Just as a lack sleep turned into drowsiness, the water behind the boat exploded with great fury.

A 15-foot great white grabbed the surfboard and jumped completely out of the water. It spit out the board, then circled and bumped it again. Then another shark from below rocketed out of the water and slammed the board.

I was awake now!

“That’s the coolest thing I have ever seen!,” I exclaimed.

Someone else appropriately said, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

The captain motioned for the cage to go in the water and I realized a childhood dream was coming true. The four other people who paid for the expedition opted to stay out of the cage

“Maybe they’re the smart ones,” I thought to myself while descending into cool water.

At one point while submerged, a small school of squid swam up to the cage and swam for a few minutes. Then suddenly they bolted out of the area.

I could have sworn I heard the “Jaws” theme playing as a huge dark shadow moved through the silt below the cage, obscured but obvious that it was something living and very large. When I returned the surface, the captain decided to troll with the surf board some more so the cage was lifted and board deployed.

Within a few seconds, an 18-foot 2,500-pound monster breached the surface and destroyed the surfboard. This shark had some hang time and for a moment we locked eyes.

In “Jaws”,  Capt. Quint talks about whites having dark eyes “like a dolls eyes.”

I agree.

The monster shark and I seemed to make eye contact, if only for a brief second. I could see no conscience or thought, just an instinctive drive to do what sharks do. I was in awe.

The great white shark is nature at its purest and best, no matter how ugly or cruel it might seem to us.

Living in a world where we buy our meat from a market and live in air-conditioned homes, we humans sometimes lose touch with what true survival is all about.

The great white shark embodies that better than any living creature I can think of. More profoundly, it gives us a sense of humility.

Even though mankind has conquered everything from polio to space travel, there are still things to which we are vulnerable; sometimes, we are not at the top of the food chain.

Chester Moore, Jr.

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