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Ghosts Beneath Guadalupe

A brush with white death and a Jaws legend

Standing in the cage weighted to negative buoyancy felt like being on the moon at one-third gravity, only the hazy green cosmos was inverted, plunging between my neoprene boots (the cage floors are perforated, Swiss cheese style), streaked by cornflower blues. Depths quickly nose-dive to over 1,300 feet moving out from the island.

A churning commotion in the neighboring cage caught my peripheral. It was as if someone had dropped a giant Alka Seltzer tablet into it. When the foamy maelstrom dissipated, I saw it was Paul Shinkman, a semi-retired neurobiology professor from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dropping into the cage like a mini-disaster, legs peddling an invisible bicycle trying to correct his hopeless entry trajectory. He landed upside down anyway. The professor had logged over 55 dives in tropical places like Spain and Cozumel, but this was his first cage diving experience in cold water with 60 lbs of negative buoyancy that induces an abrupt, almost hurling, descent. “I hate diving in a wetsuit,” he said one night as we tossed back cups of Great White Chardonnay together. “I prefer warm waters, floating in neutral buoyancy.” Yet he was having the time of his life. “These people are absolutely superior, especially Patric and Tracy.” The professor’s awkward coordination juxtaposed against his erudite manner. His mind was acrobatic. His thick paunchy body was not. To our relief, he stood upright in the cage, giving Tracy the OK sign.

We waited. Ten, 20, 35 minutes went by. No sharks. I watched a long bamboo pole, duct-taped flat at the end, enter the water above us. A sharky at the stern of the boat was slapping the surface with it. “Sharks are tuned in to every sound in the water,” Patric had told us, “so when they hear something different, they want to investigate.”

Then Alan was pointing down to our left. At first I saw nothing, until part of the sea separated from itself, becoming a grey-green plasmatic specter that took on form. The preternatural girth of the animal—nine feet or so—reduced me to an awed simpleton.

No mere “Shark Week” could have prepared me for the overreaching immensity of my first carcharodon carcharias rising from below, 3,000 pounds and 15 feet of shark nearing our titanium-reinforced aluminum cage—not much comfort as my eye caught the weld repair to a strut in the cage window, a reminder of a previous trip when a shark stuck its head in and exerted about 10,000 pounds of pressure (the bars are rated at 5K crush strength), buckling the metal into scrap. No one was in the cage at the time, and it remains Patric’s first and only “mishap with these beasties” in four seasons at Guadalupe, he said. “We learned from that experience, and we dropped the aperture down by two full inches.”       

Solar vines shimmered off the great white’s back like lightning flashes as the titanic fish moved with eons of evolved efficiency. Even at first sighting I knew the design could not be improved on. Not as a cruising killing machine.

Her beauty was so overwhelming as to take away my fear. At that moment, I understood why Benchley loved sharks, and why—through conservation work, TV appearances, lectures, and nonfiction books like Shark Trouble—he spent the latter part of his life trying to defang the empire of terror he created with Jaws, which he meant as fiction, not as an excuse to go out and headhunt sharks.

The low viz, along with a great white’s notorious ability to change hues—different combinations of blue, silver, charcoal grey, sea green, and bronze—allowed the sharks to manifest like a haunting: near the surface a ways off one moment, right under the cage floor the next. The animals seemed to assemble from phantasmal mist, as if teleported from the deep. “It was very eerie,” Benchley said about this phenomenon. “You’d turn around and there would be one right there. Doc Anes, a real character who ran the operation, told us, ‘Remember, it isn’t the shark you see that’s going to get you, it’s the one you don’t see that does’.”     

Benchley nearly lived those words. “I had my hand out to touch a shark passing the cage,” he said. “Well, there was another shark following close behind that I didn’t see at all. Had she wanted to, she could have easily had a hand or an arm for lunch.”

It turned out the female great white that cage-stormed my team was “Scarboard,” named so because of the singular scars on her right flank. Scarboard is almost always observed with an escort school of pilot fish.

She is one of over 70 adult and sub-adult great whites photo-documented in these waters by Pfleger Institute for Environmental Research (PIER), headquartered in Oceanside, California. PIER is a major funding source for Mexican graduate students like Mauricio. Headed by Dr. Michael Domeier, PIER has placed over 60 satellite tags on Guadalupe sharks since 2000. Return data has revealed these white sharks spend at least half the year in deep pelagic waters between the California Coast and Hawaii, but what they’re doing out there remains elusive.

Nor is it fully understood why great whites converge on Guadalupe Island every year with the approach of fall then leave by December. There may be a correlation between elephant and fur seal migration and breeding patterns. Elephant seals are a white shark’s favorite food because of the high fat content. Young male whites, averaging 11-14 feet, first appear in early July; while larger adult females begin showing up around September. The largest shark observed by scientists and ecotour operators was 16 feet, but local fishermen have reported sharks as large as 20 feet. Both males and females are often gashed by scarring, and some have chunks missing—territorial infighting is common. “We’ve seen a lot of violent aggressive behavior among these sharks,” Dr. Domeier told me during my visit at PIER, post trip. “They’re just really mean to each other.” 

A party unleashed later that night, the result of boat fever that had settled over us after three days at sea—26 people enduring a confined space without relent. Landfall on Guadalupe Island is prohibited by the Mexican government without special permits, so divers are left to their own devices during downtime aboard ship. Beer and wine wasn’t swigged as much as it was shot-gunned. Voices reached drunken crescendo. The Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” morphed the salon floor into a retro disco—one of the divers, Alan Waltz, a DJ from San Jose, had lined into the house stereo system with his laptop’s dance mixes. The couples aboard busted some moves, and one unattached woman got lugged up enough to do a pole dance. I couldn’t keep up, beaten down by the taxes of coldwater diving. As I descended the aft stairwell to my bunk I heard the DJ shout, “Okay, now everybody do the white man’s overbite!”

My dive teammate, Ken, was the extreme junky aboard The Odyssey. The Guadalupe trip completed the Grand Slam circuit for him. Some people chase storms. Ken, 30ish and head-shaven, chases great whites. He is streetwise from pulling undercover duty in Motown’s “Southwest” gangland. His fellow officers have christened him “Shark Bait,” figuring the nickname will become a fulfilled prophecy if he keeps tempting white death. On a diving expedition in Australia off the Neptune Islands, he was only minutes inside the shark cage when a great white rushed up from below, hitting it so hard “the shark lifted the cage out of the water trying to get to me,” Ken said. “No bait was even in the water yet.” He theorizes the shark was attracted to the blood red color of his dry suit, the same dry suit he wore in our cage, until it sprung a leak (thank you, God) and he reverted to his 7mm black wetsuit.

Ken has been on repeat expeditions to “Shark Alley” in South Africa, an area between Geyser Rock and Dyer Island. It was there he witnessed a predation, when a great white bit a sea lion in half next to the research vessel he was on. “The front half swam in circles until it bled to death,” he said. He agreed with Benchley’s take that South African sharks are “all over you,” estimating that one in three sharks either bumped or bit the cage during his dives. I got the feeling he liked that sort of thing.

During a dive rotation on the second day, Ken stretched one arm then a shoulder through the cage window to touch a passing 13-foot white shark. That was when a push-pole abruptly konked him on the head—Tracy’s way of communicating, That’s a no-no. Putting a hand outside the cage is tolerated. Hanging part of your body out is not.

Patric expects absolute adherence to safety protocol under his watch, yet he exhibits the same fierceness about showing his divers a great time. For him there are two branches of shark operators. He categorizes himself with the “safe and sane shark divers,” who are bringing shark diving to the masses. Then there are the “divergent rebels who are trying to one-up each other.” Guys like Andre Hartman and Jim Abernathy. “[Abernathy] found a place to dive cage-free with tiger sharks. And, now, he’s doing nighttime diving with tiger sharks,” Patric said. “You know, if you’re in the water with an apex predator, you’re already at a disadvantage. If you’re diving blind with an apex predator known to feed at night, now you’re in the realm of the insane. And there’s a marketplace for that.” 

We only had one incident on the trip. Four-man teams were loading into the cages at mid afternoon. Tracy was helping a diver with his gear on deck when sharky crew were suddenly yelling, “Tracy! ... TRACY!!”  She ran aft, dropping down the ladder to the dive platform. It was the professor, Paul. He was pulled out of the port cage sputtering, and hustled inside the boat.

The “Acknowledgement of Risk Release” that divers have to sign for these trips includes unanticipated risks like “falling, collision, head injuries, equipment failure, striking obstruction or other persons, hypothermia, and unforeseen attacks by sharks.” We didn’t know what had befallen the professor until Tracy emerged 20 minutes later with news he was fine. I found him in the salon seated in a booth, wetsuit peeled off his upper body. He told me he had knocked his mask loose when he dropped, pell-mell, into the cage. Mask askew, one of his contact lenses floated away and he got disoriented, panicked, and swallowed some saltwater. Thankfully he came out uninjured. “They really took good care of me,” he said, spooning some of Cory’s clam chowder.

The great whites we saw averaged between 11 and 15 feet. Until our last dive rotation on the final day as the yolky sun waned over Mount Augusta, Guadalupe’s razorback 4,257-foot peak. The sea had turned docile blue overnight as the winds died. We weren’t bullied by currents in the cage and viz was 60 feet and improving. My consciousness was spilling into the big blue when a 14-foot female materialized from below The Odyssey’s hull. She passed close enough for a pectoral fin to rattle the cage bars. As she receded another great white, also a female, eclipsed my mask window. She swam beneath the cage and ghosted away.

Both sharks were hidden, but you could feel them out there. Movement erupted from the starboard. The new shark was a giantess, moving under the panga boat that had returned with Mauricio, lingering alongside it. I would have rebuked her size as some freak underwater refraction; except her body ran the length of the panga. That would make her at least 18 feet and about two tons. Mauricio, who observed the shark from above, corroborated this later.

The queen beast glided on pectoral wings, moving to the hang bait that floated just below the surface off starboard, mouth toward us as it yawned open. The upper lip crinkled back, revealing bloody gums then a bony ridge filled with layers of serrate teeth like broken razorblades. The cavernous passage to her gullet waited. She tore the bait from the line with a fierce swipe of her head and continued toward us fronting a slack-jawed grin. She moved in along the cage, taking a good look inside. Her right eye landed on me like a duel-judgment from God and Old Scratch. I was looking into an omnipotent black hole that slung me back 11 million years, where nothing was ruined.

More Stories By C.J. Bahnsen

C.J. Bahnsen is a freelance writer based in Newport Beach, California. His stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Scuba Diving Magazine. He is currently working on the screenplay for a theatrical nature documentary, Island of the Seals, to be released next year by Rio Films.

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