SHARK DIVE REPORT
By MICHAEL BEAR
Saturday June 23rd, 2001
We assembled early at the dock down at Mission Bay to check in and get our gear assembled. The first thing you notice while signing in is the number of waiver forms you have to fill out. A whole packet of them. Takes about 10 minutes. This is your first clue that this isn’t going to be just another dive.
After getting all our equipment, we loaded it onto the boat and began finding slots for ourselves along the row of dive tanks. You just pick a tank and slide your gear underneath the bench below and that becomes your spot for the trip. There were 8 other divers aboard. 4 youngish guys in their early twenties from San Diego, obviously looking for a ‘testosterone thrill,’ a French couple, one other guy in his thirties and me.
After we stowed our gear and began looking around the boat and chatting with one another, I noticed a couple of burly, macho-looking guys on board and I wondered which one of them would be the ‘sharkmaster’ in the chain mail suit. I didn’t pay too much attention to the slight, college aged girl with short blond hair talking with them.
The captain of the boat came on board and gave us a preliminary briefing, introducing himself and the boat and explaining where we were going to go. We were to head out to an area known as the ‘9 Mile Bank,’ about 90 minutes from Mission Bay. This was an area where the edge of the Continental Shelf sloped downward onto the Abyssal Plain in about 3000 ft. of water, where the currents brought nutrients upward from the shallower depths, bringing with them the various forms of life on the food chain that attracted sharks. He explained that the most common form of shark out here would be the Pacific Blue shark, which tended to hunt at around 1500 ft. and would have to be brought the surface with the chum (chunks of mackerel and tuna blood) they had brought on board just for that purpose. He said that in 3000 ft. of water, the boat would be unable to anchor, but would have to simply drift with the currents. So, with the briefing over, Captain Al started the boat and we were off.
The trip out seemed to go by fairly quickly. I chatted for a bit with the French couple, who had had prior experience diving with White Tip Reef sharks in French Taiti and so were not completely new to shark diving.
Time passed pretty quickly and before long, we were out on the 9 Mile Bank. Conversations trickled to a halt as Captain Al cut the engine and people began to realize that we had arrived. The Dreaded Moment! A slender guy came out from below deck and introduced himself as Perry, the videographer, who would be taking underwater video of the whole dive, should anyone be interested in purchasing a copy afterwards. Since the one available still photo camera had been rented before I had had a chance to reserve it for myself, I signed up for a copy of the video. Boy, am I glad I did!
People began milling about, checking their gear and getting ready. All of a sudden, the slender blonde girl with the short hair I had noticed earlier while boarding came out and stood in the center of the deck and clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention.
“OK, everyone: may I have your attention please? My name is Jessie and I will be your sharkmaster today.” I could see some of the younger guys look at each other in disbelieve and smirk. This slight, young girl was going to take us down to the sharks? Oh, boy…this was going to be interesting!
As she stood on deck speaking, she had a real tone of authority in her voice. One that made you realize she knew what she was talking about and it would be in your best interest to listen to what she said.
“Before chumming begins, we will lower the shark cage into the water at about 15 ft. and make a practice dive where you will follow me down and I will show you how to open the doors to the cage and how to enter and exit the cage. I will escort you down to the cage and back up. Just follow me and do exactly what I tell you and everything will be fine. The only time we have problems is when people try to be heroes and improvise their own program…” She looked pointedly at the younger guys. I noticed they were not smirking any more.
Jessie went on to explain that after each person had completed a practice dive down to the cage and back, the chumming for sharks would begin and she would put on her chain mail suit and escort each one of use down to the cage. It was impossible to tell when the first shark would show up, she said. The soonest one had ever shown up was BEFORE chumming had begun and the longest they had waited was 5 hours. So, sort of as a lark and, to help pass the time, they would take bets on when the first shark would show and the winner would get some tickets to Scripps Aquarium. Then, lunch would be served while we waited.
So, we all suited up, began to get ready for the practice dive and the cage was lowered into the water. After getting all my gear on, I got on the fantail of the boat and waited my turn. 3 other divers were ahead of me. After they had gone down, it was my turn. I found myself checking the water, just in case. There weren’t supposed to be any sharks yet…but you never know!
Finally Jesse surfaced and gave me the high sign: Follow me. I grabbed a hold of the yellow rope connecting the cage to the boat and began my descent down to the cage.
The cage was suspended only 15 ft. below the surface, but in seemed much further away, hanging below us in the blue green abyss. We were in 3000 ft. of water and the visibility had to be over 60 ft. I felt that sensation you get in an elevator that’s descending too fast as I made my way hand over hand down the rope. If we dropped anything here, over the abyss, a mask, a fin, a knife, it would be gone. Irretrievable. Ignoring the unpleasant sensation in my stomach, I gripped the rope and followed Jessie to the cage. She opened the door for me and I had to bend my head to get in, but I managed. Then, she closed the door behind me and gave me the OK sign, meaning ‘are you OK?’ and I returned it. There I was: in the cage with 4 other divers. It was a bit tight, but we were OK. It was barely big enough to accommodate us all. I noticed there was a spare scuba tank and regulator attached to one end of the cage. That was good to know.
After about 5 minutes, she escorted us all back to the surface one by one and we climbed back onto the boat. I thought the practice idea was a good one: we now had a taste of what the shark cage was like and what the procedure would be.
Shortly after boarding, lunch was served and the chumming began. One of the other divemasters on the boat began cutting up whole mackerel into pieces and putting them into a bucket. Next to him was a bucket of what looked like dark blood, which is exactly what it was: tuna blood. After cutting up the mackerel, he began throwing chunks of it into the water, along with occasional splashes of the tuna blood. I could see the mackerel pieces floating gently down into the blue depths. How long would it take? We could only wait and hope that it wouldn’t be 5 hours. Off the starboard side of the boat was an underwater speaker lowered down to about 5 feet that would be broadcasting the sound of fish in distress which would radiate down into the depths and activate the sharks’ Lateral Line sensory network: prey in distress—lunch time!
We were each given rather lackluster sack lunch consisting of a submarine sandwich, potato chips and an apple, as well as free sodas, but I don’t think anyone’s appetite was very strong. Everyone was struggling with the inevitable butterflies in the stomach, whether they showed it or not. I took a few bites out of my sandwich and put it back in the sack. I suddenly felt like a condemned man the night before his execution. Who could concentrate on food at a time like this? The reality of the situation began to sink in: we were actually going to go in the water with real sharks…this was no joke. Oh, man…we must be out of our minds, I kept thinking.
Just about now, Jessie piped up, asking us to begin taking bets as to when the first shark would show up. Bets were taken on 15 minute time slots…2 people went ahead of me and bet on 15 and 30 minutes. I raised my hand and put myself down for 45 minutes. The betting went on until everyone had made his or her call.
Now, the waiting began. I went halfheartedly back to my sack lunch, pulled out the chips, began munching and peered anxiously over the side of the boat into the water: nothing. Just deep blue nothingness. The French guy was standing next to me and we chatted for a while, resuming the conversation we had started earlier, about his experiences diving in French Taiti and off oil rigs in Santa Barbara.
The next thing I knew, Jessie was cheerfully calling out: “OK, who had the 45 minute time slot? Bear, was that you? Congratulations! You won 2 tickets to Scripps Aquarium! Way to go!” I looked at the French guy in disbelief: the sharks were here already? Uh, oh.
I looked over towards the starboard side of the boat. People were pointing into the water.
We dashed over to the side and sure enough, looking over the side of the boat, we could see the sleek, gray, bullet like forms darting beneath the surface of the water about 10 feet below us. THEY were here. The moment had arrived. I felt a distinct tightening in my stomach. I looked over at the French guy’s girlfriend. She looked distinctly pale and uneasy.
Jessie immediately came out on deck and said, “OK, guys, this is it! Start suiting up! I’m going to go down to the cage and begin feeding them by hand to get them used to our presence and then when there are enough of the around, I will come up and give you the signal to follow me and I will escort you one by one to the cage, OK? “
“Oh, and by the way,” she added, “IN CASE a shark gets in the cage with you…? It has happened on rare occasions… Don’t worry about it: just grab it like a football with your hand behind its head and push it out the cage, OK?” And, with that, she began happily donning her $9,000 chain mail suit. She was in the water a few minutes later.
“Just” grab it like a football? We all just looked at each other in disbelief. Several people who had been looking slightly pale before were now turning various shades of green. They hadn’t mentioned anything about sharks getting in the cage before. I felt my esophagus tighten even more and I swallowed hard. OK: NOW I was nervous!
As I finished putting on the rest of my wetsuit I peered over the side of the boat: I could see at least half a dozen of the gray bullets darting back and forth just beneath the surface. God, this is insane, I thought. I can’t believe we paid money to do this!
Getting my tank and gloves on, I noticed there were three other divers ahead of me on the back of the boat, so, taking a deep breath, I decided to take my place beside them, to make up the first set of 4 divers into the cage. As I sat down I noticed the diver next to me was the French guy’s girlfriend. She was hyperventilating and looking even paler than before. Well, at least I was not the only one who was nervous! One of the other divemasters came over and laid his hand on her shoulder, reassuring her that she didn’t have to go in if she didn’t want to. She said, no she would be OK, she just didn’t want to
be in the cage. Too claustrophobic. Oh, great, I thought. What if she freaks out down there, when we’re all in the cage? Jeez…this is getting intense. Finally, though, after a few minutes and some deep breaths, she calmed down a bit and nodded that she was ready to go in. Captain Al spoke into the one way radio earpiece that Jessie had to tell her that the divers were ready. A couple of minutes later, she surfaced, flashing the prearranged “OK” sign. The sharks were down there.
She looked at the French girl. Ready? Ready. Into the water and they disappear into the depths beneath a trail of bubbles. I’m next. Oh, boy. Don’t show you’re nervous, I think. It will spread to the other divers. As I looked into the water just in front of me, I could see the sharks. There were dozens of them now, darting this way and that just 20 feet or so below me. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest…
It seems like I had only sat there a few seconds when Jessie surfaced again. She’s come for me this time. She gives me the OK sign and I return it and she makes the beckoning gesture. Follow me. Oh, man. This is it. Putting my regulator in my mouth and taking a deep breath, I grabbed the yellow rope and slipped into the water, hoping not to make too big a splash and attract the attention of the sharks below.
As I drop into the 3000 ft. deep blue-green abyss below, a feeling of unreality overtakes me: this can’t be happening. This is insane. I look below me: there’s Jessie, making her way down the rope. She looks back at me. Am I coming? My system is flooded with adrenaline now and with just the rhythmic hissing sound of my regulator and a pounding pulse in my ears, I begin descending the long yellow rope down towards the cage. It’s then that I see them: there must be a dozen of them flitting around just below the cage. Then I look around: they’re EVERYWHERE. Off to the left of the cage and to the right. Gliding effortlessly and gracefully through the water. Cruising for a while in a straight line, then suddenly banking away at the last second, as in some sort of amazing underwater ballet.
I forced myself to concentrate on going hand over hand down the yellow rope—boy, that 15 feet to the cage had to be the longest 15 feet of my life! As if in some sort of nightmarish optical illusion, it seemed as if the further down I went, the longer the rope became…it seemed to lengthen as I descended. Must be the adrenaline, I tell myself.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I reached the cage, where thankfully, Jessie was already waiting with the cage door open for me. I eagerly grabbed the inside and pulled myself in, first my head and then my fins, being careful not to get caught on anything. Jessie closes the door behind me and swims towards the right front side of the cage.
After settling into the cage next to the French girl, I try and focus on my surroundings and concentrate on getting my breathing under control. Jessie swims around to the front of the cage and begins unlatching the 2 x 3 ft. ‘windows’ in front of each one of us, so we can peer out. Lowering these windows also gives an opening for the sharks to enter the cage. We have been told to punch them in the nose if they try and enter. Great. I look over at Jessie: she has swum around to the right side of the cage and is reaching over and taking something out of a container. It’s a mackerel. She glides forward until she is just about 5 feet in front of us and begins hand feeding the sharks.
They’re whizzing by her at high speed now, smelling the fish. She holds out her chain mailed hand with the mackerel in it and waits. Suddenly, from the left, a sleek Blue about 3 feet long begins a high speed run at her from about 10 feet away. As she calmly floats there, hanging in the abyss, the shark hurtles past, snatching half the fish from her hand and streaking off. Then, another one, seeing it’s safe, darts in and tries to snatch the rest of the fish from her out stretched hand, but this time, she doesn’t let go. The shark grabs the fish in its mouth and tries to pull it away, but Jessie keeps her hold on it. She and the shark are locked in a tug of war. The Blue begins shaking its head back and forth furiously, trying to break free with the piece of fish, but Jessie won’t let go. I can see the gills of the shark working , opening and closing as they pump water in and out…an eerie, secondary eyelid, like that found in cats, milky white and opaque, closes over his eye as he struggles to free the fish from Jessie’s grasp. Finally, she lets go and he breaks away with his fish, darting right in front of us as he zooms off into the distance.
Whew! What a scene! I look over at the French girl next to me: she is shaking her head, unable to believe what we have just seen. I’m hoping she’s going to be OK and not hyperventilate and freak out in the cage. Jessie reaches over into the bucket again and pulls out another fish, ready to do battle again.
Our fearless sharkmaster now swims directly in front of our now open cage with the fish in her hand. The Blues are everywhere now: darting and zooming by, to the right, left and below our cage. She has started a feeding frenzy.
She holds out her hand again with the fish in it and a Blue comes up from below this time. We look down and watch it emerge from the abyss: a blue bullet headed straight for Jessie. In a flash, the shark has his mouth on the fish and once again, Jessie refuses to let go and the shark begins shaking its head back and forth frantically to break off a piece. As the shark and Jessie tussle over the fish I notice she is calmly and slowly swimming her way over to where we are. She going to bring the shark over and provide a close up photo op for the third diver in the cage. Oh, you’ve got to be kidding, I think.
Jesse maneuvers the struggling shark until she and it are about 2 feet right in front of us. The third diver leans out of the opening in the cage and begins clicking away with his camera. Pieces of mackerel are flying everywhere as Jessie and the shark struggle. They are now directly in front of us. The French girl begins to recoil a bit and starts backing into the rear of the cage. It’s now or never, I think. Jessie and the shark are now struggling 18 inches right in front of me. Her mailed arm is about 6 inches down into the shark’s throat. I know the ‘business end’ of the shark is occupied and it can’t hurt me, so in spite of myself and my pounding heart, I reach out and gingerly touch the tail as it thrashes in front of me. Even through my gloved hand, the skin feels rough to the touch, like sandpaper. I immediately pull my hand back into the cage, unable to believe what I had just done. Then, I realize: that’s what our sharkmaster was giving us the chance to do with her remarkable courage: overcome our fear of these amazing creatures. She had brought the sharks up to us for a reason. So we could see. They aren’t after us: they’re after the fish.
It was a turning point: the moment I touched the shark, I began to feel calmer and not so afraid. My heart was still pounding but I no longer felt that the sharks were a threat to us. They were not trying to harm any of us: they were merely feeding on the fish that were being provided. Not once had they made any threatening moves to any of us, including Jessie. It was a revelation.
Jessie now began to remove her arm from inside the shark’s throat and pull it out, leaving the fish inside, so the Blue could pull away and be on about his business. She looked over at us and even through her mask I could see her eyes were twinkling, as if to say: Aren’t they amazing?
I looked over at the French girl and she was beginning to come back from the rear of the cage, satisfied that no sharks were going to get in with us. She appeared to be calming down a bit.
I look over to my left and notice that the videographer, Perry has been quietly filming all the time. Excellent. All this is on tape…great!
We settle back into the cage for a while, waiting while Jessie goes back to get more mackerel. I notice my breathing has calmed quite a bit and I’m relaxing now.
After a while, we notice that Jessie has not reappeared from the side of the cage with her mackerel. We look around only to see that she is in fact in back of the cage, behind us. Mmmmm…what’s up with that? I wonder.
Then, I notice Perry, the videographer, has also retreated behind us. Why is everyone retreating behind the cage? I look over at Perry. He is pointing down and towards the front of the cage, far below us. I turn around and look down into the abyss. I see nothing. I look back at him with a questioning look. What is it? I wonder…He is now pointing more forcefully now: LOOK!
I turn back and peer into the blue abyss below us. Still nothing. Then, slowly, I see it: emerging from the bluish gloom: the unmistakable, sinister form of a Mako Shark, the larger, more menacing cousin to the Pacific Blue—the blunt snout, with the mouth half open, full of nasty looking teeth--coming straight up towards us. Makos are larger and more aggressive than the smaller Blue sharks and indigenous to this area, growing up to 12 ft. It is a vision straight out of movie, the way he just seemed to literally materialize out of the blue background, looming larger and larger as he made his way straight towards the cage at an alarmingly high speed.
Now, I feel fear again. This is no joke. This is no 3 foot Blue you can feed by hand. Hence, Jessie’s strategic retreat behind the cage. This fellow looks to be at least 6 feet long and in a very bad mood. All eyes in the cage are riveted on him now as he approaches. I think of how stupid we were to open the cage windows. It’s too late now: we can’t be reaching outside the cage to close them: there wouldn’t be enough time. The menacing form continues his inexorable high speed approach. The French girl begins shrinking back to the rear of the cage again and so have I, I realize. I think, crazily, if he tries to get in, I will punch him in the nose, but one look at those teeth, all at a different angles, quickly dissuades me from this idea. He is getting larger and larger as he approaches up from the gloom below. How close will he come? Perry is now on top of the cage, video camera whirring away, not about to miss this shot. Jessie is now directly behind us. I turn to see her gesture for us to crouch down, something none of us need to be prompted to do! We crouch towards the bottom on the cage, hoping to make our profiles lower.
He keeps gliding up towards us until he is about 15 feet away from the cage, and suddenly, he turns away, and disappears back into the gloom from which he appeared. Just like that and he was gone. Whew! We all slowly resume our normal standing positions and look around anxiously. Where did he go? We all look around, and see nothing but the now familiar Blue sharks still darting about all around us, hoping for more mackerel from Jessie. He was gone, just as suddenly as he had appeared. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief and Jessie came around from behind the cage and resumed feeding the Blues.
Apparently, he was simply curious as to what was going on and was investigating. He reappeared about 15 minutes later on the far, outer edge of where the Blues were feeding and we kept a wary eye on him for the rest of the time we were down there, but he never approached again. He was content to simply circle and watch from a distance.
Jessie later told us she was merely beating a sensible, strategic retreat in the face of an animal known for coming up behind divers from below. She knew her sharks and knew when discretion was the better part of valor and retreated to a safer position. None of us blamed her. He could bite right through chain mail suits.
Towards the end, just as our air was beginning to run low, we looked up to see a truly remarkable sight: silhouetted against the sunlight streaming down to us below, was a Mola Mola, or sunfish, a very bizarre looking fish resembling something out of a sci-fi novel. About 5 feet from tip to tip, a Mola Mola almost completely spherical, looking like a giant head with 2 eyes and no body and only 2 tiny little fins, one at the top and one at the bottom. You can’t see it and not wonder how it manages to ever be hydrodynamic enough to swim without toppling over; but it does. Another amazing sight in the open sea.
Finally, after a couple hours, we surfaced, in awe of both these amazing predators of the sea as well the courage of our sharkmaster, who went out of her way to show them to us in their natural habitat.
It was a truly unforgettable experience that will remain with me for some time. Until the next time, that is!
©2002 Michael Bear