Years ago, I was tightly circled in the water by a great white shark. Repeatedly.
I have this on good authority, as it was witnessed, and not just by sometimes-prone-to-hyperbole Steve, but by divemasters and crew on board our boat.
Thankfully, I was blissfully unaware, until I was quickly plucked from the water. Landing in the bottom of the zodiac, I heard:
“Look! Over there!”
Craning my neck around, I was stunned to see, at close range, the towering dorsal fin of a sizable shark.
I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up. This was an unusual weekend, in every way. Starting with our location, the rarely dived and remote Farallons Islands, 27 miles from San Francisco and visible from there on clear days. Also known as the “Devil’s Teeth” and “Galapagos of California,” these jagged granite islands have a storied history of human predation, well recounted in Susan Casey’s gripping The Devil’s Teeth, A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.
Today, Great White Adventures offers one day cage diving excursions to view white sharks for $775. SF Bay Whale Watching and other outfits offer more affordable whale watching day excursions to the islands. To my knowledge, there are no diving operations in the Farallons. Even when we went, we knew this was a rare offering. Our trip was one of the last charters offering diving.
On a dive trip to the Channel Islands, we became friendly with Ruth and Jason, a couple of avid divers from the Bay Area. They had dove the Farallons before and raved about the richness of the protected waters, a National Marine Sanctuary.
So, we all signed up for one of the last charters, a 2-day trip over a weekend. Signing up involved, in addition to the usual releases about the risks of diving, a special separate 2 page additional release devoted to the risks of being in the water with white sharks.
Once on board, the special instructions and precautions continued. We were to slip as quietly as possible into the water-no giant strides and big splashes simulating a sea lion on the surface. We were to ascend under the shadow of the boat, avoiding ourselves being a silhouette on the water’s surface.
Saturday went off beautifully. It was sunny, the water a gorgeous blue, and the color and abundance of life on the sites we dove were superb. The boat operation itself was a little rough. Diving, especially in cold water, stimulates the appetite tremendously, so we were astounded coming into lunch a little late that there was but one piece of pizza left for us to share. The cook had evidently underestimated the quantity of food necessary to satisfy a boatload of hungry divers, huffing “Some people took more than one piece!” Imagine that, hungry divers eating more than one piece of pizza!
The other passengers included a crazy-haired guy with one wandering eye, and a “Dr. Demento” T-shirt. Striking up a conversation with him was a dead end, as he dismissed our enthusiasm for Channel Islands diving with a wave of his hand.
“Too f—ing easy, MAN!”
He was memorable, not only for the first impression, but he was comically involved with the unfortunate events of the following day. This Sunday morning shaped up to be nothing less than EPIC. Conditions were favorable to dive a usually undivable underwater pinnacle. It was sunny and calm. The visibility was so clear we could see the shadow of the pinnacle 80 feet below the water’s surface. Two by two, the divers descended the guideline leading to the pinnacle’s peak.
Steve and I were the last to enter the water. We descended towards the pinnacle, but never reached it.
Halfway there, the underwater recall siren was triggered. Divers understand that there is a possibility of an underwater recall, but most have never experienced one. Instructions are to stop what you are doing, and safely come back to the boat, or at least to the surface for further instructions. What circumstances would trigger the siren? Well, a boat losing an anchor, on fire or sinking, or a diver accident/emergency, or some other unsafe condition (zombie apocalypse).
As Steve and I slowly ascended to the surface, our minds were racing, trying to guess the nature of the emergency.
Slowly, we drifted up to our starting point, at the stern of the boat. Steve hit the swim ladder first first. I remained down below, at about 15 feet depth, waiting for him to exit. Normally, a diver removes his fins, then climbs the ladder with fins in hand. Steve was instead instructed “DIVER, OUT OF THE WATER NOWWWW!!!” He somehow climbed the ladder with fins still attached. I’ll give you his account in a moment.
Just as I started towards the ladder, the water over my head was rent by sounds of a motor, directly overhead, spinning tight circles, around and around. I had no idea what was going on, but obviously, I couldn’t ascend into the path of a boat. So, I just stayed where I was, until finally, the boat’s circles gradually widened enough for me to ascend.
From there, it was but a second from when I poked my head above water to the men maneuvering the zodiac scooping me out of the water bodily, to the “Look! Over there!” and the shark fin.
Steve, safely on deck, gave the following account ” As soon as my head broke the water, I saw one of the divers, a heavy guy who we hadn’t met, being hauled out of the water by all the available crew. He was unconscious, with foam coming out of his mouth and nose, blood coming from his ear. His wetsuit was partially off. I scanned his body for missing limbs and intestines hanging out, but saw none. Good news, as I’m a radiologist, not a surgeon. From the swim deck, a crew member was screaming at me to GET OUT OF THE WATER, NOWWW!. I did somehow with fins on and looked back expecting to see Marie climbing the ladder. Not the case; she was behind the boat and the fin of a giant great white was veering towards her. The great white was doing casual circles around Marie’s bubbles and I’m thinking not good, not good at all! A small zodiac with several crew were already on the water after rescuing the unconscious diver and were now turning their attention to Marie and the shark. They were circling Marie’s bubbles and trying to elbow the shark away with the commotion and engine noise. It seemed like an eternity, but was probably less than a minute or two when Marie’s head broke the surface and a second later, they had her on the deck of the zodiac. She then saw the great white dorsal fin. About this time, the other divers started to surface, first one, then another, spotting the shark, still near, but losing interest in us.”
As it turns out, the shark was not why we were summoned back. It was probably an innocent bystander.
Unbeknownst to all but two divers, another drama had unfolded below. “Dr. Demento”, as he will forever be known, had been paired with an older, heavy diver. They were both “singles,” traveling without a dive buddy. This older guy was full of stomach and didn’t appear in the best of shape. He also, apparently, was a terrible navigator. He had a habit, we learned later, of using a caving line in lieu of navigation skills, affixing to the starting point of a dive and would simply “pull his way back home”.
Although unconventional, I suppose this technique had worked for him before. This morning, he became hopelessly ensnarled in his own line, and began struggling, trying to free himself. This must have been some struggle, because he apparently lost a fin and mask in the process. He is purported to have hyper-inflated his buoyancy control device in an effort to break free. He shot dangerously fast to the surface, in an uncontrolled ascent and arrived there unconscious and ashen.
When he breached the surface, one of the deckhands sounded the recall alarm. Moments later, the shark fin broke the surface and headed over to investigate the diver.
In a flash, the crew was in the zodiac and off to rescue the diver. He was plucked from the surface and ferried to the dive boat where Steve saw him being hauled up to the swim deck.
Ruth’s head broke the surface at the swim ladder. She, seeing the shark, shrieked with giddy delight.
The diver in distress started fluttering his eyes with oxygen administration, but was unable to give an account of his accident. Steve, hovering nearby in case needed to give medical help (not wanted or needed), heard the following exchange:
Divermaster: “What happened down there?”
Fat guy: “Wamirrahhhhh”
Divemaster (to Dr. Demento): “You! You were his dive buddy! What happened down there?”
Dr. Demento: “What? Huh? Man if was F___ING AWESOME, MAN! Great viz, sun rays, fish and that sh-t!”
Divemaster: “Not the dive, your dive buddy! What happened to him?”
Dr. Demento: “Oh him? He got all F___ED UP in his line, man. He was like all terrified and sh-t. And he’s just like coming apart and goes adios to the surface, man! But the diving was f___ing awesome, man!”
Divemaster: “Shut up! And get out of here!”
Meanwhile, the other divers on the boat seemed oblivious to the diver in distress, who pinked up and looked remarkably better after half an hour on oxygen. They voted amongst themselves not to return to shore for medical evacuation, but instead to do the next dive as “He seems OK now,” and it was such a rare and perfect day to be out. They were outvoted by the captain who made the call to pull anchor and return to a waiting ambulance and decompression chamber.
It was a memorable trip. Though many years ago, it is still etched clearly in my mind. Years later, I finally did a white shark trip at Guadalupe Island in Mexico, where I was able to see up close and photograph the feared and toothy predator of lore, from behind the confines of a metal cage. The white shark images in this post were all taken at Guadalupe, about a day’s boat trip southwest of San Diego. For a vicarious video experience, here’s a clip: https://vimeo.com/105452146. For more on white sharks in general and Guadalupe Island, here’s a link: https://aperturephotoarts.com/white-sharks-guadalupe-island-mexico/
In fairness to whites sharks, we are not on their menu, they don’t want to eat us, they are not always hungry and it was probably more curious than anything. In the words of Jim Abernathy, a notable shark authority, “If the shark wanted you, it would have taken you”.