PORT ARTHUR —
Someone recently asked me to recount my best ever wildlife encounter. Since I am constantly seeking them out, they are frequent but it did not take long to narrow it down to one.
Here it goes…
A cold chill ran down my spine as I entered the Pacific Ocean. I may have told myself otherwise, but that chill had nothing to do with the 56-degree water temperature. Actually, it had everything to do with what dwelt in that water.
As I documented on these pages in 2002, I was in the Farallon Islands, located off the coast of San Francisco, California. That area hosts more great white sharks than any other in North America and they are huge.
The great whites at the Farallons are in fact the largest in the world, with specimens generally ranging from 15 to 18 feet in length. Although I was in the safety of a well-crafted steel cage, I did not feel very comfortable as I gazed into the murky waters. I was frightened, but also more excited than at any other time in my life.
After all, I have longed to encounter great whites since seeing a Jacque Cousteau television special many years ago. Venturing into their lair was a dream come true.
Helping make this dream come true was Golden Gate Expeditions, a diving outfitter based in Alameda, California. I learned of their great white expeditions in early 2002, and immediately booked a trip for September. Back in the cage, the water around me was turbid with visibility no more than 30 feet. If a shark showed itself, it would be right on me before I knew it. Things were intense. Forget skydiving, bungee jumping, and other “extreme” sports.
They have nothing on entering the backyard of the largest predatory shark in the world. After 30 minutes in the cage, I got out to warm up and grab a bite to eat. Little did I know the most amazing creature I have ever seen would soon take a bite of its own.
While eating lunch at the back of the boat, I kept a watchful eye on the surfboard we were pulling behind the boat. Chumming great whites with blood or fish parts is illegal in California, so the Golden Gate Expeditions crew “trolls” for great whites with a surfboard, which, according to theory, the sharks mistake for seals.
Just as my mind was about to drift elsewhere, the water exploded with great fury. A 16-footer attacked 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.
My heart jumped out of my chest as I watched from a distance of 10 yards as both sharks jump clear of the water, all 2,000 or more pounds of them. Until recently, scientists did not consider the great white aerial attackers, but using the surfboard as bait has changed that.
“When they hit the boards they tend to come out of the water, and it’s truly an amazing sight. You have to see it to believe it,” said Lawrence Groth, owner of Golden Gate Expeditions.
On that day, I saw four great whites go airborne while attacking the surfboard.
This made me ponder two things: (1) surfers in California are crazy for surfing anywhere near white shark territory. (2) I was probably just as crazy for getting into a cage amongst them. The largest we saw was probably in the 18-foot category, while the smallest was around 14.
A small school of fish was feeding around the cage, and then they all left in a split second. Something spooked them, and it was probably something weighing a ton and sporting a mouth full of razors. I went to California to cage-dive with sharks, but left more than satisfied and truly in awe of great whites. California wisely prohibits the harvest of this slow-growing species to ensure their future.
Many things about that day will live with me forever, but most vivid is the first time I looked into a great white’s eyes. In the movie Jaws, the late actor Robert Shaw’s character talks about them having dark eyes “like a dolls eyes.” I agree.
With eyes as black and lifeless as a chunk of coal, the monster shark and I seemed to make contact, if only for a brief second. I could see no conscience or thought, just an instinctive drive to kill and survive.
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.
(To contact Chester Moore, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him on “Moore Outdoors” Fridays from 6-7 p.m. on Newstalk AM 560 KLVI or online at www.klvi.com. You can find him on Facebook at facebook.com/extremewildlife.)