SHARK DIVING IN CALIFORNIA

Text and Photos : Christian Fournier; View the photos on section "reportage"

The power and beauty of the sharks make them the most feared creature in the sea but also one of the most fascinating. They existed long before mankind appeared on the surface of Earth and evolved to become the top predators of the food chain. Sharks can be found in all oceans and are well adapted to their environment. Most of the sharks species are pelagic creatures : they live in the open ocean, going occasionally to the coast. There are more than 350 different species of sharks : some 25 at least are considered dangerous to men. An underwater encounter with this seigneur of the seas is always a thrilling and unforgettable experience. But sharks are not so easy to approach. It is now possible, in California, to dive and look into the eyes and mouth of an oceanic shark, from the safety of a cage.
The friendly skipper of the Golden Doubloon, Captain Greg Elliott, offers shark dives off Catalina Island. His operation started about six months ago and has always been successful. These dives are limited to a maximum of 12 divers. Non divers are also encouraged to join the trip since there is as much to see above the water than underneath. Although certification is mandatory, no particular skill is required.
The boat leaves 22nd St. Landing in San Pedro at 4 : 00 AM. Two hours later, the aluminum cage is lowered into the water. The cage is about 9 feet high, 6 feet long and 2 feet wide and holds three divers ; the bars are one inch thick and about six inches apart. The air is supplied at the surface by a Hooka (long 2nd stage) fitted on a regular scuba tank, the diver needs no tank, no buoyancy control device and no fins inside the cage, thus allowing more mobility. Two windows (ideal for photographers) can be opened and fast released in case of an emergency : the opening is after all big enough to let a shark get inside the cage !
The crew starts preparing the bait. Pieces of fish are put inside baskets and attached next to the cage. Ground mackerel is mixed with sea water and thrown overboard. The current carries traces of blood and fish oil into the open sea, creating a chum line. Sharks are always in movement and while swimming, "taste" the water. Eventually they will cross the chum line. Their keen sense of smell allows them to detect odors such as blood in incredibly small amounts. Attracted by the scent, they will converge towards the boat driven by the prospect of a good feeding. It can take five minutes to several hours to attract sharks depending on the currents, winds and sharks themselves. Very soon a school of mackerels attracted by the scent, swim around the boat.
Captain Greg gives an informative talk and a briefing to the divers. Blue sharks are the most common sharks in California. Their size vary from 3 feet to 12 feet. They can be easily recognized by their dark blue colored back, their long streamline thin body, their long snout, their long pectoral fins and a characteristic caudal fin : the top is longer than the lower part. Their smooth swim makes them one of the most gracious and elegant fish of their species. Makos, relatives of the great white, are also residents of the Californian waters. Shorter than the blue, powerful, built for speed, they are recognizable by their jaws and their erratic swim. Makos are very dangerous for men. Captain Greg reminds us that even the Cousteau divers, who are very often around sharks, get out of the water when they see a mako. But Captain Greg is prepared for such an encounter : since the mako is a hunting game, everyone will leave the boat with a delicious shark steak. Great whites do cruise in Californian waters, but are seen more rarely.
Because of their jaws and their unpredictable behavior, blue sharks are potentially dangerous but compared to the fearsome great white, they are "easy". The shark dive is not dangerous if the obvious elementary precautions are observed :
- listen and follow the instructions of the experienced operators.
- stay inside the cage.
- no arms, feet, head sticking out of the cage.
- always keep an eye on the sharks especially if the windows are open.
For additional safety, a riffle and a bang stick are kept easy at hand. During the time that divers are in the cage, the boat crew keep an eye on the sharks, driving away the boldest ones.
If conditions are right, the Captain will allow fully equipped divers out of the cage along with somebody to keep an eye on the sharks.
One hour and a half after the beginning of baiting, the first shark is signaled. Everybody gathers at the stern of the boat. It is a baby shark, two feet long. Unfortunately, it gets entangled in a fishing line, breaks it and runs away. No other shark appears in the next two hours : patience is a necessary virtue when shark diving ! Suddenly a six footer is spotted, circling around the cage looking for something to eat. Sharks do not swim at the surface but come from the deep. It is sometimes difficult to realize that they are already around the cage. Everyone is excited after this long wait. Very soon, a second one arrives. The first three divers get ready. Additional weights are put around the waist of the divers to compensate for the absence of tank and the shallow depth ; The ocean here is 2000 feet deep, but the dive only 9 feet : no decompression worries here ! After the OK sign, the first diver steps off the boat straight into the cage. The divers stay in the cage for about 20 minutes at a time.
Except for the boat, there is no fixed object to look at, everything is deep blue ; past 60 feet, lies the nothingness, the unknown. The sharks attracted by the baits swim cautiously around the cage checking on the strange creatures behind the bars. The crew above continues chumming, keeping at the same time a vigilant eye on the blues. A third shark appears from the depths. They all have the same behavior : they circle around the cage counterclockwise, go further and come back to the cage. One diver tries handfeeding them : they approach but at the last second avoid the hand with the fish. Are these the ferocious, bloodthirsty creatures so feared for centuries ? The blue sharks are relatively shy and very cautious : a blow on the nose is enough to fend them off. If hassled, they prefer to leave and look for an easier prey.
But sharks are not the only creatures to detect the scent : a sea lion gets interested too and surprisingly, swims fast towards a shark and bites it. Scared, the shark disappears. The seal has been spotted from the boat and action is taken immediately : if the seal stays, the sharks will leave. The sound of the explosion of a seal bomb in the water is enough to get rid of it without bothering the sharks which continue circling around the boat. Experiments have shown that loud noises tend to attract sharks ; this is one of the reasons why sharks are present in the waters after a shipwreck.
The chum creates confusion amongst the sharks. The smell is everywhere but they do not know where to strike for food. They circle cautiously the boat and the cage and get frustrated. Without warning, the bigger one strikes one of the bag filled with mackerels. During the attack, it closes its eyelids to protect its eyes from scraps of food. Shaking its head from side to side, it tries to rip the bag filled with fish. The crew fends it off with a stick. The shark leaves the bag but stays around.
At least four sharks in the six feet range are gliding in the deep blue waters around the cage. They disappear from sight from time to time but always come back to the cage irresistibly attracted. Frustrated, the big one makes a second attempt to the bag and is pushed away a second time. Somehow, we can read anger in its eyes. As more bait is thrown overboard, the sharks get more and more excited by the scent but they still decline food offered by hand.
On the boat, one diver throws an apple core overboard. A shark swallows it, but two seconds later, spits it out with a look of disapproval in its eyes.
Despite the cold, nobody inside the cage wants to leave : the sight is too fascinating. Unfortunately, time is running out : it is time to go back. All pieces of fish are released into the water. The cage is secured back on the boat. The trip is again a success !
In addition to sharks, the trip gives the chance to encounter other species too, sunfish, tuna, strange jellyfish, rays, sea lions… and with some luck, dolphins and whales. Sharks have a very bad reputation ; so bad that gray fish is used to designate shark steaks in the menu of restaurants. The name "shark" in French is "requin" and originates from "requiem", the mass for the dead ! But we must learn not to fear these great creatures but to respect them. Sharks have evolved for millions years to attain a near perfect design for survival. However today sharks are more often the prey for men than the other way around.
Shark diving is a unique experience that allows a diver to watch safely these magnificent creatures in their habitat, without harming them.


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