Forget Jaws, this is a real life shark tale. When you're given the advice 'if a shark comes too close, stab your buddy', you know it is a case of kill or be killed.
It starts off soft and gentle as a sea breeze, gets serious in the middle and then abruptly turns hard, brutal and nasty at the end: SH – AR – K. The word is as cold and sinister as the creature it describes. It has no redeeming features whatsoever. ‘Shark’ can only mean something horrible. We never admit to admiring sharks in the same way we admire lions, tigers or other predators of the animal kingdom. Sharks are bad news, sharks are killing machines. Why, sharks are so evil, they never sleep.
Our 50-ft boat My Desire is well kitted out, with a couple of bedrooms, two en suite showers, and a copy of Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie catalogue buried under the sea charts. I’m scared and hungover, and strangely turned on by the “exotic all-in-one open cup vinyl playsuit” on page 63. Our boat breaks down before we’re even out of San Diego harbour so I pick up the catalogue and sneak off to the head. It may be the last pleasure I ever know.
I scrutinise the faces of the other divers I’m with, like I do with the faces of all the other passengers when I get on a plane I know is sure to crash.
Seven of us will dive, but surely we won’t all be eaten, only some of us. Which of us will be the victims? Well, not Paul our expedition leader, because he’ll be wearing an 18-pound steel mesh suit. Tracey from South Dakota looks like a good bet, because he seems to be a bit of a loner and has a girl’s name. By a quirk of fate I could have done without, the other two men are, by coincidence, pathologists. That means one of them is bound to survive so they can carry out immediate post mortems on the bits of limbs and torso they are able to recover from the water.
One of the pathologists is accompanied by his girlfriend, the other by his daughter. I think the girlfriend is a definite goner, because she’s nervous and fidgeting all the time, and I can just see her dying in some ridiculous fashion like getting her air hose snagged on the latch to the cage door because she’s been freaked out by getting some water in her mask. As for 12-year-old Annie, she’ll survive, but only at the expense of seeing her dad being bitten in two as he bravely tries to protect her. That only leaves me, and I’m bound to survive, because I have to write this feature…..
“Remember,” says Paul, “if a shark attacks you, the best method of defence is to swim away as quickly as possible. Humans can swim through water a lot faster than sharks can swim through shit.”
This starts the ball rolling. One of the pathologists, Chuck from Virginia, pipes up: “I thought the best way was to dive with a buddy. And make sure he’s a slower swimmer than you.”
“No, no,” says Tracey. “Just take a knife down with you. And if a shark gets too close, stab your buddy.”
“SH – AR – K. The word is as cold and sinister as the creature it describes. It has no redeeming features whatsoever. ‘Shark’ can only mean something horrible.”
While our skipper is below deck trying to fix the engine, I swap the lingerie catalogue for a scrapbook full of magazine clippings about shark diving. I learn the following:
There are 368 known species of shark.
The recognised man-eaters are the Great White, Bull, Tiger, Oceanic White Tip and Mako sharks.
Experts are still undecided about whether or not to class the Blue (the shark we expect to be seeing in a few hours) as a man-eater also.
There have been two recent incidents of shark attacks off the Californian coast. The sharks involved were Blues.
The annual worldwide average of shark attacks is 50, including 10 deaths The chances of being killed by a shark are one in 300 million.(These odds are fine if you’re driving across the Gobi desert during a drought, but are significantly shortened for people, like us, who would be voluntarily diving into the middle of a shark feeding frenzy in the Pacific)
Sharks can smell blood from a mile away.
In the old days, sailors used sharkskin as sandpaper.
Faced with a choice of several divers, an attack-minded Blue shark will go for the smallest(I eye 12-yr-old Annie smugly).
Finally, there was an old Far Side cartoon of a huge shark that had smashed its way through a cage and had a distinctly well-fed look on its face. It was now greedily eyeing a diver in another cage. Both cages bore the sign: “Don’s Discount Shark Cages.”
The engine fires into life, and at last the Californian coast starts receding into the haze. At this moment, while I can still see land and there are lots of other fishing boats and pleasure cruisers around us, this all feels as routine and unthreatening as a ferry across the Mersey. But within an hour California has slipped completely from view, and the last fishing boat is just a speck on the horizon. The sea is as smooth and motionless as glass. Suddenly, it all feels very lonely and scary.
We were originally headed for a point 23 miles out to sea, but that plan has been scuppered by the engine problems, so we’ll now be stopping seven miles short. We won’t be dropping anchor because the sea bed is 2,000 feet below us. This is called “blue water”, because all there is to see under it is a lot of blue and absolutely nothing else. Until the sharks turn up.
Paul is showing us a video about different types of shark, but when it gets to the bit about Great Whites, he jumps up to turn the TV off, coughs and says, “Er, we’ll watch the rest of this on the way back.” Is there a chance of us bumping into a Great White down there, I ask.
“No,” says Paul, and I’m praying he’s not going to spoil it all by saying something else, but too late, he does: “Not really, anyway. Whites are mainly coastal water sharks. They feed on sea lions. I doubt we’ll get one this far out.”
What about Tigers, Bulls or Hammerheads?
“We did see a Hammerhead once, but they are mainly tropical water fish. Right now, the water up here is too temperate for them. What we’ll see is Blues. This is their water. And we might attract a Mako. We saw one at the end of our last dive.”
How will we be able to tell them apart?
“Easily. You’ll see the Blues get out of there as quick as hell. The Mako is bigger and meaner. He’s a first cousin of the White. In fact, give me a White over a Mako any day. Makos are much faster in the water.”
I eye 12-year-old Annie again. Yep, she’s definitely the smallest among us. I want to make sure I’m in the cage the same time as her.
At the start of the day, we’d each had to sign a liability waiver form. The key paragraph read:
“I fully understand that I have chosen to be involved in an expedition whose primary intent is to attract sharks close to me while I am in the ocean. I know that sharks are considered to be both dangerous and unpredictable. I am keenly aware that in situations similar to the expedition I am choosing to take part in, people have been bitten by sharks. Sharks’ bites can be fatal, or in other cases severe irreparable injury can occur.”
San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions is the oldest outfit of its kind in the States. Paul claimed they’d only had two divers bitten by sharks. One was making a video while holding a piece of bait between the bars of the cage. Against Paul’s advice, he’d had his eye pressed up close to the viewfinder, so that he had no peripheral vision, and never saw the Blue that came in from the side and took a chunk out of his arm.
“But he got some great footage for a souvenir.” said Paul.
Another diver had his fingertips sticking out through the reinforced plastic mesh that covers the cage.
“Sharks are attracted close to the cage by the electric field it creates. This one Blue took a nibble out of his fingers.”
We cut the engines at one o’clock. While the crew prepared the cage, Paul gave us our dive briefing. Up until this point, I’d assumed we’d strap on our air tanks, climb into the cage and then be lowered into the water, just like Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Jaws. I was wrong. Very wrong.
“Sharks are bad news, sharks are killing machines. Why, sharks are so evil, they never sleep.”
“We’ll lower the cage now and then have a practice dive before we start chumming. This is to make sure you all feel comfortable with your equipment and your weights, and are happy about unlocking the cage door, getting into the cage and locking it after you. I will escort you down to the cage one at a time. Do not enter the water until I signal you like this. I will not signal you if there are any sharks nearby.
“Once in the water, do not waste time making adjustments to your mask. Just grab hold of the tether line and get down to the cage as fast as possible. You can sort out your mask and other equipment once safely inside the cage.”
There was worse to come.
“Once we are all back on board and satisfied with everything, we’ll start chumming. Sharks usually show up after anything from one to three hours. We’ve had only two no-shows in 10 years. Once the sharks show up, we’ll keep feeding them shark bait until they feel comfortable around the boat and cage. Only then do we suit up and dive. I will put on my steel mesh suit and escort you to the cage, exactly as we’ve practised.”
Whoa, hang on a minute there, fella! What’s all this about not diving to the cage until the sharks are nice and comfortable? Why can’t we go down to the cage first, and make sure we are nice and comfortable before the sharks turn up? But the answer was obvious really, I’d just been wishing it wasn’t true. We had only 40 minutes air supply in our tanks, and would use all that up just waiting for the sharks to arrive. By diving after they’d arrived, we were guaranteed a full tank’s worth of aquatic capers.
I made sure I was first in for the practice dive. If my thrashing about was going to attract any sharks ahead of schedule, I wanted to make sure I was out of the water by the time they turned up. The cage had been sunk to 15 feet under the water and was about 100 feet from the boat. Following Paul’s signals, I jumped in, grabbed for the tether line and hauled myself down to the cage. The sight below sea level spooked me out. It was deep space without the stars, blue instead of black. There were no fish, no coral, no points of reference at all, just a metal cage tied to the end of a piece of rope floating in the middle of it all. The dive down was completely disorientating. There were no clues as to which way was up, down or sideways. Only on the return journey, with the shadow of the boat to aim for, did things return to normality.
Leaving the cage, I felt myself being yanked back by the scruff of my neck. I’d caught the top of my tank under the tether line. Paul helped me disentangle. I’d have to remember that later: kick out a couple of yards on the level before shooting for the surface.
There was a sweepstake for the time of the first shark’s arrival. I drew the 15 minute period commencing at 3.30, two hours from now. Paul was dangling a plastic container dotted with holes like a big pepper pot just below the surface of the water. Blood and entrails oozed from the holes. He also threw out pieces of chopped up mackerel at regular intervals. As we drifted with the current, feasting seagulls marked out the curve of blood and guts on the water. The sun was out, but I was feeling chilly from the dive. Plus I was nervous as hell. I had five dollars in the sweepstake.
While three of us at a time would be in the cage, Paul would be outside in his chainmail suit trying to attract the sharks as close as possible. But what would happen if a big Mako turned up?
“My suit gives me adequate protection from the Blues, but a Mako is a completely different story. I’d get in the cage with you. Or I’d lie on top of it and be camouflaged by your air bubbles, making like I’m a big barnacle.”
The others were talking about Great Whites, one which had eaten a honeymoon couple off the coast of Australia, and another which had been hooked not too far from where we were now, a 17-footer weighing 4,000 pounds. I tried not to hear them.
Three-thirty. The next fifteen minutes could make me $30 better off, but that would mean a shark had turned up and we’d have to dive. I felt sick in my stomach at the prospect. What the fuck was I doing here? I was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean waiting for a load of sharks to arrive so that I could jump in and try to outswim them through a cloud of blood and guts and bits of mackerel to the safety of a cage at the end of a bit of rope. Then when my air started running out, I’d be expected to do it all over again in the opposite direction.
By four o’clock fear had given way to frustration. Not only had I lost five dollars in the sweepstake, it looked as though I’d come all this fucking way to spend an afternoon looking at a flock of seagulls eating all our shark bait. Then at 4.05 it all kicked off.
It was Annie who noticed the grey shape looming in the water first. It was about 20 feet beneath the surface, and getting bigger and closer. By the time its fin broke the surface, we could see it was a six-footer. It snapped at the bits of fish and bait whirling around it, thrashing its tail in excitement. It disappeared under the boat for a minute, and we thought we’d lost it, but soon it was back, close enough for me to reach over the side of the boat and touch it. If I’d wanted to.
Then someone pointed to a black lump in the water about 100 yards away: “We’ve got a sea lion too.”
This wasn’t good news. Contrary to popular belief, sea lions are vicious bastards who love a good scrap with a shark. Paul had seen them chomping at sharks’ fins before today.
“Look, there’s another one!” someone shrilled. Another shark, this one slightly smaller, had appeared.
“OK, let’s get going,” said Paul. “They may not stay around long if that sea lion comes over for a look.”
It would be sunset in about half-an-hour. The light was already fading. We all wanted to be the first in the cage while the visibility was still good underwater, so there was a mad scramble to put on our fins and tanks. We all appeared to have momentarily forgotten there were two potentially man-eating sharks circling in the water between us and the cage. The sight of Paul being helped into his steel mesh suit reminded us that this would be no ordinary recreation dive.
“I’d assumed we’d strap on our air tanks, climb into the cage and then be lowered into the water, just like Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Jaws. I was wrong. Very wrong.”
A broken fin strap meant Tracey, Annie and her dad beat me into the cage first. For 20 minutes, me and the others strained to see what was happening beneath the stream of air bubbles that marked where the cage was. Then Paul popped up with Tracey. Paul kept taking peeks under the water as he waited for Tracey to haul himself on board. After one more look all around him, Paul gave me the signal to jump in. There was something about the expression on his face that made me hesitate for a moment.
“Come on, hurry up!” he yelled.
I jumped. The first shock was the temperature of the water. It was a lot colder than it had been during the practice dive. The second shock was the view under the water. It was no longer an empty void. A huge shoal of mackerel had been attracted by our bait, and were billowing all around the cage. With Paul just behind me, I kicked down towards the cage. As I got nearer, I caught a glimpse of a shark on the other side of the cage, gliding through the cloud of fish, nonchalantly snapping at any bits of bait that floated past. Where was the other one, I wondered.
I took my position in the cage and made sure the door was locked behind me. Then Paul opened up my “window”, leaving a 12-inch-square hole for me to point my camera through.
“Make sure your head and camera fill the window at all times, otherwise a shark might get in,” Paul had warned us earlier.
Now Paul was floating about five feet in front of us, outside the cage, trying to coax either of the sharks closer with bits of bait. Below my feet, through the metal grille of the cage, I could see thousands of feet of nothingness. With Annie and her dad alongside me, and an emergency air tank propped in one corner, there wasn’t a lot of room to manoeuvre inside the cage. It was easiest just to keep looking straight ahead, through the window.
The larger of the two sharks, both Blues, came wheeling past, but kept its distance. Just when it looked as though it would slip into the gloom, it did a U-turn and brushed past Paul. An entourage of parasitic fish and assorted other hangers-on went by with it. Then it circled out of sight behind us. Paul handed me the piece of bait he’d been using. He was leaving me to look after it while he escorted Annie back up to the surface and brought down one of the others. Gee, thanks Paul. I suddenly felt very conspicuous, 15 feet under the Pacific with two hungry sharks circling nearby and several pounds of juicy, fresh mackerel in my hand.
When Paul returned, he had more success with one of the sharks. It slid by so close he was able to grab it by its tail. The shark twisted its body and snapped at nothing in particular. Then it wriggled free and accelerated away.
During one of the changeovers, I found myself completely alone in the cage. Paul had left me holding the bait once again. I checked my air pressure gauge: still over 2,000 psi. Surprisingly, I hadn’t been gulping down my air as fast as I’d feared. I was feeling remarkably calm. Then the larger of the two sharks skirted past, and this time it definitely gave me the eye – a big, black, unblinking one to be precise. Then, with a contemptuous flick of its tail, it was gone.
Paul came back down and signalled it was time to return to the boat. He did a 360-degree sweep with his eyes and beckoned for me to leave the cage. I remembered to duck under the tether line before heading for the surface. I kicked upwards slowly and steadily, enjoying the sensation of my ears popping.
Back on board, Paul still had the strange expression on his face that had made me hesitate before jumping in. Had something happened down there?
“You know when that big shoal of mackerel suddenly got all agitated and split into two? Well, there was something out there, definitely. There’s only one thing that could have made them act like that.
“There was a big shark out there, watching every move we made.”