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Posted by . on November 25, 2003 at 21:03:41:

Great white appears to watchers on its own schedule

By DAVID BARTON Sacramento Bee
November 20, 2003

Nature doesn't operate on anyone's schedule, even at $775 a day.   That was the subject under discussion one recent weekday afternoon as a small boat with eight people bobbed lazily in the unusually calm waters around the Farallon Islands.  

We (six customers and two crew members/guides, Fred Saavedra and captain Dave Fernandes of Great White Adventures) got up at 5 a.  m.  , boarded the 32-foot boat and headed out in search of one of the world's most elusive and terrifying animals: the great white shark.  

Great whites come to the Farallon Islands, a small group of guano-encrusted rocks 26 miles outside of San Francisco Bay, because of who else goes there: sea mammals, specifically, elephant seals, mobile repositories of fat.  

Such a sight, dryly referred to by Saavedra as "a feeding event," is said to be spectacular.  

Douglas Long, who studies great whites at the Farallons as part of his work as a zoologist and biologist with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, describes it this way:

"I've seen (great whites) take apart a 400-pound elephant seal in three bites.   I've seen them attack 1,200-pound elephant seals.   I've also seen them attack and just snap the head right off; instant decapitation is a really efficient way to immobilize the prey.  " Uh, yeah.  

Which is why the six of us had decided to go out to the great whites' feeding area and don wet suits to go down inside an 8-by-5 foot aluminum cage.   We hoped to see the great whites up close.  

Great White Adventures' pre-trip release form, in addition to listing all manner of physical mishaps and damage we might suffer, listed "emotional injury.  "

So, before our departure, there were quite a few images in the heads of the passengers, one of whom, David Rowson, 41, had flown in from Coventry, England, just to see the sharks.   "I expected to see, you know, a lot of feeding going on," Rowson said.  

"I don't know what I was expecting, exactly," said Kathi Koontz, a 28-year-old sea-mammal enthusiast from Sunnyvale, Calif.   "I was expecting a feeding frenzy, but I guess I didn't know what that entailed," she said.  

Indeed, the sea was calm, and "frenzy" didn't describe the placid Farallons environment on this unusually hot, sunny day.  

Rowson had seen a shark nearly as soon as he got into the cage, which was good, because he'd gone out several days before (at another $775) and not seen a thing.   This time out, Rowson saw the shark cruise past the cage.   He seemed pleased with having visually "bagged" a shark.  

Koontz, the next down in the cage, didn't sound entirely convinced.   "I think I saw it.   .  .  .   I mean, it happened so quickly.   I saw what looked like an eye, and a flash of white.  "

Guide Saavedra was claiming visibility of 25 feet, but that was hard to judge.   Gazing through a diving mask, bubbles, the cage and lots of sea debris, it was hard to tell just how far away anything was.  

Likewise, just as Saavedra and Fernandes would casually estimate that a shark that appeared for a second or less was a "14-footer" or "maybe 18 feet," no one had a tape measure.   We had to take their word for it.  

The man who makes this experience available - apparently only through his company, at least on the coast of California - is Lawrence Groth, 39, an amateur oceanographic enthusiast and professional diver who started Great White Adventures in 1998.   Speaking later by phone, Groth said that seeing sharks in the wild is not like watching edited footage on TV: "The Discovery Channel .  .  .   edits out all the waiting, which gives people an unrealistic expectation of what they're going to see on a day trip.  "

Meanwhile, Saavedra noted, "They know we're here.   They're just watching us.  "

We took his word for it as we clambered down into the cage.   But more than being scary - particularly because, in about 40 minutes over two trips in the cage, I saw nothing but green water - it was just bloody uncomfortable.   The suit presses on one's chest, making breathing uncomfortable, and the cage itself feels claustrophobic.  

Then, of course, there's the matter of one's hands, which seem to drift outside the bars, making them potential shark food.   So, back on deck, waiting for someone else to come out of the cage and give us another turn, we started thinking that all we could hope for was a fleeting glimpse of these elegant and .  .  .   "SHARK! SHARK!"

Suddenly, as two people were climbing out of the cage, a shark rose out of the water and just about scared the snacks out of everyone on board.   It was gone as quickly as it came, but those of us looking in its general direction saw something unlike anything we'd seen before.  

It was apparently attacking one of the two decoys that GWA lets drift out behind the boat - boogie boards painted to look like seals - and even though it aborted its attack, we saw its huge, open jaws and its enormous back as it breached the surface and headed back down.   The sheer power of its thrust could be felt on deck.  

It largely satisfied our desire to experience something powerful and dangerous but safely distant.   And it demonstrated how quickly such an experience could come and go.  

As the day wore on, no one else in the group spotted a great white from the cage.   But a moment after someone else has climbed out of the cage, I caught another view of a great white, less dramatic than the first but in some ways spookier.  

Dave figured it to be "smallish," only 14 or 15 feet.   It was rolling sideways to look up at the boat.   Even though it barely broke the surfacer, it seemed to be getting a good look at .  .  .   me.  

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