Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

041: Great White Shark

As summer approaches, we are all aware of the housing crisis in Avalon and the difficulty of finding year-round rentals at affordable prices. I guess it's time to talk about "The Landlord" in my column. No, not the guy who just raised your rent 20%. I'm talking about the great white shark. Both subjects make me glad I own my own home and no longer worry about paying "rent" to The Landlord. Of course mortgage bankers can also be "sharks" at times.

Let me set the record straight right away... over the past 35 years I have never seen a great white shark off Catalina, or elsewhere, while diving. I assume they see me flailing wildly underwater and swim away terrified. However, I have seen them while boating in our waters, and fishermen and divers occasionally report seeing them off the island. Years ago they were even landed and weighed on the Avalon Pleasure Pier when caught by fishers.

Great whites are responsible for most of the shark attacks on humans in California waters, primarily north of Pt. Conception. The first recorded attack in southern California occurred in 1989 off Malibu. This is interesting since white sharks are here and there are far more people in our warmer waters. However I have not heard one verifiable account of an attack on a diver in our waters. As for surfers and kayakers, your odds may be slightly higher!

The great white shark raises images in most minds that are not warranted. Much of this was created when the movie "Jaws" was released in 1975. Even prior to my arrival on Catalina in the late 60's I had a healthy paranoia about great whites. Diving in freshwater in the Chicago area was devoid of such threats so I had no worries there. After I saw "Jaws" in a theater up in Santa Barbara, I immediately stopped diving for several years. I didn't return to our waters until I saw "Jaws 2" in 1978. Scenes in that movie such as a shark going after a helicopter convinced me of how ridiculous my fears were. Right?

The white does not live up to its name since it is actually brown or gray in color. So much for truth in advertising! Usually solitary, they are found in temperate and subtropical seas but also occasionally in the tropics. They usually frequent inshore waters, especially in areas where marine mammals may be present such as sea lion rookeries and hauling grounds. Given their quick name recognition by the public, relatively little is really known about their life history.

Sightings of great whites up to 30 feet have been reported. However, the longest authenticated one was 19 1/2 feet. You know how those fishing stories "evolve." They may survive more than 40 years. Little is known about their reproduction. New-born pups are about four feet long.

Great whites less than about nine feet prefer a diet of fish (whew!). Locally, they feed on species including rockfish, lingcod, cabezon, dogfish and bat rays. Larger individuals prefer red meat- northern elephant seals, seals and sea lions. They will also attack baby gray whales on their migration north from Mexico. It is said that whites wait outside the calving and mating grounds such as those of Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio and Scammon's Lagoons for the young whales to emerge. They will also eat dolphins, porpoises, turtles, sea birds, squid, and other delicacies. Large individuals can wait a month between meals... obviously their will power is much better than mine!

Like many sharks, great whites have declined due to commercial fishing methods. It is now illegal for recreational or commercial fishers to catch them. Given the number of human attacks on these sharks, it is the great white that should be afraid of us... not vice versa.

My only experience with a large shark was the encounter with a large tiger shark while kayaking off Mexico. Friends and colleagues have had "better" luck. Jean-Michel Cousteau actually held onto the dorsal fin of a great white off South Africa and was towed by it. Fellow UCSB grad student and Cousteau associate (not to mention great white shark expert) Rocky Strong was seen on international television standing atop a whale as it was attacked by several great whites. I'd like to think I'm more sane than either of them... if not, I'm certainly less daring!

It is very rare that I dive without my video camera. I know the first time I dive "naked," I will undoubtedly have a great white pass within easy view of my absent camera. The chances of seeing one while I have my camera in hand are probably about as great as my winning the lottery (and I don't even buy tickets). I can "live" with that!

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: Great white sharks photographed by award winning
underwater photographer Steve Benavides
© 2003 Steve Benavides

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia