Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

121: Meeting the "Landlord" Part 1

Santa Claus is coming early to my house this year, and he isn't bringing the black coal and switches I probably deserve! Somehow I got on the "nice" list (or was it "naughty but nice?"). The most important "gift" is a visit from my friend Xiaoyan who is coming all the way from Tokyo to experience an American Christmas and New Years, dive with me in the kelp forests, and explore the island. We had tried to schedule several diving trips in the past year, including one to the Red Sea. However our schedules never coincided until now. I've already received another major "gift" which I alluded to in a previous column, the chance to finally see "the landlord" live and up close. No, I still own my own home. I'm referring to the landlord of the undersea world... the great white shark.

I've dived the waters of Catalina off-and-on since the late 1960's. During that time I have never encountered a great white underwater. They are present off Catalina, but have never posed a problem for divers, swimmers or surfers that I'm aware of. I have seen them a few times from boats, and even once from a kayak while rounding the backside of the West End. Those divers whose stories I trust indicate that when the landlord is sighted in our waters, they are usually heading away from the bubbles emitted by our regulators.

Two weeks ago I received an early morning e-mail from my old friend Packy Offield. He asked if I would like to join him on his boat for a week long trip to Guadalupe Island to dive with and film the great white sharks there. Although I had planned to get my new DVD ("Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis") ready for sale that week, I couldn't turn down such an opportunity! So the new video won't be ready in time to fill the stockings of billions of my fans this Christmas. It looks like I'll remain a starving marine biologist for another year (hard to believe as I keep cinching up my weight belt). However, a chance to get some footage of great whites for my future release on "Sharks and Rays" was a fantastic opportunity!

Divers wanting to see great white sharks usually think of going to South Africa or Australia. Yet Guadalupe Island is home to a large resident population of them, and is relatively close to us. This Mexican island is located about 250 miles south of San Diego and 200 miles off the coast of Baja California. It truly is an oceanic island, created by volcanic processes and subsequent metamorphic and sedimentary activity. Its geology is spectacular, and trying to interpret what one sees in the rocks is a real challenge. The "underlying" rocks are clearly exposed all over the island because there is almost no significant vegetation on this "rock." Why? The large herds of goats that were left on the island in earlier years have destroyed the plant life there. Had the Catalina Conservancy not removed the feral goats here, our island might have looked like Guadalupe in a few decades.

The trip was part of a research effort to study these sharks sponsored by the Pflueger Institute for Environmental Research (PIER). PIER scientists would be observing and filming the animals and darting the sharks with radio tags that allowed their movements to be tracked by satellites using GPS and GIS (geographic information systems). These are the same tools I use to study the dynamics of Catalina's kelp beds over the past century, so their work was especially interesting to me. It was through such tagging and tracking efforts that scientists learned these sharks travel much longer distances than previously thought. The sharks tagged off Guadalupe Island in the past have been observed out near the Hawaiian Islands.

We left Newport Beach early one morning and stopped in San Diego to fill the bait tanks with Pacific sardines. These would begin a food chain leading up to the landlord. The sardines would be used to catch albacore or yellowtail to serve as bait to draw in the great whites. A very simple example of the flow of life, matter and energy through the "mutual eating society." We arrived at the north end of Guadalupe Island before midnight. The Polaris Supreme, the San Diego boat chartered by PIER to provide nourishment and the shark cages, was there along with Tom Pflueger's boat Hana a'pa. We set our anchor and drifted off to sleep with images of large sharp teeth gnashing through our dreams.

The next morning we were up bright and early. The three boats side-tied together and the two shark cages were deployed, one to the stern of our vessel (the "Kelsey Lee") and the other to the Hana a'pa. I checked the cages out before they were placed in the water. They were constructed of thin aluminum tubing with relatively large holes (good for photography but not good if a small white wanted to poke its nose in to see what was edible in this glorified sardine can). I heard that a great white had gone right through one of the cages the previous year... not very reassuring. The cages were about four feet wide by ten feet long and about 10 feet deep... tight quarters for up to four divers, especially with cameras. Each cage had an air supply system provided by four hooka-style regulators with long air hoses connected to two SCUBA tanks. This allowed up to eight divers in the water at a time. There were about two dozen divers, so we entered the cages in shifts.

I decided to stay on the boat for the first shift. No, I wasn't getting cold feet... I just wanted to film some topside footage first. I shot sequences of the crew baiting floats with yellowtail and albacore to attract the sharks, and the first shift of divers entering the cages. One of the first was Dr. Guy Harvey, the world renown marine artist, underwater photographer/videographer and scientist. Guy was along to take video and stills of the sharks for a new TV series "Profiles of the Deep." Packy's son Chase and his friend Phil were also among the first to enter the cages. Others included the research team from PIER.

When the air supply ran low, the crew would tap the top of the cage to signal to the divers it was time to change air. Some of the divers got out at this point, and I had already suited up to be ready to enter when the time came. I must admit it was a little unnerving to step off the boat's swim ladder onto the top of the cage, knowing that one slip might place me in the open water next to one of the sharks. I've never been good at surfing, but managed to "hang ten" safely until I entered the cage and was handed my underwater video housing.

I put on the 20# weight harness and ankle weights worn to keep me stable inside the cage, grabbed the regulator and descended. It didn't take long since the cage was only about ten feet deep! I looked out to see the faint outlines of the baits about 15-20 feet from the cage. The visibility was pretty poor compared to the 100+ feet PIER had on a previous trip to Guadalupe. I felt very comfortable within the cage and wasn't concerned about my safety at all. Then I heard it... the infamous music from the movie "Jaws" (or a reasonable facsimile given my poor musical abilities). That movie made me quit diving for several years after I saw it. I didn't go back in until I saw "Jaws II" (which was utterly absurd). Finally I was going to see the landlord up close and personal. The first shark emerged out of the murky waters and headed over to the cage... (to be continued, maybe).

© 2004 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.

Shark cage affixed to the stern of the "Kelsey Lee," divers inside the other shark cage, a diver
in my cage looking for the landlord, female great white passing cage with scars from mating.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2004 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia