Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#732: Sharks Are My Friends

Way back in early August of 1969 I was on board an Amtrak train from Chicago to Los Angeles, making my way to my new home at Toyon Bay on Catalina Island. During that trip I remember reading a book on shark attacks and experiencing some concern over the stories about a great white chowing down on someone in La Jolla. This was well before the "Jaws" scare of the mid-1970s.

All my diving up until then had been in freshwater, and much of it had been focused on vacuuming the deep diving wells of a swimming pool I lifeguarded at. Of course visibility in the pool was fantastic and I had absolutely no fear of a shark approaching me from behind. Now that would all change when I did my first ocean dive off Arrow Point on August 24th on board the Golden Doubloon dive boat. No "man-eating" sharks interrupted those dives, but a skate relative of theirs, the shovelnose guitarfish, did accompany me on my first descent.

In those days there were plenty of blue sharks (Prionace glauca) in our waters, and I'd see dozens of them out in deeper water each day. However, the first time I encountered one while submerged was out at Shark Harbor on the island's windward side about 1970. I was diving Indian Head Point looking for abalone with fellow teacher Sherman Herrick and one of our students.

As we surface swam the long distance back to shore, I noticed a strange shape swimming alongside me in the murky water. I looked ahead of me and saw my buddies and wondered "who" was in the water next to me. It moved closer and I realized it was a blue shark, possibly drawn in by the abalone I was carrying in my goody bag. It made no aggressive moves and left me with a story to tell that night in the school dining hall.

I have had a few sightings of great whites as well, but two of them were from a distance. However, after seeing "Jaws" back in 1975 and meeting a surfer who had scars across his entire torso from an "attack" north of Pt. Conception, I quit diving. During summers in the late 1970s I worked for Jean-Michel Cousteau on his Project Ocean Search (POS) programs. He knew I no longer dove, but wanted my knowledge about the terrestrial ecology of the island. Then in 1978 during a POS program, Jean-Michel saw me putting on a wetsuit and getting ready to dive. He asked what got me back in the water. I said "I just saw 'Jaws II.'" He laughed.

I did have one close encounter with a great white (Carcharodon carcharias) near the East End Quarry. I was on board the King Neptune talking with marine artist Wyland. He said he wanted to dive with me to film giant sea bass. I told him I was a jinx at that dive site, but he insisted. We dropped down and immediately came across three of the huge fish. After about 20-25 minutes, Wyland signalled he was going back to the boat. I continued my dive and when I returned to the boat, he asked "Didn't you see it?" Apparently a 13 foot great white had swum between us (behind my back).

In the summer of 2000 I had an experience that led to the creation of these Dive Dry with Dr. Bill columns. Port Captain Renzo Sampson told me that a number of soupfin or tope sharks (Galeorhinus galeus) were in Lover's Cove by Abalone Point. I went out there with my video rig and ended up filming about two dozen of these generally harmless sharks as they swam back-and-forth past me. The Avalon Bay News published a cover story about them.

I wrote that these sharks were no danger to humans as long as they were not molested. There had only been one recorded (non-fatal) attack by this species since 1580 AD. That weekend several idiots decided to go swim with the sharks and reportedly grabbed their fins and tails. In a strictly defensive move, the sharks bit several of them requiring a trip to the local E.R. If one considers these "attacks" (which I don't) that quintupled the historic record.

One other pelagic shark that I've encountered in our waters is the shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus). A decade ago SCUBA Luv used to run shark dive trips out to deep water. Blue sharks were seen most frequently, but occasionally young makos would appear. These rather skittish, erratic sharks were a bit unpredictable but I never witnessed any real aggressice behavior on their part. Sadly, sharks have declined so much in my six decades on the island, that such dives are no longer productive.

After nearly 50 years of diving Catalina waters, I still have all my fingers and toes (not to mention my arms and legs). I've dived with numerous sharks of many different species around the world. I have learned that sharks in general are not something to fear and that they perform very vital functions in our marine ecosystems. Of course I do not ocean swim, surf or paddleboard! Much safer to be beneath the surface where the sharks can see what you are. Oh, and ladies... you have nothing to fear. Sharks are man-eaters. They don't eat women!

© 2017 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Great white and blue shark; soupfin and mako shark .

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