Saturday, June 25, 2005

Great white shark might become history sooner than later

Odds are you probably won't, not only because the species -- also known as the white pointer and white death -- is in serious decline (despite global protective measures), but also because examples of this giant fish are only found in certain parts of the world.

One of those places is the Farallon Islands, a small outcropping about 30 miles west of San Francisco. That's where Susan Casey saw the great white -- lots of great whites.

In her book, "The Devil's Teeth" (Henry Holt), Casey describes a part of the planet few people would ever want to visit. Straddling a confluence of powerful wind and ocean currents, the Farallones are lashed year-round by some of the worst weather in the hemisphere, and the surrounding waters are littered with shipwrecks (some dating back centuries) to prove it. ("The Devil's Teeth" is a nickname for a rocky area on one of the islands, not necessarily a shark reference.)

So remote and inhospitable is the area that the U.S. military used it for explosives testing, and sunken, rotting tankers in the area slowly belch oil. Yet, Casey said, this has had surprisingly little effect on the local fauna -- above or below the water.

"So here you have these islands that just happen to be an elephant seal colony," she said. And it's those elephant seals that attract a group of white sharks each year from September to November.

An SUV with teeth

Casey's first assignment in 2001 for Time magazine gained her a strings-attached pass to the islands (federal law strictly limits public access) to observe researchers Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, whose Sharkwatch has helped shed light on a reclusive and decidedly mysterious animal. (Casey is a development editor for Time Inc., which, like CNN, is a division of Time Warner.)

Sharkwatch's lookouts sent out small boats to motor out to the sites of shark attacks to observe the animal's natural feeding habits. The information is valuable currency: Despite researchers' best efforts, few research facilities exist to monitor and study the animal in the wild.

And what is the great white? A much-misunderstood -- though certainly fearsome -- beast.
Few animal groups on the planet are as old or as well-designed as sharks, a subset of cartilaginous fish which have patrolled the world's waters for 400 million years with few changes to their current form. While early attempts on the evolutionary drawing board produced some oddities, the main assembly-line version has remained nearly identical throughout the ages -- the torpedo shape, stiffened fins and tail, underslung jaw, and an onboard sensor array on a par with that of a Seawolf submarine.

That's the basic model. The great white (which came into being perhaps 10 million years ago, around the time human-like creatures emerged on the world's evolutionary tree) is the reigning champ in its weight class. Imagine a full-sized SUV armed with teeth: three tons and 20 feet of ocean prowler.

The white shark is bigger and heavier than its first cousin the mako, and in its adult form seems to prefer a diet of marine mammals to that of its second cousin, the salmon shark (or others of its own kind, cannibalism being de rigueur for this crowd).

'I'm just a student of this'

Part of the reason white sharks are in decline is due to the morbid fascination they trigger in humans. Shark attacks bring out "Jaws' " Captain Quint in everyone, perhaps because the white shark in particular is a good reminder that humans did not come into being right at the top of the food chain.

And yet, despite the hysteria caused by shark attacks on humans, only a handful occur each year.
As Casey writes, "In any given year more than a thousand people will be maimed by toilet bowl cleaning products or killed by cattle. Less than a dozen will be attacked by a great white shark."
"I'm just a student of this, I'm no scientist or expert. I've read a lot," she said of her own background in sharkdom, which apparently was enough for her to return to the islands for a total of about three weeks over the next three years.

Sharkwatch was shut down in fall 2004, which was one reason Casey gained access -- to show what the program did. Private companies continue to offer sea excursions to the Farallones (and other San Francisco Bay Area sites) to learn about the wildlife, though nothing on the scale of Sharkwatch.

Casey's book offers a well-researched look into the history of the Farallones, the local wildlife (besides the sharks), and the messy and often violent chronicles of the humans who at one time or another saw fit to visit such an inhospitable place.

But it's the sharks that offer some of the most interesting tidbits. In one sense, they struggle to survive. In another, you wouldn't want to spend too much time near them when they're ready for feeding season around the Devil's Teeth.


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