Thursday, March 30, 2006

Shark repellent gets attention from the USA

SALES of an Australian-made electronic shark repellent are expected to take off this year with its full-scale launch in the United States.SeaChange Technology, which is seeking up to $5 million in expansion capital, is preparing for a worldwide launch of its $600 surfboard-mounted device in June.

The Adelaide-based company also has beefed up its executive with the appointment of former Mitsubishi Australia boss Tom Phillips and University of South Australia chancellor David Klingberg.

Newly appointed managing director Steven Copley says SeaChange sales in Australia have peaked at an average 360 a month in the past three months due to an apparent increase in shark attacks.

"Demand is strong in Western Australia, after a SeaChange SharkShield reportedly deterred a 3.3m great white from attacking a scuba diver off Perth," Mr Copley said yesterday.

"However, shark attacks in California and Florida are by far more prevalent than the rest of the world put together."

A central and North American distributor for SeaChange devices was in the throes of being signed -- with interest from related water sports as well as the boating, fishing industries and even the US military.

Chairman Rod Hartley said a marketing manager and chief financial officer were being sought to add to the core team of six.

"Our priority is to launch our new surfboard-mounted product by mid-year once we have successfully raised between $3 million and $5 million," Mr Hartley said.

"We expect to reach break-even by the end of this (calendar) year."

Any major increase in sales would probably result in a shift of manufacturing from founding investor, Clipsal-Gerard Corp, to another South Australian electronics company, he said.

Mr Copley said the company would consider a share market float within two years, depending on the success of the global sales push.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Killing shark will destroy the natural balance of web food chain!

When Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, died last month, he had spent much of the last 20 years trying to change the image of sharks portrayed in his book and subsequent movie. He didn't create the demonic image of sharks reflected in Jaws. People had been doing that long before him. But he ended up feeling badly about it nonetheless, and devoted much of his life afterward to helping people appreciate the remarkable characteristics of sharks, and the important role they play in the oceans.

In many respects Peter succeeded, and a whole new generation of young people has become mesmerized by these spectacular creatures. Unfortunately, Peter's efforts to protect sharks, along with those of many other people, have not been enough to save them.

When Jaws was released in 1975, no one would have ever imagined that just 30 years later, many of the world's shark species would be on the brink of extinction. Scientists now estimate that over the past 50 to 100 years, 90 percent or more of the world's large predator fish, including sharks, have disappeared, victims of a wholesale slaughter that has escalated over the past several decades.

In some places, the declines have been even greater. In the Gulf of Mexico, 99 percent of oceanic white tipped sharks, the dominant predator, are gone. In the northern Mediterranean, 15 species of large sharks have been reduced to undetectable levels. Even on the world's coral reefs, which are thought by many to be pristine environments, approximately 99 percent of reef sharks have disappeared. And the Great White Shark, the seemingly invincible antagonist in Jaws, is now at risk of disappearing from most of the world's oceans.

It is now estimated that as many as 60 million sharks are killed each year. Many of these are caught by fishermen targeting other species such as tuna and swordfish, and are simply thrown back into the sea either dead or dying. But an increasing number of sharks are now being sought for their fins. Approximately 80 percent of the worldwide trade in shark fins is destined for mainland China, where they are primarily used for shark fin soup.

Once the fins are removed, frequently from animals that are still alive, the shark is often dumped back into the ocean, mutilated and unable to swim, where it either drowns or starves to death.
There are many reasons why it is imperative that we stop this wanton slaughter, not least of which is the sheer barbarity and waste of killing an animal in such a fashion and only using a fraction of its meat.

Today's shark slaughter is reminiscent of what we once did to the American bison, which were massacred by the tens of millions in the latter 1800s and driven to the very brink of extinction. These goliaths of the American landscape were often killed only for their tongues (considered a delicacy in eastern restaurants), with the remainder of their carcasses left to rot on the plains.

Just as we now understand and appreciate the role that top predators such as lions, tigers and wolves play on land, sharks occupy a critically important place in the marine food web. Like their terrestrial counterparts, sharks help regulate the numbers of other marine species, thereby keeping the ocean system in balance.

While overfishing threatens many of the world's big fish, sharks are in an even more precarious position. For unlike most fish, which produce young in large numbers, sharks begin reproducing at a relatively advanced age, have long gestation periods and produce few young. Consequently, once their populations have been depleted, it is particularly difficult for them to recover.

No eulogy for needed predators

If coming generations of children are to grow up in a world where sharks inhabit the sea in healthy numbers, dramatic steps need to be taken now, or it is highly likely that within a few short decades, many of the world's remaining sharks will be gone.

Throughout the world's oceans the killing of sharks needs to be regulated and dramatically reduced. The practice of taking sharks only for their fins, and dumping the rest of the animal, must be brought to an end. And for those species that are most at risk, killing them must be prohibited.
Some years before he died, Peter said to me that he didn't want to be the one to write the eulogy for the world's sharks. Peter is now gone, but it is not too late to prevent that eulogy from being written. However, for many species of sharks, there is not much time left.

Joshua Reichert directs the Environment Division of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Shark victim says the great white shark is not the one who needs protection!

A man who was attacked by a great white shark 10 years ago says he fears moves to protect the creatures will endanger lives.

Conservation Minister Chris Carter has issued a discussion document canvassing options for protecting what he calls "the celebrity predators of the ocean".

He says great whites are an object of fear and fascination, but there is growing evidence that the species is in trouble internationally. Mr Carter says great whites are vulnerable to drowning in set-nets and are also a target for trophy hunters.

Vaughan Hill lost his right arm and has limited use of his left hand after being attacked by a great white while he was diving for paua near the Chatham Islands on September 6, 1996.

He believes the protection of the sharks in Australia has made beaches there less safe and is worried the same will happen here.

Mr Hill says Mr Carter should be prepared to explain his decision to shark attack victims if the changes are introduced.

Options for protection include listing the species under the Wildlife Act and the Fisheries Act.
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research shark researcher, Malcolm Francis, says this would be a positive move, but would not offer complete protection. Submissions on the proposal close in early May.

Great whites are already protected in Australia, South Africa and the United States.

Port Lincoln provide signs and educational information on sharks to swimmers

SWIMMERS will now be informed when entering the water at beaches around Port Lincoln that sharks sometimes share the water.

In the first positive development for a shark education and information campaign by three mothers Katrina Wright, Kaylene Dufek and Delice Sheehy, the Port Lincoln council has installed shark information signage.

Mrs Wright, Mrs Dufek and Mrs Sheehy collected 3491 signatures calling for signs on the foreshore to advise of sharks.

Three of four signs have been put up - at Axel Stenross boat ramp, the foreshore jetty and at Billy Lights Point.

Council operations manager Craig Matena said the fourth would shortly be placed somewhere near the yacht club boat ramp.

The mothers started the campaign for shark signage and education last September and are pleased to see the signs have been installed.

"We had a lot of input into them," Mrs Wright said.

The council worked with Primary Industries and Resources South Australia on the wording on the signs, including advertising the Fishwatch number 1800 065 522, the SA Police number 131 444 and information about the White Shark habitat and behaviours in South Australian waters.

The signs feature a photograph of a great white shark and warm swimmers that at certain times of the year there have been sightings of large sharks.

The mothers said the signs are not to deter swimmers from entering the water, but to help them make an informed choice.

Mrs Dufek and Mrs Wright said they were pleased with the signs and were still negotiating the emergency system.

From the start they considered it important to have an emergency system in place with local police in the case of a shark sighting in shore.

"What we wanted was to get the signs up and have a proper emergency system in place," Mrs Dufek said.

The "World's safest beach" has a great white shark lurking offshore

The coastal hamlet boasting home to "the world's safest beach" is warning residents about a great white shark lurking offshore.

The shark is believed responsible for killing two seals in the Harbor Seal Sanctuary in separate attacks March 9. The killings were witnessed by visitors to the viewing area on the bluff above the sanctuary. One visitor also videotaped the shark swimming just offshore.

Shark warnings were posted on some Carpinteria beaches.

The Harbor Seal Sanctuary, where seals give birth to pups between October and May, is on a secluded stretch of beach in Santa Barbara County, about 85 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
The beach and waters adjacent to the sanctuary are already closed to the public during the birthing season.

Are "Shark Parks" the solution to protect the great white shark?

With tracts of the ocean as little known as Mars, discoveries of a stunning richness of life in the depths are spurring calls for more protection from trawlers, oil drillers and prospectors.

Only about 0.5 percent of the oceans are in protected areas, compared to about 12 percent of the earth's land surface set aside in parks for creatures ranging from lions in South Africa to polar bears in Alaska.

A United Nations meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil from March 20-31 will review calls to extend protected areas into the high seas to help safeguard marine life ranging from seaweeds to sharks and from starfish to corals.

Scientists say the issue is pressing because life is being found in parts of the ocean long thought barren -- in the sediments of abyssal plains on the ocean floor, around subsea mountains, deep sea corals or hydrothermal vents.

"Great attention gets paid to rainforests because of the diversity of life there," said U.S. oceanographer Sylvia Earle, an executive director of Conservation International. "Diversity in the oceans is even greater."

"We should have at least as much of the oceans protected as of the land," she said. Most existing protected sea areas are close to coasts, such as around Australia's Great Barrier reef, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands or in the Mediterranean.

"We need better international cooperation and marine protected areas are one way forward," said Kristina Maria Gjerde, an expert at the Geneva-based World Conservation Union which groups governments and environmental groups.


"Key areas for protection are deep sea coral reefs and seamounts which are being strip-mined by bottom trawl fishing," said Simon Cripps, director of the Global Marine Programme at the WWF environmental group.

Fishing fleets are trawling ever deeper international waters in search of new commercial species, like the orange roughly, as traditional stocks, such as cod or tuna, dwindle due to over-exploitation.
Unregulated fishing is by far the biggest threat to marine biodiversity because trawlers dragging nets over deep corals, for instance, may be destroying nurseries for fish.

Earle said deep-sea trawling was like trying to catch squirrels in a forest with a bulldozer.

New technologies are also opening up the ocean depths: Exxon Mobil Corp. says it can drill for oil in waters approaching 3,000 meters (9,840 ft) deep. Deep water sponges have uses in fiber optics and heat-loving bacteria from thermal vents have promise in helping produce ethanol fuel.
Yet much of the ocean remains as mysterious as Mars.

"We still can't begin to say what's down there," said Ron O'Dor, chief scientist of the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year $1 billion international effort to map life in the seas.

"We've only explored an area the size of 10 football fields of the abyssal plains," he said, referring to the flat sediments on the seabed covering 60 percent of the planet's surface at an average depth of 4 km (2.5 miles).

One recent expedition off Angola turned up more than 400 new species in abyssal sediments, mostly tiny single-cell organisms.

And only 250 of about 15,000 seamounts, rising from the plains but not tall enough to become islands, have been sampled.

Scientists went to the Arctic last year to explore two seamounts marked on charts. "We discovered they weren't even there," O'Dor said. "How much do we know about seamounts? Obviously not enough."

And scientists were stunned in 1977 by the discovery of deep sea hydrothermal vents, leaking acidic water heated by subsea magma and sustaining heat-loving bacteria, tube worms and crabs. Many more such vents have been found since.

Many experts say implementation of existing laws, drafted before the deep-sea marine finds of recent decades, is insufficient to protect the high seas -- the area beyond the 200 nautical mile territorial waters.


Yet many countries fear restrictions and experts say the Brazil talks are unlikely to resolve the tangle -- many nations say the U.N. Law of the Sea is the proper forum while the Convention on Biological Diversity should just advise.

One huge headache would be how to enforce any marine protected areas.

"A simple approach of blue-helmeted U.N. police on the high seas is never going to happen," WWF's Cripps said, adding it would be unworkable despite satellite surveillance.

Still, the very existence of a protected area on a map would allow the world to "identify and vilify" violators, he said.

Some parts of the high seas have some forms of protection.

The Indian Ocean has been a no-go area for whaling since 1979 and the Southern Ocean was added in 1994. Wrecks like the Titanic can be protected under rules on cultural heritage.

And since 2002, a U.N. convention has begun restricting trade in endangered species of commercial fish -- the great white shark, the humphead wrasse, basking sharks, whale sharks and seahorses.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

New Zealand moves towards protecting great white sharks

New Zealand is gearing up to protect the great white shark, its Conservation Minister has confirmed. Chris Carter has released a discussion document that asks for opinions on protecting New Zealand's great white sharks protection.

"Great white sharks are the celebrity predators of the ocean," said Mr Carter. "They are an object of fear and fascination, but sadly there is growing evidence that this magnificent and rare species is in trouble internationally. "In 2000, great whites sharks were listed as 'globally vulnerable' on the International Red List of Threatened Species, amid fears that accidental catch in some commercial and recreational fisheries is having a significant impact on numbers.

"Like many other top predators, populations of great whites tend to be small and lack the elasticity to withstand external pressures, such as fishing and environmental change."Scientists believe that the population of great whites in New Zealand is the same as those in Australia, which already protects the species. New Zealand fishermen do not target white sharks but do take them as part of bycatch when targeting other species.The discussion document is available to download from

Shark attack victim is opposed to protect great white sharks

A man who was attacked by a great white shark ten years ago says he fears moves to protect the creatures will endanger lives. The Conservation Minister, Chris Carter, has released a discussion document canvassing options for protecting the great white shark. Vaughan Hill lost his right arm and has limited use of his left hand after being attacked by a great white in 1996.

Mr Hill believes the protection of the sharks in Australia has made beaches there less safe and he is worried the same will happen here. He says Mr Carter should be prepared to explain his decision to shark attack victims if the changes are brought in.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Swimmer ignored siren and had a close encounter with great white shark

It was reminiscent of a scene from the 1980s movie Jaws, when a Durban man swimming at Fish Hoek beach yesterday came within a fin's length of being attacked by a Great White Shark.A British couple, who saw the incident from the shore, said the swimmer had ignored a siren alerting bathers about the lurking predator, thinking it was the sound of a train.Mary Crossley said it was quite hot and the beach was packed.

"The siren went off four times and everyone was out of the water. "He was far out to sea and beyond the buoy when the alarms went off . He thought it was a train's siren and ignored the warning. There were no lifeguards at the beach. "A shark-spotter said the shark was moving closer to the man. It was a matter of seconds and he would have been another statistic." Crossley said a group of fishermen saved the day when they launched their boat and went to save the swimmer.

"With the shark metres away, they manoeuvred the boat between him and the shark. They managed to pluck him out of the water just in time. The man is very lucky to be alive and everyone on the beach applauded the fishermen for saving him," she said. Crossley said tourists were not aware of the siren and the possible danger of sharks.

"Lifeguards are here only over weekends. The spotter told him through the two-way radio that he was a very lucky man because the shark came within a metre of him." Her husband, Paul Crossley, said more funding was needed for additional resources such as lifeguards."It is a tourist beach and that may help," he said.Last year the city council gave R400 000 to two shark-spotting programmes that have been operating in Fish Hoek and Muizenberg.

Greg Oelofse, policy and research co-ordinator for environmental planning, who helped start the programmes, was unaware of yesterday's incident. "That information has not come to me yet. But this means that the plan we have does work but some people don't know about it," said Oelofse.

Metro police spokesman Kevin Maxwell confirmed the incident: "If the shark alarm is sounded it is the duty of our personnel to get everyone out of the water and prevent anyone from entering. There was an alarm and there was a shark circling a tourist. Our staff managed to get other people out. Fortunately, no one was hurt."

Monday, March 06, 2006

New Zealand to tag more great white sharks in the name of Science

An international team of marine scientists returns to the Chatham Islands next week hoping to fit satellite tags on up to 13 great white sharks. The tags will allow the scientists to track the sharks’ movements for up to nine months.

The team is led by Dr Ramón Bonfil of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (funded by National Geographic), Dr Malcolm Francis of the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, and Clinton Duffy of the Department of Conservation.

White sharks are long-lived and slow to reproduce. They have a ferocious reputation, but their population numbers are low and have declined drastically in some parts of the world. Better information on the behaviour and distribution of white sharks will help inform management decisions about their protection.

In April last year, the same team of scientists used satellite tags on New Zealand great whites for the first time. They tagged four sharks using pop-up archival tags (PAT tags) which record information about the depth, temperature, and light levels as the animals swim through the water. The tags then detach at a pre-programmed date, float to the surface, and transmit the data via satellite. One tag detached prematurely, but the others provided unexpected results.

All three sharks travelled great distances to tropical regions. “We knew white sharks turned up in the tropics on occasions,” says Dr Malcolm Francis, “but to see all of them travel there was a surprise. If anything, we thought they’d move closer to mainland New Zealand.”

This year, the team plans to follow the sharks for a longer period, programming their tags to stay on for up to nine months (rather than a maximum of six). They are keen to check whether other sharks make similar long distance journeys and whether any of them return to the Chathams.

The team hopes to tag eight sharks with the PAT tags, and to tag five sharks with the more sophisticated ‘SPOT’ (Smart Position Or Temperature Transmitting) tags. This will be the first time SPOT tags have been used on sharks in New Zealand waters.

The SPOT tags are attached to a shark’s dorsal fin and have an aerial. They will transmit data to satellites whenever the shark’s fin breaks the surface of the water. “During their long distance journeys, the three sharks last year spent 60-70% of their time in the top few metres of water, so we’re quite hopeful that we can get almost real-time information about shark movements from the SPOT tags,” says Dr Francis.

To do the tagging, the team are again working with Tim Gregory-Hunt, Chatham Islands cage diving operator and skipper of Tessa B. PAT tags can be attached using a long pole. SPOT tags are more challenging because the shark has to be caught and partly hoisted out of the water onto a ‘cradle’ or stretcher at the side of the vessel. Water is continuously run over the shark’s gills, and a vet monitors all parts of the operation. Dr Bonfil has successfully used SPOT tags on sharks in South Africa.

The great white shark population is on the rise in Australian region.

Whyalla has recorded the highest number of great white shark sightings around the Eyre Peninsula since the White Sharks Count project was launched in 2005.

Seven white pointers have been sighted off of Whyalla.

The first was spotted in October with the most recent spotting on January this year only 1km off shore.

The seven Whyalla sightings were also the largest sharks spotted in the Eyre Peninsula count.
The largest shark was estimated to be nearly seven metres long (17 to 20 feet).

In October 2005 a four metre long (14 feet) shark came as close as 200m from the jetty and another at the foreshore sandbar the same size in the same month.

The most sightings were recorded in October with three in Whyalla and one at Cowell, Point Drummond and Coffin Bay.

A total of 26 great white sharks were sighted in the Eyre Peninsula during the year - the next greatest number of sightings in Thevenard with three sharks spotted early last year.

So far this year seven sharks have been spotted, five in January, including two in Whyalla and two in February.

The Conservation Council's White Sharks Count project aims to increase knowledge of white shark movements and identify "hot spots" and was launched to the public in October last year, however records for the project date back to February 2005.

The White Sharks Count project has been set up as a network of local contacts across the region, so that people can report sightings to within their own town or area.

Conservation Council Marina programs manager Chris Ball said so far the project had been a "huge success".

"Clearly we need much more information over an extended period of time to be able to get a really good picture, but his has been a fantastic start," Mr Ball said.

Mr Ball said some of the sightings could have been the same shark, but the project was more about trying to identify where the sharks were rather how many there were.

Whyalla White Sharks Count contact person Paul Mazourek said he did not think there were more sharks in the area now - rather just that people were reporting sightings.

"In my opinion we don't really have increased numbers (of sharks) in the water here," Mr Mazourek said.

"But because of this increased interest in this species people actually think that there's more sharks."

Nor did Mr Mazourek believe the higher sighting numbers meant there were more sharks around Whyalla than Port Lincoln.

"There are more down in Port Lincoln - they have a different marine environment in general.

"Port Lincoln have got an open water environment while we have a closed sea environment ... it dictates the conditions down here."

Will New Zealand help in preventing the extinction of the great white shark?

Despite a summer of sightings the great white shark is on the brink of extinction and if the minister of conservation has his way they'll soon be protected in New Zealand waters.

But across the Tasman where they are already protected some claim it could be a fatal error.
Pete Cronshaw from 20/20 reports on a kiwi fisherman who for 40 terrifying minutes faced the gigantic jaws of a great white off a Northland beach.

"I thought I was gonna die, I thought I'm never going to see my wife and kids again, that's it, it's over," says Paul Morris.

When Morris first saw the shark his initial reaction was "wow, this thing is so magnificent".
However Morris was less impressed when the shark turned around and swam directly towards the side of his kayak.

"I's going to eat me."

Morris reached for a knife to cut his fishing line, but in his haste to jettison the catch he stabbed himself in the knee.

"I've got fresh blood on the boat, I'm bleeding in the water and there's this massive shark."

Morris, who describes the incident as "the scariest 40 minutes of my life", was a kilometre away from the safety of land. He says that as he slowly paddled for the shore the six metre shark stalked him the entire way in a harrowing game of cat and mouse.

"I bawled my eyes out the whole time and just out of sheer fear dropped my bowels and bladder and everything."

He escaped the jaws of the ocean's most terrifying killer but says life has never been the same.
"I went from being super confident and invincible... to this person that's constantly shaking and nightmares and cold sweats and stuttering."

Clinton Duffy, who is the keeper of New Zealand's shark attack records, says if the shark had decided to really have a go and attack, Morris would be lucky to survive.

Nothing in the ocean carries the same sinister menace as the great white. And that's part of the appeal for Duffy who reckons time's running out for researchers and that the evidence suggests the great white is fast headed towards extinction.

"We know very little about most sharks... a decade ago we knew almost nothing about great white sharks. I guess in some respects it's got [the movie] Jaws to thank."

But times change and conservationists, including minister Chris Carter, now believe it's the great white that needs protecting, not people.

"Yes they're dangerous, but they're also beautiful, they're also part of this world and we need to look after them," says Carter.

However in Port Lincoln, South Australia, where the great white's have enjoyed nearly a decade of protection, the beaches are deserted and a spate of recent attacks has got the locals calling for a cull.

A great white killed Dave Buckland's best friend's son in 2000 and his younger brother Paul in 2002 and he wants to see their numbers reduced.

"I think there's too many of them, they've been protected for too long."

Buckland has one of the most dangerous jobs in Port Lincoln - abalone diving. He stayed out of the water for six months after the attack on his brother and now uses a special shark proof cage when he's working.

He says great whites are an increasing threat.

"Last year we had the most sightings by abalone divers in one year, ever. And that's a pretty good indication to me that they're on the increase."

Buckland has a blunt warning for New Zealanders.

"The government will end up with blood on their hands if they start protecting them... when someone gets taken on a main beach or something and they do nothing about it... I'm sure the community will jump up and down like they have here in South Australia."

But the risk is minimal according to NZ's conservation minister.

"The chances of being attacked by a great white are less than being struck by lightning - we are talking about an infinitesimally small risk... there's more risk of walking out onto a busy road and being struck down by a car," says Carter.

But Port Lincoln cray fisherman Jake Heron knows three men who have been killed by sharks. And he isn't just mourning the loss of three mates. The keen surfer has also had a lucky escape of his own.

A great white attack last September left Heron with horrific wounds to his leg and arm and a hunger for pay-back.

"Everybody says you're entering their world... it's their domain. It's not their domain... it's our domain... who runs this planet?... they're fish."

Carter says while he would feel sympathy and sadness for the family over the loss of a loved one he doesn't think that is a sufficient argument to say "don't protect this species".

However, marine biologist Andrew Fox says that the threat of a shark attack in New Zealand waters is very real. Fox is based on the Neptune Islands in the Southern ocean, an area crawling with the great white's favourite food - New Zealand fur seals.

Despite this he will happily jump in the water - in a cage that is.

"You've got to get over that fear factor... it's just fear of the unknown. As long as you're staying inside the cage there's no danger. Amazingly a lot of people want to get out of the cage but we don't let them."

Fox is more at home around monster sharks now but says that every day they surprise him.
"We're still learning so much about them."

So what does the future hold for great whites in New Zealand's waters?

"I want young New Zealanders in future generations and older New Zealanders to be able to go out on a boat and see if they're lucky, because they are hard to see, a great white swimming in the ocean," says Carter.

But contrary to what the minister says, you don't have to go far to find one of these sharks - a three metre great white was hooked in the Manukau harbour just a couple hundred metres off the runway at Auckland international airport.

Duffy tagged and released the "Manukau monster" in the name of science. He claims they're not as dangerous as popular mythology makes them out to be but reiterates that they are one of the ocean's biggest mysteries.

Meanwhile Paul Morris is still trying to come to terms with his encounter with a great white. He'll bear the psychological scars for life but he holds no ill feeling towards the huge fish.

"I don't blame the shark for what it did... cos at the end of the day when we go out there, we're in their world."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Swimming with exciting experience!

JUST after 6 a.m., I awoke to the sound of someone chanting my name. Peeling back the side curtain of my upper bunk, I was greeted by the wide-awake face of Alan De Herrera, trying to roust me from the cubbyhole where I had been holed up for the last 10 hours. It had been a rugged 22-hour steam by boat from San Diego, about 215 miles away.

Ten-foot swells had resulted in a stomach-churning side-to-side tottering, but somehow, overnight, hunger had replaced nausea. The Mexican sunrise anointed me when I ascended the stairs. Less than a mile away, I could see Guadalupe Island, host to one of the world's largest aggregations of great white sharks.The reason I was here.While we ate, our vessel, the Odyssey, maneuvered to the northeastern, leeward side of the island, anchoring about 200 yards off an area nicknamed "Shark Heaven."

We had signed on with Patric Douglas, a veteran of shark-diving operations and the chief executive of Shark Diver, which offered this five-day, live-aboard package. Guadalupe, 19 miles long and five miles across at its widest point, is a pinniped sanctuary: Northern elephant seals, Guadalupe fur seals and California sea lions congregate at rookery and haul-out points around its perimeter. Abundant yellowfin tuna and yellowtail also attract sport fishermen.

In 1998, long-range fishing boats out of San Diego began reporting great whites attacking their catches.Word spread like chum.Keep hands inside the cageTRACY ANDREW, our dive operations manager, laid down the rules with disarming authority: Never stick any part of your body outside the cage, and never make any sudden movements that might trigger a "predator-prey reaction," she said at the dive meeting.

Tracy would monitor us from the dive platform. Another "sharky" would man a push-pole during rotations. "If a shark were to come in too close to the cages, we push it off," Tracy said. "It doesn't harm the shark. We just give them a little extra nudge to keep them from entering the cage, because sharks don't have a reverse mode." I was the only noncertified diver which was why Patric had emphasized taking a pre-trip introductory scuba course. "Some people get claustrophobia or panic," he had told me.

"The last thing you need to worry about is breathing through a regulator with great white sharks swimming in your face."Noncertified divers are allowed because you don't go deeper than 10 feet (the height of the cages) and breathing is done through a "hookah," a regulator on the end of a long hose connected to a shipboard air compressor.We were divided into two teams — Black and Blue — of eight divers per group. Each team was further halved into A and B, designating starboard and port cages, respectively.

Teams would alternate one-hour dive rotations. There were 11 crew aboard (usually there are nine) and 17 divers, including Mauricio Hoyos Padilla, a 28-year-old shark researcher from La Paz, Mexico. Patric has been an ardent sponsor of Mauricio and other shark researchers. "Something truly special is happening at this island," Patric said as we waited for the seas to abate enough to dive, "and I believe it's absolutely incumbent for any eco-tour operator to give back or channel funds into any sort of research going on.

But without direct engagement with the Mexicans, we will lose this site."Guadalupe is protected as a marine biosphere reserve, but so far little has been done to manage or police it. Trophy hunters and fin raiders prowl the waters. "One set of great white fins on the open market today is worth upwards of $25,000 — $5,000 a fin, plus jaw," Patric said. I was assigned to Black A Team, along with James Mott, a guitarist in a punk band called Casket Gasket from Farmington Hills, Mich.; Ken Steil, a young Detroit police officer; and Alan, a friend from Fullerton who is a nature filmmaker and was here for the second consecutive year.

His intense shark footage had persuaded me to come see them for myself. At 1 p.m., we were cleared to dive. The two cages were winched off the starboard side and carefully worked toward the stern. Hang bait, 5-gallon bucketfuls of tuna parts, and powdered chum — made from dried fish and blood meal — were tossed into the water. I wrestled into my borrowed wet suit, then the head-shrinking hood, the boots and gloves, and I felt as though a black python had me in a goodnight squeeze.

Down on the dive platform, a sharky threw a 60-pound weight harness on my shoulders, cinching the belt snug while I fought off waves of claustrophobia. "Show me how to purge your mask," Tracy said, making sure I was ready for my first open-water dive. I obliged, then sat on the dive platform. We timed my entry between rogue waves and surges. I thrust the regulator in my mouth, threw my legs into the lurching cage, and — KER-PLOOSH!

When the bubbles cleared, I was standing on the cage floor. Tracy's blurred face peered down at me. Her hand was underwater giving me the OK sign, which I returned. I got tossed around a bit trying to fight the currents until I realized the idea was to stay loose, knees bent in a boxer's stance. Visibility was 25 feet, well shy of the usual 80-plus feet. A plankton bloom was turning the blue water green and dusky. The rest of Black A Team already stood in shark-watching position, camera-wielding sentries each facing a different direction.

Standing in the cage weighted to negative buoyancy felt like being on the moon at one-third gravity, except the hazy green cosmos was inverted. We waited. Ten, 20, 35 minutes. No sharks. Then Alan was pointing to our left as part of the sea separated from itself, becoming a gray-green plasmatic specter that took form.A cruising killing machineNO "Shark Week" on Discovery Channel could have prepared me for the overreaching immensity of my first carcharodon carcharias rising from below, 3,000 pounds and 15 feet of shark nearing our titanium-reinforced aluminum cage.

Sun shimmered off the great white's back like lightning flashes as the titanic fish moved with eons of evolved efficiency. Even at first sighting I knew its design could not be improved on. Not as a cruising killing machine. The low visibility, along with a great white's notorious ability to appear to change hues — different combinations of blue, silver, charcoal gray, sea green and bronze — allowed the shark to manifest like a haunting: near the surface one moment, right under the cage floor the next.

The spookiest was when it assembled from phantasmal mist in the near distance, becoming as solid as a fanged U-boat as it came at us. The preternatural girth of the animal — 8 feet or so — reduced me to an awed simpleton. A metallic clinking from above signaled our hour was up. Topside was bustling with divers, crazed with excitement now that the first great white had made contact. There would be only one rotation per team today because of the weather-delayed start. The great white that cage-stormed us was Scarboard, a female named for the distinctive scars on her right flank.

Both males and females are often scarred, and some are missing chunks. Violent territorial infighting is common. These white sharks spend at least half the year in open waters between the California coast and Hawaii, but what they're doing out there remains a mystery. Nor is it fully understood why great whites converge on Guadalupe Island every year as fall approaches. Mauricio theorizes there may be a correlation between elephant and fur seal migration and breeding patterns.

Elephant seals are a white shark's favorite food. Male white sharks first appear in early July, and larger adult females begin showing up around September. The largest shark observed by scientists and eco-tour operators in the area was 16 feet, but local fishermen have reported sharks as long as 20 feet. The water was pimpled with whitecaps the next morning. During the dive meeting, Patric reinforced safety protocol, cautioning us that loading in and out of the shark cages would be interesting today. (As if it hadn't been yesterday.)

After breakfast, Blue Team took the first dive, at 7:30 a.m. The water had a blue tinge to the algae green, which meant visibility was now approached 40 feet. No great whites were sighted all morning, so I decided to skip the afternoon's rotation and take some notes. That's when the shark came. My teammates came up stoked about a 13-foot male that made some harrowing cage calls. I felt like Charlie Brown on Halloween after a night of trick-or-treating. Charlie's friends gets bags full of candy; he gets only a rock.

Except in my case it was plankton and chum.A queen beastI was awakened the next morning by a loudspeaker announcement that dive rotations would start an hour earlier because conditions were optimum. The sea had turned a docile blue overnight under wind-cleansed skies. Black A Team cracked first descent. We weren't bullied by currents in the cage, and visibility was 60 feet and improving. But our first two rotations brought no sharks. At midafternoon, two fishermen in a panga skiff slid up on the Odyssey's starboard.

The West Anchorage on the island's windward side is a seasonal fishing camp for the same returning consortium of Mexican fishermen and their families who spend 10 months harvesting Guadalupe's abundant abalone and lobster, which is shipped back to Ensenada, where most of them come from. Patric ritually offers them a few supplies, such as fresh vegetables, meat, batteries, sodas and fishing gear, to maintain good relations. The fishermen, in turn, have become invaluable aids to shark researchers such as Mauricio, motoring him around the island to follow tagged sharks' transmitter signals.

He boarded the skiff toting a directional hydrophone and receiver and putt-putted away.At 4 p.m., Black A Team loaded into the cage for our last dive of the trip. A 14-foot female materialized from below the Odyssey's hull. She passed close enough for a pectoral fin to rattle the cage bars. As she receded, another great white, also a female, eclipsed my mask window. She swam beneath the cage and ghosted away. Both sharks were hidden, but you could feel them out there. Then, movement erupted from the starboard.

The new shark was a giantess, lingering under the panga. Her dorsal fin surfaced. I would have figured her size was some freak underwater refraction, except that her body ran the length of the panga, about 18 feet.The queen beast, easily 2 tons, glided on pectoral wings, moving to the hang bait that floated just below the surface off starboard, mouth toward us as it yawned open. The upper lip crinkled back, revealing bloody gums and a bony ridge filled with what looked like layers of broken razorblades.

The cavernous passage to her gullet waited. She tore the bait from the line with a fierce swipe of her head and continued toward us with a slack-jawed grin. She moved in along the cage, taking a good look inside. Her right eye was fathomless, landing on me like a dual judgment from God and Old Scratch. I was looking into an omnipotent black hole that slung me back 11 million years, where nothing was ruined.

*How to get started and what to take GETTING THERE:Boat charters leave from Fisherman's Landing in San Diego Harbor, a five-minute cab ride from San Diego International Airport.

THE TRIP:Ecotour operator Patric Douglas offers five-day live-aboard packages during great-white high season, which starts in September and ends in early December. Rates start at $2,650 per person. Shark Diver, (888) 405-3268 or (415) 235-9410, . The vessel we went on was the Odyssey, but this year, Douglas has changed to the Islander, an 89-foot craft with private air-conditioned staterooms.

GEAR AND OTHER INFO:Water temperatures at Guadalupe Island can range from 61 to 74 degrees. Some divers use dry suits, but I felt fine in a 7mm. (Our water temps were on the low end.) Hood, gloves and boots are definitely in order. If you don't own an underwater camera or housing, underwater disposables work fine at close range. (Shark Diver can assist with rental of personal dive gear.)

A live-aboard charter means you never leave the boat, except to get in the water, so be prepared to exist in an enclosed space with about 15 other passengers and nine crew members. Bring something for distraction; there is plenty of downtime after the dive day ends. Fishing is encouraged. During our trip, sheephead, California whitefish, yellowtail and squid were caught. For noncertified divers: Although scuba diving is not involved, you should get the feel of breathing through a regulator, either through an experienced friend or an introductory scuba discovery course at your local dive shop.

Also, getting comfortable with all the gear beforehand greatly boosts preparedness. I watched TV with my mask on, breathing through a snorkel to get used to controlled breathing.