July 8, 2010
As published in the Explorers club Journal – June 2010 – By Angela Schuster and Amos Nachoum
I bring my breathing down to a mere 15 pounds an hour, as my pulse settles in at a steady 50 beats per minute. Nothing outside of the present moment lingers in my mind as I focus on the totality my surroundings. I am ten meters down on the seafloor, relaxing in the relative comfort of a large steel cage. I am in Shark Alley off the coast of South Africa in the company of two fellow divers. We have come to observe the Great White on its own terms. The time has come for us to abandon our protective cocoon.
As I slowly open the gate and exit the cage, I spy a Great White, just to my right, his body scarred by seasons of spirited mating and encounters with other marine life. He glides through the water in front of me, barely noticing my presence or that of my fellow diver, who like myself is heavily laden with camera gear.
My motion is fluid, my view is crystal clear, and my heart light as I focus on the shark and its graceful movements as I work to read its complex body language. For the Great White to trust me, I know I must first trust myself. Any self-doubt or apprehension is sure to compromise the mission ahead. After a passing glance, the shark comes in for a closer look. His curiosity sated, he moves on to more interesting targets.
Among the most feared predators on Earth, the Great White (Carcharodon carcharias) occupies an alpha spot — along with the Orca — at the top of the maritime food chain. The sharks, which can grow to a length of 6 meters and can weigh in at as much as 2,200 kilograms, live in the waters off South Africa, California and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and in the Mediterranean.
Yet our view of sharks as hunters of human flesh has been skewed by films such as Jaws. To acquire such footage, it has been common practice to “chum the waters” with fetid fish remains to first attract and then agitate the sharks into a feeding frenzy. It is indeed exciting to watch but is a misrepresentation of normal shark behavior. Contrary to popular perception, humans are not on the menu; our bodies are too bony and devoid of the energy-rich fats these ocean predators need. Most shark attacks, of which there are about a hundred a year on average, are the result of mistaken identity or of test bites, that is a shark’s taking of a small sample to identify an object. And contrary to public perception, most shark attacks are not fatal.
Extraordinary in its physical design, the Great White is gifted with a special “sixth sense”, a network of jelly-filled canals known as the ampullae of Lorenzini, which are linked to pores concentrated around the shark’s eyes, snout, and mouth that enable it to detect electric fields generated by muscle contractions in other living creatures and sense direction through electric fields ignited by ocean currents moving through Earth’s magnetic field.
I first entered the world of the Great White in 1982, while serving as a logistics expert for a National Geographic shark documentation project undertaken by Rodney Fox together with Eugenie Clark, aka the “shark lady;” and photographer David Doubilet. Since then, I have ventured to South Australia annually to work with Fox, who in 1963 famously survived an attack from the Great White, which left much of his abdomen exposed and took 462 stitches to repair. Rather than resenting his attacker, Fox committed himself to learning all he could about the Great White, pioneering the use of a protective steel dive cage, which has afforded him hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of shark observation.
During this time, I also have had the opportunity to collaborate with legendary underwater filmmakers Al Giddings, Howard Hall, and Marty Snyderman—all of whom began working with the Great White “outside the cage.” In 1994, I began exploring the possibilities of diving with Great White Sharks in South Africa, working under the auspices of Shark Research Institute and in cooperation with South Africa’s leading sport fisherman at the time, Andre Hartman. In time, we began carrying out dives in Shark Alley, located between the islands of Dyer and Geyser, where so much important research has been carried out.
Our work with the Great White is governed by a few simple ground rules. We must have a minimum of 10 meters of visibility underwater; we operate in the company of a safety diver armed with a yardstick should a conflict arise; and we retreat from the area if more than two sharks come into view.
Over the years, I have come to realize that in dealing with sharks it is all about attitude, not aggression, power, or strength. Diving with the Great White requires an unusual pairing of heightened awareness of all things around you and a zen calm and control over your own mental and physical state. It is an ultimate expression of living in the moment. From diving and other experiences in my life — be it carrying out a mission as a military commando, racing motorcycles, or even falling in love — I have learned that a pounding heart is but an internal alarm that tells me it’s time to hold on, time to focus, and time to get into the moment. For only then can I commit. Within seconds, I can relax, sensing lightness and a certain calm as I take comfort in the decisions I have made.