Now that my buddies at Huckberry
have blogged about the Farallon Islands I feel compelled to reflect upon my time there. I usually make it out at least once a year, but for 3 months in the fall of 2006 I spent 3 days a week going out with an ecotourism company in the attempt to share the experience of seeing white sharks in the wild and capture some footage. Upon first approaching the islands I felt like I was in the movie King Kong and that Skull Island had mysteriously emerged from the fog. This place doesn't like people. Next to the continental shelf, these jagged islans seemingly rise up out of nowhere to wreck unsuspecting ships. And as far as prehistoric animals go...well, they are actually present. The white shark, descendant of megaladon, is nearly unchanged other than its size from its original version hundreds of millions of years ago (picture a 50 foot white shark that fed on whales). Today, some of the largest white sharks known to be alive hang out at the Farallones to hunt some of the largest prey you can imagine...elephant seals.
Also named, 'Devil's Teeth
', Susan Casey's book, while possibly taking a few liberties, is an entertaining way to catch yourself up on the history of these islands and white sharks. You may also view a short film I created documenting the 2006 season at the islands here
If you've been following the debate over the controversial methods used by the crew of 'Expedition: Great White' (now called 'Shark Men') I invite you to focus your attention to one aspect of this issue. After analyzing the risks, whether real or implied, what type of newly gained information from the research would justify these risks, in your opinion?
Here's a video to catch you up on what's been happening. http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/iteam&id=8136819
A popular question around San Francisco is “Are there sharks in the bay?” A quick visit to any pier will often reveal fishermen pulling in bottom-feeding sharks such as the beautiful Leopard Shark and other harmless species.
However, while standing at Pier 39 watching 800 pound sea lions play, the question becomes much more specific; “Are there Great Whites in the bay?”
In 2009, the results from an ongoing satellite tag study between the years 2000 and 2008 settled this question. Between 2007 and 2008 satellite receivers detected that great whites poked their heads past the Golden Gate at least 5 times, although it doesn't seem they stayed long and probably didn't go in far since they prefer the saltier water of the open ocean.
On the other hand, the chances that Great Whites have entered the bay frequently in the past are fairly good, especially considering that whaling stations existed as far north into the bay as Richmond. Dragging the bloody carcasses of blubber-rich behemoths through the bay almost certainly brought Great Whites and a multitude of other predators and scavengers in hot pursuit. After all, to the Great White, the more blubber, the more irresistible.
More disturbing is a report that discarded whale carcasses were buried under the bay, leaving an unmistakable scent to be followed for years to come. Nevertheless, the chance of encountering a Great White in the bay is slim to none and no one has ever been attacked inside the boundary of the Golden Gate Bridge.
I received my first hate mail from someone chastising me for chumming and using bait at the Farallon Islands. Well, I personally don’t chum at all, and no one chums at the Farallon Islands due to regulations that exist in this marine sanctuary. Any footage of mine which shows chumming or bait was taken while on board any number of ecotourism boats in South Africa. However, this did remind me to blog about what seems to be the new hot topic for city dwelling ‘shark experts’; the evil of chumming and cage diving.
The two main arguments against cage-diving and chumming make sense at first glance. One argument is founded on the well-being of the shark, the other is founded on the well-being of humans. Let’s start with the fist reason.
Chumming, the act of adding a very smelly blend of blood, fish oil, and other yummy things, is used to attract sharks to boats in regions of the world where this is still allowed. In addition, chunks of bait are also used to attract the sharks. This is frowned upon with the concern that the shark’s natural hunting and feeding behavior will be affected in a negative manner.
The second argument is based on the idea that putting people in cages around sharks, particularly in combination with chum, is teaching the sharks to associate humans with food. This in turn will cause sharks to begin hunting humans as a food source. This is a more heated topic in South Africa where cage diving with white sharks has exploded is a huge industry.
Here are the reasons for chumming and cage diving:
It protects the shark. Although the white shark is on South Africa’s protected species list, that doesn’t stop poachers, sports fisherman, and trophy hunters from taking their toll on the species. It’s a matter of regulation, or lack-there-of. The sharks also face the threat of fleets of long lining fishing boats off-shore and beach nets near shore. It’s almost as though the safest place for these sharks is near the popular cage diving destinations where the area has more sets of eyes and more people that prefer the shark alive to dead. It’s sad that it comes down to money, but as long as the shark is providing a source of income there is an increased chance of people fighting for its survival.
It promotes the shark. Every tourist I’ve ever watched experience a great white for the first time is simply awed by their beauty, grace, power and surprisingly docile nature. The ecotourism boats are required to educate the tourists about the sharks, so people leave not only as shark advocates, but also with a better understanding of the animal’s behavior and its struggle for survival.
No food association. Each of the cage diving locations in the world share a few things in common: They are occur next to islands several miles off shore, filled with thousands of seals. The sharks are there to feed on the seals. This means that the boats full of people are traveling to a remote location where the sharks have already congregated. The sharks are not being lured to beaches full of unsuspecting swimmers and surfers. Rather, we are entering their hunting ground where the waters are already saturated with ‘natural chum’, the body odor, blood, and fecal matter of their natural prey.
No altered behavior. “But you are interfering with their hunting habitat”, one might argue. I said the same thing in the beginning, but the more I watched, the more I noticed that the sharks lost interest in the bait and boats very quickly, if they came around at all, and usually never returned. Furthermore, the sharks are transient, meaning that they do not set up camp for long periods of time expecting a free hand out. Still, I had my doubts. Marine biologists were also concerned about altered behavior and feeding patterns so they conducted their own study. You may be surprised to read the results. Read here.
Ever since Anderson Cooper went free diving with Great Whites people have been sending me the link and asking what I think about it. Looks like he did it in ‘Shark Alley’, the same place I did it 2004. I snorkeled and dove on SCUBA, but no sharks came to visit me. Looks like he was fortunate enough to actually have a shark or two around and I have to give him credit for doing such a brave thing.
Of course, the news anchors had to damage the story by saying things like, “It was an all out feeding frenzy!” and unwittingly referring to the ‘chumming’ controversy. Let’s clarify:
First of all, no one, not even Andre Hartman or the guys from ‘Jackass’ are gonna get in the water during a feeding frenzy. Next, a feeding frenzy refers to a large gathering of animals competing for food in a ravenous manner, sometimes even attacking and eating each other in the process. I can assure you that cage dive operators put one piece of bait in the water at a time, most often attracting only one shark at a time. If another white shark does appear, the smaller one usually goes away. Sharks of similar size seem to take turns making passes at the bait in a very ‘civilized’ manner. The operators do not feed the sharks and actually do their best to pull the bait just out of the shark’s reach. The few seconds of teeth and gaping jaws shown on TV is the result of editing hours of footage mostly consisting of slow moving, disinterested sharks.
The film ‘Air Jaws’ captured a mass feeding of Great White sharks when the camera crew was fortunate enough to come across a floating whale carcass. They estimated 15 to 20 large great whites shared the area at the same time, often touching and overlapping fins. They took turns ripping large chunks of flesh off the whale and never once showed signs of violence toward each other, the camera crew, or the boat.
I’ll talk about the ‘chumming and cage diving controversy’ in the next blog.
This morning I was paddle surfing off the shore of Waikiki and a large sea turtle popped his head up next to me taking a look around. He was so chill and so beautiful... his little visit left me smiling in the warm sun.
This evening I was talking to a woman who said the same thing happened to her a few years ago and she was so frightened she never went in the ocean again. I was so bewildered I just stopped talking.
If this is the reaction some people have to turtles I guess sharks don't have much of a chance...
1. Human population increasing at an alarming rate.
2. World temperatures rising.
3. More people go in the water.
4. Shark food sources (as well as everything else in the ocean) are being wiped out by humans.
5. Sharks consequently hunt in places they would not normally hunt.
6. Humans (particularly Americans) resemble blubber rich pinnipeds more every year.
7. Humans are relatively slow, clumsy, and devoid of natural defense mechanisms, particularly in the ocean.
8. Sharks are the perfect ocean predator.
Considering the above factors, shouldn't we actually be shocked that there aren't more shark attacks rather than being surprised when the occasional mistake happens?