Although he freely admits he has no degrees in marine biology or chemistry, Graf says he has learned enough from close encounters with great white sharks in Guadalupe to have formed a photo database that identifies 149 individual animals that have shown up here annually or sporadically since 2001. The photos include the sharks’ names and close-ups of identifying marks, specifically lines and spots that appear in the transition area from their gray backs to their white bellies. Scars don’t count because they heal and often disappear.
“The transition from white to gray on the body is like a fingerprint — the gill, the pelvic fin and the tail,” Graf explained. “You can look into the database and tell what shark it was.”
There’s Shredder, so named after he bit the Horizon’s anchor line clean through; Biteface; Johnny; my good buddy Jacques, and scores of others. Scientists, such as Michael Domeier, president of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, or Marine CSI, have fitted some of them with satellite tags that record depth, water temperature, daily diving patterns and migration movements.
But the great white shark, one of the world’s largest aquatic predators, remains mostly a mystery and an object of fascination for both scientists and lay people.
The Horizon does not require its charter customers to be scuba-certified, and Salmon said about 40 percent are non-divers, many of whom have never before gone swimming in the ocean. Most quickly overcome their fears, he said, and become advocates of shark conservation.
“Once they start seeing sharks, they forget about their mask fogging up or wearing 60 pounds of weights,” Salmon said.
That’s basically how it went for Stacie Stump, a government contractor in San Diego, and Nayeli Banuelos, an Oregon State University student — whose only previous knowledge of great whites came from watching Shark Week on cable television’s Discovery Channel.
“Watching Shark Week, they make them these big, mean, biting machines,” Banuelos said. “They are a lot more cautious than you think. I’m so up for doing it again. I’d definitely bring friends next time.”
Said Stump: “I have anxiety about the big ocean, but I overcame a lot coming out and doing this. It took about two rotations before I was banging my hands and feet. I would definitely come do this again. They look at you. They are definitely as magnificent as you’d think they would be. I think killing them is wrong.”