Great white sharks even more magnificent at close range

For what seemed like an hour, I just stared through the bars of our submerged aluminum cage into the gloom of the Pacific, puffing on regulators from the dive charterboat Horizon, hoping for an appearance by the giant, fearsome creatures I had traveled thousands of miles to see.

Suddenly, he appeared — a great white shark 16½ feet long swimming unhurriedly toward our cage. Instead of cowering back behind the bars, my three companions and I waved, banged and stomped to attract his attention, and readied our underwater cameras. The shark meandered to within about eight feet of us and cruised the length of the cage, seeming to stare at each of us in turn with its blue/black eye. His teeth were formidable, jagged, and pointed in all directions. Dubbed Jacques Cousteau by researchers for the algae and barnacle-clad remnants of old tracking tags on his dorsal fin, he reminded me, albeit absurdly, of a female tourist in the Bahamas who gets her hair braided and beaded by the local women.

Above our cage, a deckhand on the Horizon tossed a chum bag toward the shark, and as the huge animal tracked it, the crewman pulled it closer to the cage.

Jacques opened his rapier-lined maw wide as if to engulf the chum bag and glided so close I could almost reach out and touch him. This time, I stepped back from the bars, my heart thudding. But Jacques only bumped the chum bag with his snout, and then swam slowly away. Disappointed, I willed him to come back, but he never returned.

In three days of diving in shifts in our two underwater cages stationed eight feet below the surface, our group of 15 got to watch a total of 14 great white sharks, ranging in size from eight feet to Jacques, the largest — along with a baby mako that bit the chum bag and quickly fled. Not one attempted to bite us or the cage. During some one-hour rotations, we would stand there shivering in the 70-degree water despite wearing thick, seven-millimeter wetsuits, and not spot even one shark. Then, on our next rotation, four different sharks would pass by. Wild animals, after all, are unpredictable.

The (happily) shark-infested waters where we were diving lie in the shadow of sparsely settled, mountainous Isla Guadalupe, located about 150 miles off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula in the Pacific. Great whites and makos usually show up in these cool, clear waters from late summer through late fall, where researchers, filmmakers and tourist divers flock to study and observe them. Various theories have circulated about what draws the top predators to this remote island, including mating and feeding. But so far, researchers have failed to document reproduction occurring here, and charterboat operators such as Horizon’s owner/captain Spencer Salmon say they’ve never seen the sharks eat the California sea lions, Guadalupe fur seals or northern elephant seals that live on the island.

“Nobody knows exactly what the sharks are doing in Guadalupe,” Salmon said.

The region is significant enough that the Mexican government has designated it as a biosphere reserve, which restricts the number of vessels permitted to conduct cage diving tours to six and imposes fees and special regulations to protect the sharks.

Martin Graf, a Swiss-born former professional bicycle racer turned dive instructor, runs Sharkdiver.com, which bills itself as a “professional, shark-centric company” arranging and conducting shark diving tours around the world. Before taking over the company earlier this year, Graf ran the diving deck on the San Diego-based Horizon for 13 years.

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.”