Sunrise on the San Francisco Bay this morning was clear and bright, but here, 25 miles off the coast, the fog is so thick that you can't even make out the turd-encrusted drip-castle rocks that make up the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. There's no question about their proximity, though. The acrid stench of animal waste wafts on the breeze, and the barking of seals echoes through the mist from nearby islands.
Lawrence Groth stands at the stern of his 32-foot dive boat, the Patriot, his arms grappling a cage of aluminum bars twice his height and as wide as he is tall. He and his crewman, James Moskito, rotate the cage so it hangs off the back of the boat and then drop it into the water. Sealed PVC pipes attached to its sides provide flotation for the homemade cell as its lid bobs just above the surface. Groth lifts the lid of the cage and beckons a media landlubber to the dive platform.
Plunging into the cage deals an icy shock to the senses, and despite the scuba regulator and wet suit, it's nearly impossible to breathe normally -- the air comes in shallow pants, each breath a struggle.
It takes a minute or two to become used to the frigid water and get down to the serious business of doing a whole lot of nothing. There's little to see. The water is a mesmerizing emerald green, completely devoid of activity. The only movement comes from the yellow nylon lines that zigzag across the silvery surface. At the end of these ropes, a broken surfboard and a homemade decoy both gouged with bite marks bob in the current. Every few minutes Groth and Moskito drag them back toward the boat, and then let the boards drift slowly back into place like giant fishing lures.
Which is precisely what they are. With any luck, these decoys will catch the unblinking black eye of humanity's most feared predator, a great white shark. And then, perhaps, this perfectly evolved killer will attack the decoy, swimming close enough to give a nervous cage-dweller an up-close and personal view of her expressionless prehistoric snout, sleek gray flank, and rows upon rows of jagged teeth.
Alone in the cold, eight feet below the surface, I feel like bait.
The Farallones, a cluster of small, rocky islands visible from Stinson Beach on a clear day, are among the best places in the United States to see and film great whites because, from a shark's perspective, they amount to an oversize all-you-can-eat buffet.
At high tide, elephant seals and harbor seals are ousted from their favorite rocks and reluctantly slide into the water. Every so often, from far below, a great white will spot the bulbous profile of a young seal and propel itself from the depths, wrapping its powerful jaws around the unsuspecting mammal and tearing flesh from bone in a sudden slick of red. Documentaries that incorporate footage of these ferocious feeding events, such as the Emmy-winning BBC/National Geographic feature Great White Shark and the Discovery Channel's Beyond the Jaws, have made the Farallones a focal point for shark junkies.
Groth, a professional diver who works on underwater construction projects, has been fascinated by sharks since childhood. Growing up in Hayward, he'd long heard stories about white sharks in the Gulf of the Farallones, but he didn't venture there until just a few years ago.
In the fall of 1998, he brought a boat and a few friends out to the islands, where he chummed the water with tuna (something he no longer does) in the hope of attracting a shark. After throwing the fish overboard, he stood at the stern waiting for a friend to bring him a camera. That's when it happened: Without warning, a massive shark breached just half a dozen feet from the boat, hurling itself out of the water like a dolphin at SeaWorld. The great animal splashed down with such force that Groth's pants got soaked. And from that moment, he was hooked.
These days, he's Captain Lawrence Groth. Having recognized the commercial possibilities of satisfying people's curiosity about the mysterious predators, he and a partner created what has become a thriving ecotourism business. He charges people $775 a head to spend the day on his boat in search of great whites. The captain, who now runs the operation solo, doesn't guarantee that his clients will see a shark, but he does boast that great whites were spotted on 31 of his 34 trips during last fall's feeding season, which lasts from mid-September through mid-November.
What Groth didn't realize when he first started bringing customers out to the Gulf of the Farallones was that he was stepping on somebody else's pelagic turf.
The entrepreneur was handily beaten to the archipelago by Peter Pyle, a Swarthmore College zoology major who in 1980 began studying the islands' bird population for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, a private nonprofit that manages the Farallones under the supervision of the US Department of Fish and Wildlife. While traversing the rocky coastline of Southeast Farallon Island, the young field biologist began noticing the same extraordinary spectacle over and over: a slick of blood in the water, followed by a swirl of dorsal fins, and great white sharks as long as eighteen feet thrashing about.
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