Farallon Feud 

When scientists at the national marine sanctuary tried to kill Lawrence Groth's ecotourism business, the captain bit back. That's when things really got mean.

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But one elite group is still allowed to spend time on the island regardless of any science background. The Bird Observatory's big contributors get intimate trips to a refuge where the public can't set foot. Under its deal with Fish and Wildlife, the Observatory gets to dole out twenty such visits a year. "As part of our major donor campaign, part of what we have to do to survive is to show people around the island. They may not stay out there for a week, they may just go out for a day trip," Sydeman says.

Groth says that what bothers him is the hypocrisy. In particular, he's appalled that the researchers would try to ban his own commercial operations while using a public resource to bring in funding for their own projects. It is part of what he deems a proprietary attitude that the observatory and its biologists have adopted toward the islands.

Klimley says he's noticed this attitude as well. When scientists want to conduct research on the island, he claims, they don't go to Fish and Wildlife first; they go to Anderson and Pyle. If they don't have a good relationship with the researchers, it's unlikely they will be able to work there during shark season. Anderson and Pyle dispute this, saying that if Fish and Wildlife approves the project, they will work with anyone.

Though the activities Groth questions haven't netted Anderson and Pyle much money, their special status at the Farallones does beg some larger questions: Who should be allowed to set foot on the island? Who, if anyone, should be allowed to get close to the sharks? Who should be allowed to drag decoys to bring sharks to the surface, or descend in a cage? And should wealthy benefactors get access to an island that belongs to the public, but is off-limits to it?

Wherever there are rare species and hard-to-reach environments, there are restrictions. In the Galapagos Islands, Darwin's historic trove of biological diversity, the government of Ecuador allows a limited number of tourists each year. They must stick to defined paths and are accompanied by a guide at all times, while designated researchers can freely collect data on exotic species.

Groth drops his decoys off the back of the Patriot to lure sharks near his cage. Once or twice a day, he also tows one around the island trying to get a shark to breach. At a minimum, the researchers want him to stop the towing. Anderson and Pyle use decoys too, if only for an hour a day. The biologists argue that their limited use of decoys does not modify the sharks' behavior and helps provide them with useful data. At the same time, they speculate that Groth, who uses the decoys for most of the time he's out at the island, is indeed affecting behavior of the sharks. They have no evidence to support either claim.

While no reasonable person thinks humans should be able to hassle and molest rare or protected species with wild abandon, it's fair to ask whether Anderson and Pyle deserve more access to these sharks than Groth and his customers, or others who want to observe the animals.

John McCosker sides with the scientists and thinks cage diving should be banned in the Gulf of the Farallones. The value of the long-term studies Pyle and Anderson are conducting is so great, he says, that there should be as little human activity allowed in the area as possible. "There is not room for both at the Farallones," he says. "For the same reason that tourists are not allowed on the island to look at interesting nesting birds, they should not be allowed [to look at sharks]."

Shark expert Klimley sees room for both research and commercial activities. It's not always appropriate, he feels, to give researchers unfettered access that the public can't enjoy. He has often dealt with tour operators who sailed up when he was trying to tag a shark, or otherwise interrupted his research. But Klimley believes these people have as much right to be there as he himself does. "I believe that everyone should have access," he says. "I am not against ecotourism; it can work with science."

Indeed, he sees opportunities for funding from Earthwatch-style joint expeditions, similar to the Shark Trust tourism offer that was so resoundingly criticized by Fish and Wildlife and the researchers themselves.

As their feud with Groth has played out, Anderson and Pyle have softened their own stance on cage diving. Rather than calling for an outright ban, they want NOAA to allow it on a restricted-permit basis. Their concern, they say, is waking up one morning to find a dozen cage-diving operations anchored off the island.

The scientists now want regulations that would dramatically curb the use of decoys, but stop short of banning them. Groth says he's willing to stop towing his busted surfboards around the island, but if he can't put them in the water when he has the cage down, he'll be flat out of business.

Part of the issue Pyle and Anderson have with the shark-watchers, they say, is the cowboy nature of cage diving. These thrill-seekers are different than the high-minded whale-watchers who often patrol the waters around the islands, Anderson says: "These guys want to get in the water. They are a different crowd than what you expect from your regular nature trip."

The crowd on Groth's boat today, however, isn't a bunch of yahoos by any stretch of the imagination. There's a UCLA business student who's never been scuba diving. Sincere and enthusiastic, he's hardly the weekend warrior type. There's also a tax-preparer and her daughter from Omaha, Nebraska. The one avid shark-diver of the bunch is forty-year-old Scott Thornton, a high-school history teacher from the Denver area who has swum with sharks more than a hundred times. Being underwater with them is a thrill, he says, an adrenaline rush like no other. But he also has a healthy respect for the shark and an appetite for knowledge about its behavior. "It is like skydiving; you get addicted to the adrenaline," he says. "You are reminded you are not in a pool. It's a neat feeling, the feeling that this is a wild place."


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