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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It was love at first bite. Before long, Pyle -- now 45 and still a staff biologist for the observatory -- was devoting much of his time to observing sharks, although he continues to study birds. In 1987, he picked up a research partner named Scot Anderson, who came to the Farallones as a volunteer to help band birds. At the time, Anderson, who has studied marine biology and holds a bachelor's degree in environmental science, was doing seasonal work helping the California Department of Forestry battle Dutch elm disease.

Watching the sharks feed from the safety of the rocks as Pyle had once done, Anderson, too, became intrigued. He stayed on to help monitor the shark feeding events and soon began working closely with Pyle. Through their longtime collaboration, the two have produced important data on shark behavior, published papers in respected scientific journals such as Nature, worked with some of the world's foremost shark researchers, and been featured in documentary films. They'd been working undisturbed at the marine sanctuary for more than a decade when Lawrence Groth showed up with his cage and his customers.

The result has been a Farallon Feud between science and ecotourism in which the researchers, claiming Groth's operation disturbs the sharks, have tried to get it shut down. The captain, in turn, has filed complaints against the researchers, accusing them of doing much the same thing -- and worse -- in the name of science. Groth, in fact, has upped the ante, claiming the scientists and the Bird Observatory have abused their stewardship status at the refuge by violating its rules and essentially selling access to the islands.

Neither side has yet prevailed. And so many a calm Farallon afternoon plays witness to the uneasy scene of Groth and the researchers bobbing in the water a mere few hundred feet apart, video cameras at the ready to record any transgression -- their mutual dislike as palpable as the animal waste on the breeze.

During great white season, Lawrence Groth leaves Fortman Marina in Alameda before dawn and zips across the water in search of sharks. But he's no weathered and bent Ahab. The 37-year-old captain is energetic and fit and smiles a lot from behind his moustache. And like most of those drawn to this violent predator, he is obsessed.

Sitting at the wheel, glancing back at the decoy dragging off the stern, Groth explains his fascination. "To make eye contact with an animal like that is an incredible feeling. Once you do it, then you understand. You can see one coming, staring at you, it goes by, and BOOM!" he exclaims, framing his head with his hands as though looking through a tube. "It's locked on you. It is an incredible feeling to be face to face with something like that. You get an adrenaline rush, all that fear and everything."

Though their motives are clearly different, Pyle and Anderson profess their respect for the animal in similar terms. And although they don't use dive cages, they get close to the sharks far more often than Groth does.

During feeding season, the researchers and a handful of interns and volunteers assisting them swap shifts in the lighthouse perched on the craggy mountain of Southeast Farallon Island, the only inhabited rock of the bunch. When a lookout spots the telltale slick of blood across the water's surface, Anderson and Pyle race to the spot in their sixteen-foot Boston Whaler. "I'm still in awe of white sharks," Anderson says. "Their presence can't be described well. They are silent, and when they swim by they are large and girthy. They are always looking at you; they are looking at everything. If you see it, it sees you."

"Seeing it" is key to Anderson's work. Since 1993, the scientist has been filming sharks as they feed. The researchers park right on top of the frenzy, and Anderson gets his footage using an underwater video camera mounted on a "chicken pole" that he plunges into the water. Such close proximity is needed, he says, in order to get clear shots. With those close-ups, the scientists can discern individual sharks by their unique markings and scars, and can track year to year which ones appear at the island and which are missing. With this information, they can begin to develop a picture of the shark population and its fluctuations.

John McCosker, a well-known shark biologist and senior scientist with the California Academy of Sciences, calls this work groundbreaking. Anderson, he notes, is creating the first long-term visual record of sharks in a defined area. He is starting to learn which sharks return often over time and which stay away, as well as other behavior patterns such as lengthy migrations that had been previously undocumented. The pair's video record, satellite tagging, and experiments with decoys may help with the recovery and management of the species -- and may even help surfers better protect themselves from attacks, McCosker says. The better we understand the species and what lures it to the surface, the better we can avoid getting bitten.

The studies are similar to those conducted with marine mammals such as killer whales in Puget Sound. The difference, however, is that sharks, unlike orcas, have no need to surface for air -- the only way to film them is to either lure them up with the promise of prey, or to catch them feeding at the surface.

The idea of ecotourists getting too close to their sharks, however, rankled the scientists. Ironically enough, they fired the first shot over Groth's bow, following what the captain describes as an attempt by him and his former partner Pat Douglas to make nice.

In November 2000, the ecotour operators went out to the Farallones to meet with Pyle and Anderson. Groth says his intention was to work cooperatively with the scientists and ensure that his operation didn't interfere with their projects. He says he offered to keep his distance on days when Anderson and Pyle were tagging sharks. Groth was also interested, he says, in sharing his own video footage from the cage, and was willing to donate $20,000 to help the researchers buy the pricey satellite "pop-up" tags -- a financial drain on the research program at about $3,500 a pop. It was an attempt to extend an olive branch, Groth says.


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