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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These are more or less regular folks who, by watching Jacques Cousteau TV specials and the very same documentaries that feature Anderson's footage, have become so fascinated with sharks that they're willing to pay dearly to see them up close in the wild.

And on this day, they do.

It's quite a day, in fact. While two people are down in the cage, one great white shark passes right below their feet. Another swims past the boat and breaks the surface to check out the decoy. The water parts quietly as the shark's snout dings the board out of the way. Its head, mauled dorsal fin, and long back are visible for a few seconds before disappearing.

Then it's the reporter's turn to go back in the water, and once again I find myself shivering at the bottom of the cage, sucking air from a yellow tube and scanning the depths for any sign of movement. This must be what ice fishing or deer hunting is like. Lots of sitting around. Lots of cold. Lots of nothing to do.

Thirty minutes or more pass uneventfully and then suddenly, it happens, just as it happened to Groth on that day five years ago. There's no sound, no warning, nothing to alert me. Up from the murky green, a dark form rises toward the decoy, twenty feet off the stern of the boat. For a split second the shark pokes its head at the surface and then arcs away from the cage, showing its dorsal fin and impossibly long fuselage.

It was an instant, almost nothing of a view, a blurred shape in the water -- hardly the anticipated Discovery Channel moment. But still, it was enough to provide a jolt of awakening, a somehow profound glimpse of insight into the world of hunter and hunted, the weird primal instincts of this creature, and our own self-imposed separation from natural processes.

To be confronted, even at a distance, with this predator is to suddenly see the world a little differently, to gain a bit of humility about our own role on the planet; to understand that Nature, with her sharp rows of teeth, cares nothing about the petty feuds happening above the surface. That she cares only about the next meal.

It's an experience more people could learn from.

Sudden Impact?
Is tourism harmful to sharks? Perhaps, but it's helpful too.

With ecotourism on the rise, the feud between Groth and the shark researchers raises questions that extend well beyond the Gulf of the Farallones.

Most researchers believe that, yes, they should have more access to wild species than the public at large, and many ecotour operators would agree. Even Groth doesn't argue with this premise; that's why he keeps his distance during feeding events, he says.

Even so, many conservation-minded biologists concede a symbiosis with the ecotourism industry. Samuel Gruber, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami, says tourism can be crucial to science, especially in the case of misunderstood species such as sharks. Gruber, who has studied the big fish for decades, even takes his own students out on dives, during which he chums the water to attract the sharks. "There are negative aspects of feeding sharks," he says. "It changes their behavior and nutrition, but the benefits far outweigh the cost to a few sharks. They turn divers who might normally hate sharks into ambassadors of goodwill."

Of course, unrestricted tourism can kill a research project. Scott Eckert is a senior research biologist who studies whale sharks at the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute. In Australia, he has lost entire research areas to tour boats that line up to let their divers swim with the massive creatures. He nonetheless acknowledges that public support of research and empathy with a species is critical to helping that species survive.

As much as the Farallon scientists worry about the impact of commercial marauders, they must themselves be careful, these experts say, lest their own studies interfere with natural patterns. Unlike university-based researchers, who must appear before special committees to present details on how they plan to interact with the animals in a field study, the Bird Observatory researchers need only run their projects past Fish and Wildlife.


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