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Shark Teeth Pearly White

Shark Teeth Pearly White
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Yankee classic from June 2000

Captain Charlie Donilon is a whorl of energy in a straw hat as he demonstrates the rules of the game inside his aluminum shark cage. Glistening with sunblock and grinning with mischief, he snaps his arms forward as if warding off an imaginary tackler. “Keep your camera between you and the sharks,” he tells the four scuba divers who stand on the deck outside the cage watching his every move, “in case you have to give a nosy one a poke.” Once Donilon’s cage is lowered over the side, the divers will be inside and the sharks outside, swimming free.

This bit of advice is what passes for a heads-up on Donilon’s playground, somewhere beyond sight of land about 30 miles south of Narragansett Bay. The four divers are aboard his 35-foot sportfishing boat, the Snappa, to swim in his custom-designed shark cage. At heart a shark hunter, Donilon scaled back his old catch-and-release sportfishing business six years ago to pursue a peculiar new kind of ecotourism. He gives divers the chance to see New England’s most ancient and mesmerizing predators in their own element. On this voyage, no sharks will die. Donilon has to make sure no divers do either.

Stepping from the cage, he tells today ‘s customers what to expect. They have driven in from Massachusetts, and only one has dived among sharks before. “Toward the end of the afternoon, the sharks will have been in the chum for a long time, and they’ll be more aggressive,” Donilon says. “That’s when people get bit.”

One of the divers, Maureen Kirkpatrick, a civil engineer from Walpole, winces. Shortly after sunrise, when the Snappa eased out of the protected Harbor of Refuge near Point Judith, Rhode Island, Kirkpatrick thought the cage looked safe. But now a hole in the script has become apparent. Once the cage is in the drink, the divers have to swim across 25 feet of open ocean to get to it. That 25 feet suddenly seems like a long way to go, especially when burdened by tanks and weight belts, with sharks patrolling nearby.

“Did you have to say bite?” she asks.

“It happens,” Donilon says. “They bite you. And then they let you go.”

Minutes later, the divers follow Charlie ‘s cue and shove the cage overboard. It sinks slowly into the rich blue swell and comes to rest at the end of its ropes, suspended two feet beneath the surface. The open water between the boat and the safety of the cage yawns before them.

While his customers contemplate the gap, Donilon sets to work attracting sharks. With a wickedly thin fillet knife, Donilon dices butterfish into pieces the size of quarters, which he flicks into the sea. The silvery chunks tumble into the depths, a twinkling constellation of shark-attracting chow. Then he ties the remains of a striped bass to a heavy rope and lobs it over the side. Before stopping, Donilon had poured a bucket of wormy-looking stew into a baitwell that circulates with the sea, so his boat exuded a plume of fish guts and blood astern. His goal is to create a shark highway with his divers at the end. Now, with the Snappa’s diesel quiet, the boat bobs on a gentle swell. The wait for sharks begins.

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