Shark Teeth Pearly White | Yankee Classic
Excerpt from “Shark Teeth Pearly White,” Yankee Magazine, 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.
The waiting, as it happens, might take a while. Throughout New England’s offshore waters, shark numbers have dropped to historic lows, one part of a pattern now documented throughout the Atlantic. The collapse followed a shift in commercial fishing effort late in the 1970s, when vessels began targeting sharks to meet international demand for fins, the prime ingredient in an expensive Asian soup. The fin market encouraged a practice that attracted conservationists anger: Crews winched aboard sharks, hacked off their fins, and pushed the writhing, mutilated fish back into the sea, where they spiraled for the bottom and a slow death. These days, the United States has banned finning within 200 miles of its Atlantic coast. But other markets keep the shark trade robust.
Shark teeth and jaws sell as curios; spines are ground into a white facial powder; the livers yield oil; the cartilage has been used in cancer research, and the steaks of some species serve as an alternative to swordfish, itself in decline. Not all sharks are sold, however. Millions are killed by vessels harvesting other fish, a side effect known as “by-catch.” Others are dispatched by sportfishermen who reel in sharks for kicks and tournament prizes. Many of these sharks end up in landfills or are dumped offshore.
All of this fishing pressure has had a predictable effect. According to 1995 data from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the abundance of valuable shark species along the East Coast fell by 50 to 75 percent during the 1970s and 1980s. More recent data indicate some species have fallen by 85 percent. Among the imperiled sharks are some of the most impressive, including the shortfin mako, the great white, the porbeagle, the sandbar, the scalloped hammerhead, and the basking shark, a harmless krill-eating behemoth that can exceed 30 feet in length.
The prospects for depleted shark species are not good. Unlike most fish, which engage in spawning orgies that can yield enormous hatches, sharks grow slowly, mature late in life, and bear very few young. “Sharks reproduce more like cows and polar bears and people than they do like other fish,” says Wes Pratt, an NMFS biologist and shark specialist who lives in Narragansett. “What this means is that when a stock is depressed, it takes a long time to replenish. They don’t recover from directed fishery pressure very well.”
The shark decline has become alarming enough that NMFS has begun protecting the remaining sharks. Catch limits were set in 1993, then halved in 1997. Commercial regulations now completely prohibit the killing of five species, including the famed white. Broader restrictions were issued last year but have been held up by a court challenge. But some environmentalists are no longer talking about “depleted stocks” of sharks, they are talking about extinction of species. “Sharks have been top predators for hundreds of millions of years,” says David Wilmot, director of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a consortium of environmental groups. “They might have only a few decades left.”