Shark Teeth Pearly White | Yankee Classic
None of this comes as a surprise to Charlie Donilon. With 28 years of shark-hunting experience, the last six with his cage, he has seen the New England shark collapse firsthand. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he regularly encountered makos, sandbar sharks, and thresher sharks, along with the occasional tiger or hammerhead. During one of his most active fishing years, a customer caught a 544-pound mako, one of the largest ever captured by a Rhode Island vessel. Another year, he tagged a 20- foot-long great white. He has a picture of that fish rising from the water to bite the bottom step of the Snappa’s dive ladder. It looks like a dog eyeing a pant cuff, except the cuff is made of bronze.
Such encounters are extremely rare nowadays. When Donilon finds sharks off the Rhode Island coast, they are almost always blue sharks, a strong-tasting species that has just begun to attract fishing pressure. If it weren’t for the surviving blues, he says, he probably wouldn’t have a shark-watching business at all. “Oh man,” Donilon says. “I used to go out 20 miles, and we had variety every day. One out of every three fish was a sandbar shark, and one out of every 20 was a mako. But I’ve seen only one mako in the last three years, and sandbar sharks — I don’t see them at all anymore. Those were good eating fish, so a commercial fishery developed, and it wiped them out.”
A midday sun has warmed the atlantic’s undulating surface, and a breeze is starting to kick up. Donilon’s anxiety is beginning to show. Even though he has stoked his chum slick for hours, the waves are quiet. No fins crease the surface. The rope shows no tugs. “C’mon,” he says, squinting into the water. “C’mon.”
Kirkpatrick and her diving partner, Christine Strout, sit in the bow and soak up the sun. Back astern, diver F. Bruce Gerhard Jr. shares adventure stories with his scuba partner, Theodore Hotz. They have paid $165 each, and Gerhard is holding forth on past exploits: his days as an artillery officer, his dives on shipwrecks, a trip to Antarctica. Donilon listens in but peeks constantly at a dive watch the size of a silver dollar, which he has strapped to his wrist.
The striped bass carcass has hung unmolested too long, so Donilon decides to replace it with a frozen false albacore tuna, a greasier fish with rich, red meat. As he lowers the small tuna over the side, a broad swirl breaks across the surface, 60 feet or so behind the boat.
“Fin!” shouts Hotz, pointing. All heads turn. The shark, a blue perhaps six feet long, heads straight for the Snappa and then glides under the stern, paying no mind to the bloody tuna carcass as it continues on its way. Donilon leans over the rail, first to starboard and then to port. “He’s a little finicky right now,” he says, but his eyes are dancing.
The next hour brings more of the same: fins, swirls, and glimpses, but little boatside action. Charlie guesses that a single shark has followed the chum slick to the boat, and it is very wary. Then two more sharks arrive, and the big predators are suddenly at ease. They approach the Snappa for a display. Sleek as panthers, they move effortlessly through the water, banking this way and that with the slightest adjustments of their fins. They take turns investigating the swim ladder. Assuming almost vertical poses, the blues nibble the bronze, making loud grinding noises. Charlie sizes up the three of them: a six- and a 6-1/2-footer, he says, each going perhaps 120 pounds, and a 7-1/2-footer, which he estimates at 160 pounds.
Clear water, bright skies, three sharks: Charlie ‘s trip is on the verge of success. He calls together his customers. “Somebody go in,” he says. “Somebody put on your gear and get in the water.”
As the group prepares its equipment, Donilon cautions the divers again. The water is 200 feet deep, and the sunlight illuminates it only about 25 feet down. “Don’t get far from the cage,” he says. “Sometimes people get comfortable with the blue sharks, and they forget there could be a white shark or a tiger hanging out of sight.”
Gerhard and Hotz are first over the side. They drop off the stem and make loud splashes. Startled, the sharks shoot out of sight, and the two men sink to about six feet and kick slowly for the cage. As they open the door and enter its sanctuary, the sharks return. Creatures of their element, they blend almost invisibly into the swells. When they pass in front of the aluminum cage, they show up in relief, instantly like planes gliding out of the clouds.
The sharks circle the cage lazily. From his vantage point on deck, Charlie can see the scuba bubbles rising to the surface in bursts. The divers are breathing hard, excited. Donilon watches closely, but then his bait rope grows suddenly tight, and he yanks it back. One of the sharks has found the tuna, and Donilon uses the rope to lure the shark slowly toward the boat. It follows the bait, its teeth bared and tail thrashing.
Gerhard and Hotz will have 20 minutes, and then Kirkpatrick and Strout will get their turn, in a rotation that will continue as long as sharks stay nearby. For Kirkpatrick, this dive is a chance to confront her fear. This is only her second season diving, and she admits she often has sharks on her mind. “Are sharks like dogs?” she asks Donilon. “Can they sense when you’re afraid?”
Donilon tries to answer. Like many people who have dived among sharks, Donilon says that sharks rarely attack. On shore, NMFS biologist Wes Pratt agrees. “They really seem to know what they’re doing,” says Pratt. “Even though they’ve been lured in by the scent of food, they seem to know we aren’t the menu.” But out on the Snappa. Donilon tells Kirkpatrick that wild animals are wild animals, and sharks are predictable only to a point. He tells her the Snappa’ s complete diving record. In all, eight divers have been bitten in his chartering career, but only one was injured, a woman who was grabbed by the seat of her wet suit as she was climbing the dive ladder. She needed 15 stitches to close the wound. Bites are bad, of course, but Donilon doesn’t dwell on them. Blue sharks are a fairly docile species with teeth about exactly as thick as a wet suit, which means their bites usually amount to the marine equivalent of a heavy gumming. The other seven bite victims had no breaks in the skin, he says.
Looking at Kirkpatrick, it is hard to tell if Donilon’s dissertation has made her feel better or worse. But she has on all of her gear- wet suit, belt, tank, mask, regulator, and knife. She looks game for the dive.
Gerhard and Hotz leave the cage. The men swim back to the boat, trailing a wake of bubbles. There are five sharks now, and the largest shows an even stronger interest in the swim ladder. After raking its teeth across the bottom rung, it drops off and then gracefully returns, rubbing its long back along it, like a big cat, until with a flick of its tail it rushes away, surprisingly fast as it disappears.