Shark Teeth Pearly White
“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.