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Friday, October 24, 2008

Sharks or the lack thereof...

Here's the question. Your wife asks you, "So what do you want for your 40th birthday? You can do whatever you want. Just name it."

Do you tell her about your fantasy involving a midget, one pound of powdered rhino horn and her dressed as Wonder Woman singing Oingo Boingo's "It's Just Another Day"?

The answer is no. Thirteen years of marraige have not prepared her for that revelation and another thirteen probably won't either. Instead, you tell her about the second thing that pops into your head... as long as it doesn't involve midgets, powdered rhino horn or Wonder Woman.

For me, it was, "I want to dive with Great White sharks!"

The look of subtle worry was instantly more gratifying than the look of disgust the other option would have elicited and after a quick look to see if death by stupidity was covered on our life insurance policies, arrangements were made.

That was back in April which left six and a half months between laying down the deposit and actually climbing aboard the boat. Six and a half months of anticipation. I almost didn't make it. The thought of climbing into that cage was so exhilarating that it lit me up like a firecracker. It was six and a half months of wanting to go "NOW".

So, a little over a week ago, I finally climbed into that cage. Did I see sharks?

Yes, I saw a shark.

Did I get a picture of the shark?

No. However I regret nothing... except maybe not buying my wife a Wonder Woman costume while in San Francisco. That would have been the coolest.

Though you may think from the first part of this post that I'm all about drunkeness and insanity, I'm not. In fact, I'm a mild mannered family man. That's why the first part of the trip was spent with up in Clearlake (about 3 hours north of San Francisco) with my wife, daughter, sister and parents. Here's Karen and I at the Coast Guard station in Sausalito.

I actually succeeded in not thinking about the dive at all during this part of the vacation even though my sister, Kelly, constantly talked about it (she was going also). I think the copious amounts of wine and beer helped my cause and believe me, you can't be in the middle of the Napa and Sonoma valleys without partaking in some wine and beer.

Either way, the laid back part of the trip was officially over on October 15th, when we headed back down to San Francisco to pick up Will Mason. We found him standing outside the Hotel Boheme looking suspiciously like a tourist. Sure, he was all suave and casual in his trendy japanese jersey, but holding onto a gigantic friggin' suitcase in the middle of the sidewalk sends out an "I'm not a local" vibe like you wouldn't believe. He threw it in the Prius and we were off to find my sister who had disappeared in the direction of Pier 39.

Feel free to insert any jokes you'd like about my sister, Piers, sailors, etc. at this point. She would expect it and likely appreciate the opportunity to one-up you. I'll be glad to forward all comments her way.

We found her down by the harbor seals and grabbed a bite to eat before doing some sight-seeing. If you haven't seen the Penny Arcade down by the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, you really should. Lots of cool machines from the 1920s can still be found there. My favorite was The Opium Den which featured skeletons, demons and a dragon that slowly popped out from doors surrounding puppets smoking hookahs. There's just nothing like getting your daily dose of morality via an animated puppet show. Sure beats the sock puppet sex-ed class I got when I was in 3rd grade. I've never looked at knee-high basketball socks the same way since.

Here's a shot of Will corrupting my daughter by letting her look at an Adults Only peepshow.

It was showing women of the 1920s exposing their bloomers.


Eventually, I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and they headed back to the safety of Clearlake while Will, Kelly and I started thinking about sharks. Actually, that's a lie. Kelly went to the hotel and went to sleep. Will and I hit a bar called Vesuvio's (next to City Lights bookstore) and met up with a friend of mine from Boston named Mike. By complete coincidence, he also happened to be visiting the area so we had to share a few beers and discuss important matters, like movies and Tom Waits albums. After a few, we decided it would be a great idea to get our pictures taken in front of Larry Flynt's Hustler Club. Our train of thought was a tad clouded no doubt.

The conversation went something like this:

Will: You know, Larry Flynt's Hustler Club is right around the corner from here.

Cary: Holy shit! We should get a picture taken there.

Mike: Sounds good to me.

Fifteen minutes later, Mike was on his way back home and Will and I were in the car headed back to the hotel:

Will: What if that's the last picture taken of us before we're eaten.

Cary: Crap. Karen will want to kill me and we didn't even go inside!

Many conversations along these lines happened over the next 12 hours. This is the kind of logic that comes about when you combine a cheap buzz with emminent shark doom. Upon seeing this photo, Karen turned to me and said, "I know you didn't go in because you still have money in your wallet."

That's what I love about my wife. Logic rules all.

In any case, after a night of restlessness, Will, Kelly and I all headed down to the pier at Emeryville (outside of Oakland) and boarded the Superfish. Here's Will and I by the cage at 5:30 a.m.

While it was early, we were pretty pumped as was everyone coming on board. At this point, we were just hours away from becoming bait. The ride out to the Farallons is about 3 hours from Emeryville. They sit 26 miles out from the Golden Gate bridge, however the currents are horrendous. This is a shot of the coast near San Francisco as we headed out to sea.

This was a relatively calm day so we were lucky, but we lost a few people (including some divers) to seasickness. More on that later. However I do want to relate a story that had Will, Kelly and I shaking our heads in disbelief on the way out to the islands. In the days when lighthouse keepers were still on the island, one keeper, his wife and two kids made the trip from the Farallons to San Francisco in the dead of winter, at night... in a rowboat. The older kid was sick and with no radio to call for help and weeks before a supply ship would arrive, they felt they had no other choice.

I can't be bothered to walk down the hill to the grocery store most days. Can you imagine rowing a boat in rough seas for 26 miles? Add to it that 26 miles only gets you to the cliffs. There was no Golden Gate Bridge at the time so it's more like close to 30 before you hit a pier. It boggles my mind that they all survived the trip (the sick kid died a few days later in the hospital).

Now that I've succeeded in brightening up this entry, let's talk about the islands themselves. They came into sight about 9:00. The island on the far left is called Saddle Rock. The big peak you see in the middle is Southeast Farallon and the round rock you see on the right hand side is actually a separate island called Sugarloaf. This is some of the most inhospitable land imaginable.

The Farallons are really part of a mountain range that broke off millions of years ago and are gradually moving toward Alaska (about 1 inch per year). In the 1800's a lighthouse was established out here to help ships avoid being caught in "The Devil's Teeth" as the islands were nicknamed. It's automated now but you can still see the original structure on top of the peak in the picture below. One of the best stories about the building of the lighthouse is that after it was initially built, they realized it was the wrong size for the lens and had to demolish it and start over.

As Will pointed out, "I'm pretty sure someone lost their job over that."

These islands are about as rough a place as you can possibly be and on top of that, they have a long history of violence and agression, not just toward the animals but between the people exploiting them also. In fact, during the Gold Rush that thrust San Francisco into being more than just a roadstop on the California coast, actual gunplay broke out on these islands between rival factions warring over the equivalent of chicken eggs. It's like being at this place automatically short circuits your common sense. I can't blame that myself, because I wanted to go diving with Great Whites long before I ever heard of the Farallons, but being there didn't cause me any reservations either.

Around the southern tip of the island you can get a peak at two killer looking caves. On the other side of the island is an amazing arch but we never got around there for a clear picture. On that side of the island, the rollers were worse and with so many people about to lose their breakfast, Captain Mick wisely decided to remain on the eastern side.

In the old days, supply ships would have to come out and bring food for the keeper and his family since you can't grow anything edible on the island. That's still the case today. There are only about 6 - 9 people on the island at any one time and all of them work for the U.S. Forestry Service. No one else is allowed on shore without express permission from the government. The islands are the main breeding grounds for a number of birds (including endangered Murres) and also sea lions and elephant seals. For the people on the island, this is no picnic, however all but one of them are unpaid volunteers. That's right, people actually volunteer to live and work here.

Here's a picture of the boat launch. As you can see, there's no sandy beach around here. The only way off the island is either by helicopter or by lowering a boat by crane. If conditions are poor (which is all too common) that's just not possible.

We anchored between Saddle Rock and the east landing on Southeast Farallon. This is an area that had been a hotspot for sea lion kills recently. Which brings me to the subject of chumming. At the Farallons, chumming doesn't work. The reason is that mature Great Whites make a switch in diet when they get to be over a certain size. That switch means that they begin eating elephant seals and sea lions 100% of the time. It's like the Atkins Diet from hell. In fact, it's because the shark has become so big that it needs to eat enough fat to get the energy it needs to continue swimming and hunting. The only things with that much fat are seals and sea lions... and Will but he's slimming down.

Anyway, they can tell the difference between mammal blood and fish blood so chumming is pointless. What you have to do is look for a fresh sea lion kill and get your boat and cage in that area to see sharks. If that's not possible, then you have to park in a good location and employ your decoys in hopes of drawing one in. That's what happened with us. With no fresh kills around we picked a promising spot, the crew put the cage in the water and it was time to suit up.

The trick to getting in the cage was simple. You sit on the lower step with your feet on that "ladder" connecting the cage to the platform. The crew drapes about 30 pounds of weight around your shoulders in a special harness (not a BC vest like in scuba, just a bunch of webbed straps with lead weights). You pop a regulator in your mouth and then you crawl feet first out to the cage opening, spin around and drop in.

It sounds simple, but the boat was being hit all day by some good-sized rollers. Since the cage was connected, that meant everything shifted and rocked, even underwater. That seasickness I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it took out five of the nine divers on board including my sister. She only lasted for part of one session before popping up and hurling. She said she was so ill, she just surfaced from her position in the center back of the cage and started vomiting. She'd been at it about 45 seconds when she finally heard the divemaster yelling at her to either get back in the cage or back in the boat because she was completely exposed and throwing out an interesting profile to any whites swimming below.

Speaking of profiles, here's a picture of the decoys.

They're kind of hard to make out, but they are both seal profiles. These were tossed out and reeled in occasionally as groups of sea lions departed from shore or headed back in from the open ocean. There are probably over a thousand sea lions here so this was happening a lot.

Back to the cage. When I jumped in the water, it finally hit me that I was not in my element. I have always enjoyed that feeling (whether it be culture shock living in Japan or deciding to move to California on a whim), however this is the only time in my life that I can remember thinking, "Should I really be doing this?"

There are three big reasons for this. First, the visibility was only about five to six feet. That's about one third the size of the sharks we were looking for so by the time you were going to see one, it was going to be nibbling on your ear. Secondly, I've dove in cold water before but this was 54 degrees of smack you in the face cold. Finally, the cage was rocking hard! Big rollers were moving it all over and while I don't have any problem with motion sickness ever, it was just hard to keep all your limbs inside the cage at first.

That's something I thought may actually be important to do considering what was swimming below us. Which brings up something else I should mention. When the cage is rocking and sharks are outside, how exactly does one hold steady without wrapping your fingers around the bars and exposing them to the sharks? Well, I improvised and tried to hold my hands flat against the corners when possible. If not, I squeezed my knuckles around the inside of the bars. Others didn't seem to be so worried. My favorite was a fellow diver who stuck his entire torso out of the cage and rested his arms on the "viewing window". It took him about 15 seconds to realize what he was doing and he pulled himself in very quickly.

Anyway, back to the cage. I've jumped in and stabilized myself and I can't see a damn thing. I decided to take a picture of the back of the boat when I got my wits about me because I figured no one was going to believe how bad this visibility was. Here's what that first picture looks like:

Remember, the back of the boat is only about five feet from my camera at this point and there are two propellers under there. I dare you to find them in that picture. A couple of hours later conditions cleared up some and I took another one. Here it is for comparison.

As you can see, the chances of my getting a picture of a shark, even in comparably good visibility, was pretty slim unless it came right up and posed for me. Unfortunately, that never happened. It didn't stop Will from posing though.

All of these horrible conditions did lead to one powerfully good thing in our favor. So many people declined to go back in the water that I got to spend almost a full three of the five hours we were out there in the cage. Will was with me for most of that time and that's why we were the only two people who actually did see a shark.

So here's the story.

The decoy had been going by repeatedly with no luck at all. You can see it in the picture above. Will and I were on our very last turn in the cage when both of us saw a large shape move slowly under my side of the cage. It was about 10 - 12 feet below us, dark and had a conical snout so there was no mistake about it, but she was too far away to make out details. She swam from the direction of the boat out past us and we followed her until she disappeared from sight. Then a moment later, she came back, this time moving past Will’s side of the cage. I surfaced and yelled to the guys on the boat that we had one below us and they immediately started working the decoy hard trying to get her to come up closer.

It never worked though. She made one more pass a little deeper than before, this time moving again from the boat side of the cage to the open ocean. I stayed down another 45 minutes waiting for her but she just wasn’t interested. I keep calling it a she, but I’m not sure of the sex because we never saw the underside of her. I just figure if she wasn't interested in checking me out, she's probably a female.

(insert rimshot here)

Will and I estimated that she was between 12 – 15 feet long which is actually small for that area. Still, I can say I’ve seen my first Great White and I did it off the Farallons, something relatively few people get to do. In fact, here's a picture of me after seeing the shark.

Other than that, we saw about 50 Sea Nettle jellies. These were between 4 – 6 feet long and passed directly below our cage throughout the day.

It's hard to judge scale in these pictures but these were about 12 feet below us. We also saw humpback whales completely breaching and crashing down in the waters beyond Southeast Farallon. We saw porpoise, a ton of sea lions, some gray whales and some good beer on the ride back.

All in all, it was a great time and we’re already talking about doing another trip only this time to Guadalupe where it's all but guaranteed you'll dive with more than one Great White.

Of course, that may have to wait for two reasons.

1. money.

2. Bigfoot expedition.

More on that one some other time.