Thursday, March 3, 2011

dreaming of great white sharks

Maintaining neutral buoyancy, I held still as the shark swam toward me.  Wanting to trust the creature, but fearing that placing too much faith in the good intentions of a 5,000 lb predator could end disastrously, I held out an arm to bop it on the nose should it come at me too aggressively (as if a simple bop would be my saving grace).  Just when I was starting to get nervous, the great white turned around and swam off, and a man hopped out of the tank and walked away.  Oh, the man was the shark.  That's why he left me alone.  That makes perfect sense.  Later, I sat on the edge of the tank watching a mass of people swimming in the water.  An eruption of screams caught my attention as swimmer was thrown across the tank, landing near me.  Blood seeped from where a toe once stood.  Expecting outrage over being hurled by a shark and losing an appendage, I was astonished that he was unimpressed by the damage.  In fact, the only thing unnerving this man was that his injury was not severe enough.  How can I expect anyone to even notice this little thing?  I guess I'll be healing for a little while, and then what? It's not alright, ma- I'm only bleeding.  Yes, sir, those were my exact thoughts when the lizard attached to my face failed to remove my entire nose.  Oh, wait, just kidding-- I was hysterical over the fact that I would be disfigured.

 nom nom nom.  photo credit: Stephen Frink for National Geographic

I turned over and looked at the clock.  5 am.  Yes, ma, I was only dreaming.  Playing a quick game of mental calculus, I decided to take advantage of my natural waking at this ungodly hour and head down to the city to take in a 6 am Bikram yoga class.  Nothing to start the day quite like ninety minutes of dripping sweat for spinal health, right?

Hours later, and I still can't stop thinking about great whites.  Had I allowed myself to drift back to sleep, it would probably be buried deep within my subconscious by now, never to resurface again.  Yet, here I am googling "white shark diving" and contemplating whether I would ever partake in such a venture. 

As a species, sharks are vastly misunderstood.  Conservationists often say to look in the mirror if you want to see the most dangerous predator on our weary planet, and the statement certainly rings true when it comes to sharks.  For a prime example, look no further than the shark fin business, a horrendous practice in which sharks are hunted for their fins alone, which was a constant source of outrage for me while living in Asia where the practice is fairly visible.  Fins are hacked off at sea and the bodies dumped overboard, similar to the practice of poaching elephants for the use of their ivory only, except it is done on a much larger scale.  Shark fins are used in delicacies like Chinese shark fin soup, which used to be consumed only by the elite during special occasions, but has now made its way to the middle class as they grow increasingly wealthy.   Estimates of about 70 million sharks killed for their fins only appear to be growing by about 5% annually and underscore the importance of setting protective measures to stall the rapid decline of shark populations worldwide.  An important piece of legislature from the Obama administration that you may not have heard about:  The Shark Conservation Act was signed into law this past January.  US legislature may send a strong message to US fishermen and the Asian communities in the US that support this abominable practice, but how much of an impact does it really have globally if Asian nations (and the Europeans fishermen that supply a large percentage of their shark fins) don't follow suit?

While shark tourism does nothing to convince rich Chinese men that eating shark fin is a horrible practice that will not increase sexual potency (high mercury levels can actually cause sterility) or prevent cancer (it doesn't), it can teach local fishermen that the protection of sharks and their use as a tourist attraction is a sustainable business that in the long run will net considerably more money for a community than the per fin price of a shark.

Now that I have finished my shark finning tirade, let's look at great white tourism.  Though I typically associate great whites with South Africa and New Zealand, they are really found wherever there is a winning blend of ocean temperature, depth, and aquatic life to nom on.  Close to home, the Farallon Islands about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco and the the Mexican Guadalupe Island 150 miles west of the Baja peninsula seem to be the best North American locales for great white shark tourism.  A day of cage diving with Great White Adventures in the Farallons will set you back $775-  beer and wine included, just in case you need to take the edge off after nearly crapping your wetsuit over your encounter with a 20 ft long predator.  If you just want to go along for the ride and observe from the boat, you can do so for $375.  (You could also take your chances and go with a whale watching company from SF during Sharktober for about $100).  Great White also offers a 5-day live-aboard trip to Isla Guadalupe from San Diego that includes 3 days of cage diving for $3,195.  At a similar price ($3,100) and a guaranteed encounter (if you don't see great whites you can return at any point within two years to give it another go), Shark Diver offers a similar package with a commendable focus on the importance of conservation.

Would I ever do this?  Well, for the price of a flight to San Diego and over $3,000, at this point in my life there are a lot of other worthy endeavors I would probably rather partake in (diving in the Galapagos for starters), but it does sound pretty awesome.  I've been diving with whale sharks before (at nearly twice the length of great whites, they are the largest fish in the sea... but they eat plankton), which was beyond phenomenal, so I can only imagine that having something as large and potentially dangerous as a great white swimming within a foot or so of you is indescribably exhilarating-- and the kind of encounter that you gush about for the rest of your life.

Issues of money notwithstanding, would you ever considering cage diving with great white sharks?

loookieemeee I'm just the happiest frolicking great white shark!  photo credit: Brandon Cole for National Geographic

If you are interested in shark or other marine conservation efforts, you should check out the Shark Diver blogProject AWARE, and the Ocean Conservatory.

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