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"It's an old Sicilian message: It means
Lucca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes."


National Geographic Books and MapsThe famous quote from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather ran through my head as I pulled myself down the rope in the chilly Pacific water. Fifteen feet below me the steel cage hovered in the murky blue, three of my companions already waiting inside. When I had pulled myself inside, my dive escort, Sarah, latched the door shut and gave me the OK sign. Sure. OK. I'm the one locked in a cage. But within a matter of breaths I spotted it, lurking in the distance. Our escort waved a shredded mackerel at it and with a flick of its tail it turned and headed straight for us, silver, sleek, effortless. Cameras were raised as the four-foot-long Blue approached, mouth opening to reveal a jaw-full of teeth. Sarah held out her hand, waiving a shredded mackerel at the Blue, and with a quick snap of its jaw...

"Don't worry, Mom, I'll be sure to bring all my fingers and toes back in place." With that I snapped my phone shut and headed for the dock. A rainstorm the night before had left the streets wet and the air fresh and cool, but the clouds had mostly moved on. When I reached the pier, Doc was already briefing the seven other divers. A stocky, bulldog of a man, Paul "Doc" Anes has been operating San Diego Shark Diving (www.sdsharkdiving.com) out of San Diego since 1993, when he purchased the company from then-owners Bob Cranston and Marty Synderman.

This was to be my second shark outing with Doc, and I recognized the faces of his crew- Mark, the young, laid-back crew chief who claims to have never gotten seasick; Perry Armor, Doc's underwater videographer who's affectionately nicknamed "Cue Ball" ("I'm follicly-challenged," he likes to assert); and Sarah, a friendly, redhead from South Africa who had spent the last several months on a live-aboard dive boat in Southeast Asia. She would serve as both dive escort and shark-feeder.

After the briefing, we loaded our gear onto the thirty-two foot "DnD II" which Doc charters for the one-day shark dives, and began motoring due west from Mission Bay. Anxious about the ocean conditions after the previous night's storm but reassured by the Dramamine I had taken earlier (I would take no chances- Doc doesn't turn the boat back for cases of seasickness. If you get sick, expect to be green for a good nine or ten hours), I set about to getting to know the other divers and sharing stories.

Our group seemed to consist of as many writers and researchers as recreational divers. Of the more interesting was a twenty-something Londoner named Claire who had spent the last nine months researching shark folklore in various corners of the world. She had spent weeks at a time in several remote villages in Southeast Asia living with locals, trying to get an understanding of certain cultures that once worshipped sharks as gods. With the influx of Christianity in these regions, the worship of any other idol besides God was regarded as a sin, and worshipping sharks soon became akin to worshipping the devil. The chance to interact with the locals allowed Claire a glimpse of cultures entirely different from what she was familiar.

She recalled a viewing of the Tom Hanks film, "Castaway", with some of the locals one night. In the movie, the main character becomes stranded on a tropical island after his plane crashes. In one segment, Hanks spends an inordinate amount of time, energy and abusive language in an attempt to split open a coconut. Although the locals did not understand the English spoken in the movie, Claire recalled, they roared with laughter at Hanks' feeble attempt at such a simple task. Such are the experiences that traveling affords us, and it brought to mind some of my own experiences at the far corners of the globe.

As our story-telling rambled the boat motored on, our reveries were interrupted by an occasional cry of discovery which would send everyone scrambling to the railing and scanning the water with squinted eyes. False alarms mostly, as sharks' fins turned out to be sea lions, and later, dolphins. On any other occasion they would be a welcome sight, but I knew that dolphins have a tendency to scare the sharks away, so in this case I was not.

After an unsuccessful first outing with Doc and his crew, I knew the possibility of seeing any sharks was hit or miss. I recognized the unspoken nervous excitement about the other divers as the same feeling I had had on my first dive, and bit my tongue on casting any doubt on their hopes.

As I wondered about our chances, the sharp, pungent odor of fish filled my sinuses. I glanced to the back of the boat to see Sarah diligently preparing the shark bait, better known as chum, from whole mackerels. One slice under the gill, down along the spine, flip, repeat. The fleshy part she scooped into a bucket, the head and spine into a container to be used later for hand feeding. As blood oozed off the cutting board and onto the deck and fish funk mingled with the salty, ocean air, I was again thankful for Dramamine.




Doc Gives The Okay!

Two hours after we had left port, Mark killed the engines and Doc informed us we would be taking a practice dive. The idea was to familiarize ourselves with getting in and out of the shark cage and all the hand signals necessary in doing so, without the unnerving presence of sharks.

Keeping an eye on your rate of descent, pressurizing your ears and checking your buoyancy is enough to deal with in itself even without the thought of sharks nipping at your air hose. So after we had geared up and Doc had lowered the cage in the water from the back of the boat, we went through the process one by one: wait for Sarah to signal from the water. OK? OK, I signal back. Giant stride into the water then pull yourself down the rope. Swing yourself down and under the rope in order to avoid snagging your tank, then pull yourself into the cage. After Sarah closes the door, wait for her to come around front. OK? OK. Each diver has a small two-foot by two-foot portal in front of him/her and each diver is responsible for protecting his/her portal.

On occasion, an overzealous shark will slip thru one of the windows and cause excitement in the cage. As horrific as that may sound, however, only juvenile shark are small enough to slip by and juveniles are generally not large enough or aggressive enough to injure the divers, so it's simply a matter of staying calm and shooing it out.

After we had sufficiently chilled our bones in the 62-degree water, Doc pulled us and the cage out of the water and fired up the motors. As we steamed along, Sarah scooped spoonfuls of shredded mackerel over the side, creating a trail of fish chum several miles long - hopefully leading the sharks to us. Once a sufficiently wide slick had been established, the engines were killed and Doc lowered the cage back in the water (cruising with the cage in the water slows the boat down, limiting the amount of area covered and the size of the slick).

Sarah, who would hand feed the sharks, began putting on her protective suit, a 20-pound, full-body chain-mesh suit which would reduce a shark's razor-sharp bite to a firm grip. Watching Mark and Doc help her suit up was like watching a knight don armor for a joust. Sarah would spend the next several hours underwater looking out for sharks, and when they arrived, escorting us to and from the cage.

So we waited for sharks. And we waited. And we waited. We spent the afternoon alternately putting on and taking off our sweatshirts as clouds would roll towards, over and beyond us from the horizon. Although we didn't catch any rain, we watched rain showers drift along several miles away, the dark rain clouds emptying themselves onto the horizon.

A giant Mola Mola - a sunfish - joined us as we drifted along, it's giant eyes checking us out as much as we it. On a couple occasions a juvenile shark swam by, instantly generating excitement among the divers. But they only stayed long enough to pester the seagulls floating nearby. Mako sharks will only occasionally attack seagulls and in fact there are stories of Makos completely breeching the water to do so. In a half-serious attempt, we tried to draw the sharks closer to the boat by luring the seagulls closer with crackers, but to no avail. So we waited some more. We rotated among the leisure spots on the boat: a few us would banter on the bow, a few would perch on the roof, scanning the water (this proved to be the best spot to watch the sharks nip at the seagulls) while a few would sit in back listening to Doc and the crew share diving stories. As the afternoon wore on and the sun began to settle toward the horizon, I began to wonder if I had jinxed Doc's boat.

"We got one!" a shout came from the perch.


Within moments we were at the railing, searching the water. "Looks like a Mako." Sure enough, we saw it slide by us, just shallow enough where we could make out the gray shape of a juvenile, about two feet long. Unlike the slower, more deliberate movement typical of Blue sharks, it moved with the sharp quickness typical of Mako sharks. When another showed up, this time a Blue, Doc wasted no time in getting us in the water.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I quickly slid into my miserably cold and damp wetsuit and strapped my gear on, my heart racing. Sitting at the back of the deck, waited for Sarah to surface, I took several deep breaths to calm myself, visualizing the next steps. Sarah popped to the surface.

"OK?" she signaled.

"OK." She peeked her head under the water, only this time she was really checking for sharks. When she signaled all clear, I plunged into the chilly water, feeling it seep into my suit as I pulled myself down the rope. There was no panic, no frantic swim to get to the cage. I was simply eager to get situated in the cage and start watching. No sooner had Sarah locked me in than the diver to my left tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to my right.

And there it was!

Through a macabre panorama of shredded mackerel and chum, I could see the Blue lurking in the murky distance. As it drew nearer, I could make out it's size- roughly four feet in length- and the fluidity with which it moved. To this point, my shark experiences had been limited to aquariums and horror movies, but to see a live shark in its natural element was almost surreal. When it clamped it's jaws on the mackerel and Sarah's sheathed hand, it's gills flared and its smooth elastic skin rippled as it tried to shake the snack loose like a dog wrestling away a slipper.

I kicked myself for forgetting my camera. It wrenched the fish free and slid away into the distance. A brown murkiness cascaded onto us from above, and was relieved to find the blood was from the milk gallon that Perry had brought down with him.

Soon the smaller Mako arrived, slowly sweeping by the cage not more than ten feet away, casually plucking the bigger of the suspended mackerel chum from the water. Back and forth it passed as in a cafeteria line. For what seemed like hours we watched, entranced by the two sharks as they would slide off into the distance, just fading from sight, then re-appear, a pale shadow against the deep blue backdrop.

With a flick of their tails they would be among us again, darting, turning, gliding, effortlessly swallowing shreds of mackerel that drifted around our cage. The power and grace the sharks displayed was a distinct contrast to Sarah as she lumbered about in her chain mesh suit and scuba gear. It should be no secret the irreparable harm that Steven Spielberg's movie "Jaws" did to sharks' reputation, and poaching and mass sea-harvesting methods continue to decimate the shark population. Watching these amazing creatures made me regret it.

Eventually our shift in the cage was over and the next group of divers was shuttled down. As I dried off and sipped warm soup on the roof, I watched the activities on the deck below while alternately snapping pictures of the impending sunset.

Although I couldn't recognize the divers as they emerged due to mask and hoods, each one of them shared the same basic sentiment, summed up best by the last diver out of the water: "That was soooooo cool!" The sentiment lingered as we motored back to port. Doc seemed to be as equally pleased as the divers, perhaps relieved that we didn't come up empty a second time.

When two whales breeched off the side of the boat not more than fifty yards away, two plumes erupting in the air, it reminded me again of how little we really understand about what goes on under the ocean yet how much we can enjoy it.

By Misha Troyan, San Diego correspondent. Photos by Misha and Claire Cox, a professional underwater photographer from London who can be reached at clcox99@hotmail.com. Boat photo courtesy of San Diego Shark Diving.

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