The Science of Sustainability

Producer's Notes: The Great White Shark: Meet the Man in the Gray Suit

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"Anti-shark cage? You go inside the cage? Cage goes in the water, you go in the water? Shark's in the water. Our shark." (from the film JAWS)

Like any good fishing trip, the day started before the sun came up. Our boat, the New Superfish out of the Berkeley Marina, had been specially outfitted with a shark cage and hot-tub, what they called the "TRU" or "Thermal Recovery Unit." The under-caffeinated passengers stowed their gear, the crew cast off and we began our trek to the Farallon Islands in hopes of encountering great white sharks.

We would cross under the Golden Gate Bridge just as the sun was rising over the East Bay Hills– a beautiful sight on a clear crisp morning. From there it was fairly smooth sailing out to the Farallones. We had been trying to make this trip for years. Weather and rough seas always seemed to keep us cooling our heels on land. Even on a good day this is generally not a trip for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. But now we were finally on our way.

Like many people, I'm fascinated with sharks. I can’t remember a time when they did not interest me. Growing up we had a collection of National Geographic magazines that my brother and I would page through. The one that I'd return to again and again was a well worn copy from 1968. On the cover was a shark and inside there was an article titled "Sharks: Wolves of the Sea." I was equal parts frightened and captivated and it sparked my curiosity to check out every book I could find about sharks at the library. Then when I was in 4th grade, I did an incredibly in-depth presentation on Great White Sharks. I considered myself the class expert. This was a couple years before a famous movie came out that made the great white an infamous villain. I think Jaws was the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I don't know if it was the result of one of my friend’s parents being lax or if my buddies and I managed to sneak in, regardless, I saw that movie at a far too young and impressionable age. And it permanently colored my perceptions of being in the ocean. That was when my interest in sharks tipped from mainly curiosity to just being terrified.

I think most surfers in California always have the thought of white sharks somewhere in the back of their minds. But when I surfed it was always in the front and center of my thoughts, "I am bait." As great a day on the waves might have been, it was always partnered with my ever-present fear, irrational as I knew it was…makes for a fun time. I was looking forward to meeting the bully of my imagination head on and hopefully getting past this.

Prior to our trip I had the great honor of meeting one of my all-time heroes, Dr. John McCosker at the California Academy of Sciences, to talk sharks. Dr. McCosker is one of the world's foremost experts on the great white shark. It's not hyperbole to say his work has set the foundation of nearly all white shark research over the last 30 years. He has also been particularly instrumental in of our understanding of why white sharks occasionally attack humans. Since 1950 there have been around 100 shark attacks that have occurred along the entire California Coast. Most of these were not fatal. Needless to say, I know the numbers but always thought, "But with my luck…" When I expressed my goofed up fears, Dr. McCosker put it into perspective for me. "What's so remarkable that if the numerator is 99, (Amount of shark attacks) the denominator is in the billions. How many human beings or human being-hours have been spent in the water over the past 60 years? The sharks are clearly not hunting us. So why are we so afraid? I guess because we are terrestrial animals that are accustomed to things on land that we understand, and when we put our foot in the ocean, we are out of our element and no longer in charge. So we're afraid of white sharks because of the exaggeration and what we've created with our own imaginations. And there's no reason we should be. We should be more afraid of the disappearance of white sharks, because an ocean without white sharks is a very unsafe place for every human being."

I also asked Dr. McCosker what the chances were that we'd see white sharks at the Farallones. He said that no doubt the sharks would be there but he couldn't place odds on us seeing them. Shark dive operators in the Marine Sanctuary are not allowed to bait or chum around the Farallones. The sharks know that the boats don't have much to offer in the way of food or sport. But Dr. McCosker then said, "You might not see them but no doubt they'll know you're there."

We reached the Farallon Islands and the cage was dropped into the bitter cold water. Divers pulled on their wetsuits and fitted their masks. I would be in the first group getting into the cage. We tested our regulators, hooked up to a hookah unit pumping air down to us from the surface, and heavy weights were strapped to our ankles. I clambered out over the rolling cage and slipped into the frigid water. From the start I had a hard time controlling my breathing and thought I might hyperventilate. Was it the burst of cold water entering my wet suit or the adrenaline hit from me thinking I'd be breaking the surface and entering the opening jaws of a great white? As I calmed down I scanned the murky green depths. The rays of sunlight draped down from the surface. Jellyfish pumped by in a leisurely fashion. The cage pitched up and down with the rolling waves and my leg slipped between the bars behind me. I immediately spun around and reeled it back in with the thought that it was about to be snapped off by a waiting monster. I frantically scanned the green shadows below and around. In a short time my breathing normalized. I was in their world but I suddenly found a peaceful calmness take over.

We did not see sharks on our dive. It was disappointing but not unexpected. But in many ways I saw much more. I saw their realm for what it really is: a fragile and beautiful place where white sharks are the masters but not monsters. In order to complete our story I would rely on the footage taken by white shark researchers such as Scot Anderson out at the Farallones and other footage taken by the folks at Great White Adventures during past dives in the clear blue waters of Mexico. In any case I would not trade my experience. Knowing that I was sharing the water with these amazing animals, unseen but out there, has given me something back. No more irrational fear, all wonder.


Watch The Great White Shark: Meet the Man in the Gray Suit TV story online.

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Category: Biology, Partners, Television

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Freelance Media Producer with over 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in Alameda, CA.
  • http://www.hungryowl.org Maggie

    Thank you for producing this story. I am really really worried about the fate of sharks. I am glad you showed the awful footage of how sharks are brutally hacked up, even though it's hard to watch. Everyone needs to see that and stand standing up for the man in the grey suit!

  • Chris Bauer

    Recently the Hawaiian House of Representatives passed legislation that prohibits the sale, possession, and trade of any type of shark fin or shark fin product in Hawaii.

    The bill created somewhat of a cultural debate, with the large Chinese population of Hawaii, who are the primary consumers of shark fin soup against the Native Hawaiians who view the sharks as powerful "aumakua", which in Hawaiian is defined as “a benevolent guardian spirit or family protector.”

    To learn more, see:
    http://sharksafe.blogspot.com/

  • Chris Bauer

    I invite you all to join us tomorrow night (4/29) for NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park! They will be screening our Great White Shark story in African Hall and after the film presentation, there will be an engaging lecture by Dr. John McCosker titled “Sharks: Why we Fear, Love and Need Them.”

    The event and museum is open to the public! Doors open at 6:00PM and the presentation will begin in African Hall at 7:30PM. For more information on NightLife, see:
    http://www.calacademy.org/events/?e=378&d=29&m=04&y=2010

    “Dr. McCosker has spent his career studying these majestic creatures; he was among the first to dive and film them in their natural habitat. Besides learning about their physiology and behavior, he has studied the rare but increasing instances that great white sharks have attacked humans. Although alarming, these attacks belie the reality that sharks are actually much more threatened by man than we are by them. Learn about how sharks are a vital part of the oceanic eco-system and deserve our protection.”

    It should be a fun night! Hope to see you there!

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is reporting that the young white shark, which we featured on Quest before she was returned to the wild by the aquarium last November, died after she was caught in a gill net off Baja California. She is the only one of the five white sharks exhibited at the aquarium known to have died following its release.

    For more information, see: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/aa/pressroom/web/PressRelease_view.aspx?enc=yGUTaOGs/HnPeMduhRE6sg==

    Because of planned renovations to the million-gallon Outer Bay exhibit, there will be no attempts to bring another young great white shark to Monterey Bay Aquarium until summer 2011 at the earliest. Until then, see our story on sharks in captivity here: http://www.kqed.org/quest/television/web-extra-

  • Chris Bauer

    RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A Brazilian environmental group sued a fish exporter for $790 million, alleging the firm has illegally sold the fins from 280,000 sharks to meet demand in Asia.

    To learn more, see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/03/environmental-justice-ins_n_669030.html

  • Chris Bauer

    Most surfers would cross the street if they ever saw a great white shark walking toward them on the sidewalk. But one guy, Chuck Patterson, actually went out looking for them! Earlier this week off San Onofre in northern San Diego County, Patterson paddled out to a place he had encountered sharks the day before. Using a video camera mounted on a 10-foot pole, he probed the murky water around his board. What he saw, and what you can see, would make most surfers’ wetsuits instantly much warmer. Check this out:

    http://www.grindtv.com/surf/blog/19715/california+surfer+films+great+white+sharks+circling+his+board/

  • Chris Bauer

    Hey folks! Not to be alarmist, but better safe than sorry. For those mermaids and mermen who are planning on talking to the surf today in Pacifica and Montara, take heed. Here’s a tale passed on from our resident KQED surfer Elizabeth Pepin-

    ————————————–
    At around noon on August 30, my friend Sharon decided to get out of the water at Linda Mar State Beach in Pacifica, CA, after enjoying a two hour surf session. She had just walked onto the sand and was greeting a friend who was just about to go surfing, when they both noticed movement in the water. From where they stood, just in front of the Taco Bell, which is on the middle-south of the beach, they both caught a quick glimpse of a fin. There had been porpoise in the line up over the past few weeks so they thought it must be the pod.

    A few seconds later they saw the fin surface again and the two women realized it was a shark – and judging by the size, which was described by third woman on the beach as being “as big as two large SUVs” – it was a great white. The shark was obviously chasing something in the water. Suddenly there was a huge splash and the two women saw the shark’s large tail and right after a pool of blood formed. The two women saw the tail slam down a second time and the pool of blood became enormous – judging by the size of the blood trail, they guess the shark got either a porpoise or sea lion.

    Luckily Sharon was the last person on the peak where the shark attack occurred, but there were surfers on other waves nearby so the two women ran up and down the beach getting people out of the water and the lineup was clear within a few minutes.
    ———————————-

    Remember, white sharks are not actively hunting humans. The chances of you being bitten by a shark are slim to none. I think the chances of getting hit by lightning are much higher and you probably have a better shot at winning the lottery. But none the less… might want to avoid the chances of mistaken identity if a big white shark is looking for its lunch within the waves or a popular surf spot. Surf smart people.

  • Pingback: Recent Reading: 8/14/10 | Everyday Biology

  • Chris Bauer

    Nine shark attack survivors have banded together to create awareness and help protect the increasingly threatened global population of sharks. Even through these people experienced the nightmare of being attacked by a shark, some even losing limbs, they are hoping that their voices will help save these animals so vital to the health of the ocean.
    According to a recent AP article, the group was organized by the Washington-based nonprofit Pew Environment Group and shark attack victims, such as Debbie Salamone, of Florida, whose Achilles tendon was severed in a 2004 attack. "If a group like us can see the value in saving sharks,” said Salamone, “can't everyone?"
    According to the report, the group wants a resolution that would require fishing nations to improve fishery management, especially for shark species currently threatened with extinction.
    "Do we have the right to drive any animal to the brink of extinction before any action is taken?" asked Navy diver Paul de Gelder, of Sydney, Australia, who lost his right hand and right lower leg in an attack last year during anti-terrorism exercises.
    "Regardless of what an animal does according to its base instincts of survival, it has its place in our world," he said. "We have an obligation to protect and maintain the natural balance of our delicate ecosystems."
    To read the entire article, see:

    Shark attack survivors don't forget but do forgive
    http://www.montereyherald.com/regionalsports/ci_16062313?nclick_check=1

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: OBAMA SIGNS SHARK CONSERVATION ACT INTO LAW

    According to the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, the Shark Conservation Act just signed by President Obama will significantly strengthen shark conservation both nationally and internationally.

    “Shark finning, the practice of cutting off a shark's fins and discarding the mutilated carcass at sea, has been banned in the United States since 2000. However, an unanticipated loophole allowed U.S. flagged vessels to skirt regulations by purchasing fins on the high seas from fishermen engaged in finning. The fins could then be brought back to the U.S. and sold for steep profits.

    The Shark Conservation Act closes this loophole. In addition, the Act promotes international shark conservation efforts by allowing sanctions to be imposed on nations that have not implemented shark fishing regulations consistent with those placed on U.S. fishermen.”

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: New Bill Would Ban Shark Fin Consumption
    http://www.kqed.org/a/kqednews/RN201102141730/a

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: Predator fish in oceans on alarming decline, experts say
    SEE: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/20/AR2011022002967.html

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: There are much fewer great white sharks than scientists expected.
    Only 219 white sharks are thought to reside in our coastal waters. See:
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/03/09/MNBB1I6GV4.DTL&tsp=1

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: More news about the California white shark population study, plus some great links and a close up video of white sharks taken by the UC Davis researchers while tagging some very big fish!
    See:
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2011/03/first-census-of-great-white-sharks-counts-only-219-individuals-are-great-whites-in-peril.php

  • Chris Bauer

    This past weekend I was privileged to sit on an incredible panel at the San Francisco Ocean Film festival discussing shark finning and the plight of the world’s shark populations. The news is not very good. The numbers are staggering. There are valid reports indicating 100 million sharks were taken from the world’s oceans in one year alone to feed the appetite for shark fin soup. This is not at all sustainable. Sharks are at the breaking point. And not to sound overly dramatic, if we lose our sharks, we lose our oceans.

    There is a common question I’m often asked. “How do you tell these stories without getting depressed and without depressing your audience?” I was in the middle of my standard answer during the panel when I first noticed the two young girls sitting directly in front of me. They were maybe 11 or 12 years old. One was wearing an Ocean Film Fest t-shirt. They both had glasses and slightly curly hair like my own young daughter. It stopped me in my tracks. I fumbled for my answer. And then I could barely keep it together. My voice cracked. What do I say to them? What do I say to my kids?

    I’ve seen the numbers. I’ve read the science on things such as shark finning but also climate change, ocean acidification and pollution, etc. I’ve seen the statistics about how much food the world is going to need to produces to feed the world’s enormously growing human population. I’ve seen the projections about energy and water consumption, what we have and what we’ll need. I’ve looked at the undisputable science about what we have done to this planet, what we continue to do and what it means for the future. And the news is gloomy… frightening.

    And here were these two bright eyed students, brimming with optimism, hope and potential. My eyes welled up. And I couldn’t keep it together. It was embarrassing.

    They deserve so much better.

    The California Assembly is considering legislation to protect the oceans from unsustainable fishing practices. Assembly Bill 376 is designed to help end the practice of shark finning. I will be contacting Assemblymebers Paul Fong and Jared Huffman, as well as my own representatives in the Assembly and Senate, to tell them how I feel about the passage of this bill.

    If you are a concerned citizen and also wish to contact them, to show support for the bill or contact the bill sponsors: Contact Asssemblymembers Paul Fong, and Jared Huffman-
    Assemblymember Paul Fong assemblymember.fong@assembly.ca.gov
    Assemblymember Jared Huffman assemblymember.huffman@assembly.ca.gov

    To support or contact the opposition to the position, contact
    Senator Leland Yee at Leland@LelandYee.com

    And for more information about AB 376, see:
    http://seastewards.org/tag/ab-376/

    http://www.defenders.org/resources/publications/policy_and_legislation/fact_sheet_on_bill_376.pdf

    http://baykeeper.org/blog/baykeeper-supports-ab-376-protect-sharks

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: scientists have found that sharks have DNA 'zip codes' and may be able to tell what region sharks where born in. This will give conservationists better information to fight against the shark fin trade. Read more here: http://www.earthtimes.org/conservation/shark-fins-tracked-dna/782/

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: Oregon House passes bill banning shark fin soup. Read more here: http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_17959363?nclick_check=1

  • Chris Bauer

    Good news for sharks today: the bill AB376 passed in the state Assembly and will now head to the Senate for approval.
    Read more here:
    http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2011/05/23/live-now-assembly-votes-on-shark-fin-ban/

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: You can get an up close and personal look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's newest resident, a young great white shark caught in the waters off Southern California and now on display at the Aquariums Open Sea Exhibit. Or if you can't make it to Monterey, check him out on their webcam here: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/

    And look at our video of how the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been successful in keeping White Sharks in captivity here:
    http://science.kqed.org/quest/video/web-extra-great-white-sharks-in-captivity/