Outside the Cage
By Howard Hall
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Note: I wrote this story many years before shark diving became commercially popular and long before divers started venturing to Guadalupe Island to photograph white sharks. Today, Doc Anes of San Diego Shark Diving, takes groups down to dive with the sharks regularly. They often have four or five around the boat simultaneously.
The first time I saw the great white shark underwater I was not in a shark cage. It was September, 1985. I'd been directing the underwater episodes of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom for four years. During the past two decades, Don Meier Productions (who produced Wild Kingdom) had made more that three hundred shows. Almost anything you could think of, pertaining to wildlife, Don Meier had made into an episode of Wild Kingdom. In the mid-1980's, with a production schedule of twenty-six episodes per year, he was willing to entertain even the most outrageous ideas for underwater shows with one qualification: The show had to have sharks, or some large animal that could dismember our talent or, even better, eat them alive.
So we did shows about sharks: blue sharks, mako sharks, hammerhead sharks, angel sharks, tiger sharks, lemon sharks, you name it. We even did a show called "Sharks and Shipwrecks" which had a qualifying title, but no sharks in the show. But we had never done a show about the great white. Don Meier considered the expedition to South Australia simply too expensive (eventually we made two great white shark episodes with Rodney Fox in South Australia).
In the mid-1980's doing Wild Kingdom shows was a diver's dream come true. I would think of really wild places I would like to go, conjure up some excuse for a Wild Kingdom episode, and Don would send me and my crew off with hardly a second thought. The film proposal would go something like this: I would call Don and ask, "How about a film on Guadalupe Island?"
"What's it got?" Don would ask.
"Great white sharks".
"Have you seen 'em?"
"Have you ever been there?"
"Do you think you can find 'em?"
"Well, what do they do?" Don would ask finally.
"They eat people now and again," I'd replied confidently.
That was about all it took. I'd sit around the house dreaming up trips like that and then book up a whole year of "work" with a few ten minute phone calls. They actually paid me to do this stuff!
So early in September of 1985 we loaded up the fifty-five foot motor vessel Mirage and headed south from San Diego, California nearly three hundred miles to Guadalupe Island which lies isolated one hundred and eighty miles off the coast of Baja. Our crew consisted of two cameramen: Marty Snyderman and myself, two talent: Tom Allen and Jeremiah Sullivan, two assistants: Bob Cranston and Chip Matheson, and Doc White, who owned and captained the Mirage.
Upon arriving at the island, we decided to spend four days scouting locations and filming sequences we could use to make a show in the very likely event that the sharks failed to show up. The water was clear, cold, and the island dropped off quickly into deep water. We filmed sea lions and Guadalupe fur seals and at the end of each dive we would hang on the surface looking down into the bottomless, cobalt-blue water and wonder if we were being considered for a meal. In preceding years two divers had been attacked by great whites in the exact spot where we were swimming. One died. I thought about that a bit as we drifted on the surface, like six drunken seals, for nearly an hour one day while anxiously waiting for the boat to pick us up.
The next day we put bait in the water at the very same spot where we had drifted for an hour the previous afternoon. An hour and forty-five minutes later we attracted a monster. To say that it was a huge great white still seems like understatement. In the years that followed, I made five lengthy expeditions to South Australia to film great whites, some of these sharks were certainly sixteen feet long. And still I have yet to see a shark that was anything like the size of the Guadalupe monster. I won't guess at how long it was since my best guess would seem an exaggeration. But I will say that instead of dashing to the crane to lower our shark cage, our entire crew stood on the upper deck of the Mirage and watched, slack-jawed, as this thing circled the boat. It circled twice then disappeared and was gone. Later that day and all of the next we took shifts standing in the submerged shark cage as bits of tuna flesh and coagulated blood drifted through our hair, and waited for the shark to come back. It didn't return. By the afternoon of the third day, we were getting bored.
Tom Allen and I were in the shark cage twiddling our thumbs when a small mako shark showed up. We decided that footage of any kind of shark was better than no sharks. After all, Don would probably call the film "The Sharks of Guadalupe Island" whether we had sharks in the film or not. I swam out of the cage and up to the surface.
"We got a mako,” I yelled to Marty. “Tom and I are going to film it."
Marty waived and began suiting up with Jeremiah. Tom left the cage and we drifted down current with the mako. Tom loaded his shark tagging spear and I hoped to get a shot of him placing a tag in the mako's dorsal fin. We were about fifty feet from the cage when Marty jumped in with Jeremiah. Jeremiah swam to the cage to dispense some extra bait and Marty joined Tom and I as we drifted away with the mako.
After ten minutes or so, the mako suddenly left. We had drifted beyond sight of the cage but I could still see bits of fish scraps drifting down stream in the chum line which helped define our course back to the cage. We were just about to head back when we heard a series of tremendous bangs. Someone was pounding on the shark cage.
Tom, Marty, and I swam back toward the cage against the current, each of us occasionally looking back over our shoulder to see if the mako was following us up the chum line; the mako or something worse. When we got close enough to the shark cage to see what was making the loud banging noise, we all stopped in shock. The same two words passed through each of our minds: "Oh, shit!"
Jeremiah was making the noise in a desperate attempt to get our attention. The instrument he employed for this purpose was a twenty-five pound, partially frozen albacore tuna. Jeremiah was pounding on the bars of the shark cage with a frozen fish. Of course, a side effect of pounding on the cage with a partially frozen tuna was to create a great cloud of chum in the vicinity of the cage. And circling the cage in frustration was a fourteen foot great white shark. It was the first great white any of us had seen underwater.
Marty, Tom, and I each realized that this may be the first time anyone has swam outside the cage with the great white, certainly this far outside a shark cage. However, at the moment none of us felt our chests swell with pride. Instead, we each felt about as stupid as a pile of rotten potatoes for having placed ourselves in such a ridiculous position. Marty later confessed to issuing a silent prayer for salvation.
"Dear God, if you just let me get out of this mess alive I promise I will never do anything as dumb as this again as long as I live." It was a lie Marty rather routinely told his maker.
But we were all experienced shark divers and our hesitation lasted only the briefest of moments. We all glanced at each other and in that moment, as our eyes made contact and without the benefit of oral communication, we agreed on a strategy for survival. It was a moment between men; men who routinely dive with sharks and who, in the complete absence of any form of threat, are entirely fearless. It was not necessary to discuss our strategy for survival in that fleeting moment when our eyes made contact. The strategy was almost shouted to one another telepathically.
"Every man for himself!"
Marty made a made dash for the swim step of the boat, no doubt thinking that once on board he could better fulfill his promise to God which he had supplemented with an additional promise to quit diving forever. The swim step didn't look good to me since there was a bait basket hanging beside the ladder and I instinctively knew that, even if I made the swim step in one piece, there would be several unacceptably long moments of uncertainty as I climbed the ladder leaving my legs dangling below. Marty almost certainly expected Tom and I to follow him to the swim step and, having a head start, was thinking that he didn't have to worry about his dangling legs since Tom and I would be behind him and in a position to satiate the shark's appetite while he was climbing the latter.
But for Tom and me the cage looked closer. We hesitated a moment as the shark circled toward the back of the cage then, with the cage between the shark and ourselves, rushed to the cage door and dived in on top of Jeremiah. It was only a two person cage, but under the circumstances, I doubt ten divers would have found it uncomfortably cramped.
Things mellowed considerably after that. The shark continued to circle the cage rather lethargically in the manner typical of great whites. Tom and I, having survived our first moments outside the cage, soon decided that the experience hadn't been so bad after all. In fact, the shark never showed much interest in any of us. So as the afternoon passed, Tom and I left the cage several more times as Tom tried and finally succeeded in placing a tag on the shark's dorsal fin and I succeeded in capturing the process on film.
A week or so later, back at home, I received the inevitable phone call from Don Meier. Don, having reviewed the footage, was prepared to render his critical evaluation.
"Well, I looked at the footage," Don began.
"Whadaya, think?" I asked.
"Well, I think you got a show," he said. That was the whole ball of wax for me. Our underwater crew was still batting 1000. After sixteen shows, we were still the only Wild Kingdom crew which had never failed to bring back a show.
"What did ya think of the shark?" I asked.
"Well, they don't do much do they?" Don replied.
Ah, praise indeed!
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