By Chuck Saltsman, Senior Producer, Interpretive Media at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photos ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photographed by Tyson Rininger
Ten yards in front of me, a 14-foot great white shark churns the water into a pink foam as it chews basketball-size chunks of elephant seal from a fresh kill. The sheer violence of the attack is breathtaking. The tail thrashes the ocean for purchase, levering the head back and forth in a whipsaw motion. The serrated teeth carve out another 20 pounds of seal meat. It's two in the afternoon and I'm having a great day at the office, better than most. Better than that seal to be sure.
I'm here filming the research the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University are doing with white sharks. The day started at 6 a.m. and after a three-hour boat ride I was holding a 25-pound camera on a raised platform in a small skiff that rolls and bobs in a heavy swell. We're about a hundred yards offshore of the Farallon Islands, 25 miles west of San Francisco, California. In the rear of the boat are Sal Jorgensen and Scot Anderson, two scientists who spend a month here each year luring great white sharks close enough to touch, and hopefully attach a scientific tag to. The sharks are longer than the skiff and weigh a ton or more.
Shark tagging in Northern California typically takes place in October and November, a collaboration between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, next door to the Aquarium. Tagging focuses on three areas: the Farrallon Islands, Point Reyes and Ano Nuevo.
The objective is to learn more about the size of the white shark population in Northern California and its condition. A recent estimate put the number of white sharks in the area at less than 250. “The goal is to really understand how many there are, and whether that population is rising or falling,” says Randy Kochevar, Science Communications Officer at Hopkins Marine Station.”We have spectacular apex predators right here off our shores. But with such a small number, it doesn’t take a large perturbation in the environment to have a significant impact.”
Life Aboard the “Dinner Plate”
Yesterday was a complete bust, and today has been slow. Sal and Scot dictate a research paper to each other and I watch the ocean, trying to stay balanced on the rocking skiff. My attention is focused about 30 feet out on the water where a grey piece of carpet resembling a seal silhouette floats. Today's faux seal is named "Scampi", maybe in hopes that a tasty name will prove inspirational. The idea is that a great white will see it floating on the surface, mistake it for a real seal and strike. If that happens the shark is lured back to the boat and into tagging range without ever letting it bite the decoy. If it bites the decoy, the game is over since the shark will know it's been duped.
Every few minutes what I've come to think of as "the shark detector" beeps a number at us. It's detecting the electronic tags that we've attached to them. Every tagged shark transmits a different number. And there are plenty of sharks without tags as well. We are literally afloat in shark-infested waters. Great white sharks migrate around and at this time of year, our scientists estimate there might be up to a hundred sharks within a few miles of us. Which ought to be worrisome while drifting around in a tiny boat referred to as "The Dinner Plate" but that's not what worries me. What worries me is screwing up at the critical moment.
With no warning, a huge dorsal fin and tail fin roll over on the decoy and it's a scramble on the skiff since we are surprised by the sudden activity. Scot starts furiously reeling in the decoy, Sal makes ready with the tag and I try and keep track of it all while framing up shots. The shark dives under the boat. It is huge, with a head the size of a beer keg. We lose sight of it for moment, then it surfaces at the rear. Sal lunges with the tag, the shark thrashes the water with a three-foot tail and it's gone. High fives all around. It would be the only shark we tag on this mission, but still a success.
Scot yells something about a predation. I ask what's going on. He says, "Put the camera away, I just saw a natural predation and we're heading over there." Natural predation? Ah, a shark attacked a seal. I stuff the camera back in the bag and Scot jams the throttle forward toward whitewater and circling gulls. As we approach, I grab the camera and Scott directs me to line it up with the largest piece of floating seal. I hit the record button and listen to Scot count down 3-2-1. He's been at this long enough to know that the shark is circling under the elephant seal, rising toward it. Action! The camera is steady and rolling as the shark lunges out of the water with the seal in its mouth.
I'm lucky to be here to see it and to share it with others.